An Australian earthquake engineer has called on the federal government to provide building expertise to Nepal and to reinstate aid cut to South West Pacific countries, to help mitigate destruction from future earthquakes.

Australian Earthquake Engineering Society president and Seismological Centre director Kevin McCue said it was a tragedy that Nepalese homes would likely be rebuilt in the same way as before the earthquake.

If new homes and buildings were not structurally improved, Professor McCue said, the next earthquake would knock them down again.

The federal government has donated $5 million to support Australian non-government organisations, United Nations partners and the Australian Red Cross in the recovery effort. Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek last night said on ABC television that this simply reinstated the amount recently cut to Nepalese aid.

“The Australian Government is sending band-aids,” Professor McCue said.

“What the people need is education and now is when they need it, education and demonstrations on how to make their buildings more resilient before they rebuild.

“Some good Australian reinforcing steel would be very useful – that and the tools to use it to reinforce their masonry buildings.”

Nepal needed a building code that included an updated hazard map, he said, with the draft Nepal standard from 1993 rating earthquake hazard at the same level as in Sydney and Melbourne, despite being much higher.

Cut aid to the South West Pacific “a sad state of affairs”

Professor McCue also said the federal government should reinstate funding it had cut that assisted South West Pacific countries respond to the challenges of building to withstand earthquakes – a region he says has twice the earthquake hazard of Nepal.

There was a greater role for Australia to influence its region, he said, and as an affluent country had “a moral responsibility” to help nearby developing countries increase resilience to natural disasters such as earthquakes.

The Australian Earthquake Engineering Society, of which McCue is president, has a yearly conference between engineers and seismologists, which has been integral in helping set the earthquake requirements of Australia’s building code.

This year the society is holding a Pacific conference, which will host delegates from countries such as China, Japan, the US and Chile. However according to McCue, the countries they want to attract are the developing ones, in particular Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where earthquake hazard is the highest, and there is a lack of in-country expertise or building codes.

The last time a Pacific conference was held, funding from AusAid allowed the society to bring in leaders from developing countries to educate them on hazard map and building code development.

With the federal aid budget cut, when the society approached the Department of Foreign Affairs (which has absorbed AusAid) it was told there was no money available.

McCue said helping prepare countries to manage earthquake risk was a better solution than simply providing post-disaster aid, and could be done cheaply.

“It’s a very sad state of affairs,” Professor McCue told The Fifth Estate.

“They need to be putting money in before large buildings are built… They’ve cut the aid budget. That’s the worst thing. We can’t even help educate them.”

Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do

University College London’s Dr Ilan Kelman from the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction said the disaster in Nepal was a chilling reminder that earthquakes don’t kill people, collapsing buildings do.

“We have long known how to construct buildings which do not fall down in earthquakes, but that knowledge is not always applied,” Dr Kelman said.

“Despite the heroic efforts of our Nepali friends and colleagues over the years, including retrofitting schools, political not technical factors slowed the work.”

Dr Kelman said conflicts, poor governance and poverty in Nepal created and perpetuated the vulnerability exposed during the earthquake.

“The pictures and reports emerging do not bode well for other earthquake-prone cities with similar vulnerabilities,” he said.

The death toll from the 7.9 magnitude earthquake on Saturday has surpassed 4000, with expectations is could reach 10,000, according to The Guardian.

  • See here for how to donate to the earthquake relief in Nepal.

One reply on “Australian expertise could help prevent another earthquake disaster”

  1. This is an important article, and I hope DFAT has registered its intent. As the Productivity Commission shifts the focus of Australian disaster management towards mitigation rather than BAU rebuiliding, so should our aid program.

    Between 1988 and 1990 I worked in a reconstruction project in Nepal responding to an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale that shook Central and Eastern Nepal. 2,000 schools, 60,000 homes and significant road and water infrastructure were destroyed. In the aftermath I joined a USAID/World Bank funded rebuilding project led by an extraordinary Nepali team. This work led to my ongoing passion about disaster resilience now expressed through the work of Green Cross Australia.

    The Nepali Earthquake Affected Areas Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Project (1988 – 1994) led groundbreaking thinking on “betterment” by using micro-loans to encourage basic earthquake resistant features in village homes (ties in simple stone structures and use of symmetrical design). We pioneered smokeless stoves and composting toilets. We evaluated the sustainability trade-offs between using steel or timber trusses (carefully balancing the sulfur dioxide/greenhouse and deforestation trade-offs in procurement).

    The project won a UN Habitat award in 1992 and we should be advancing this work at scale over the many long years of recovery that lie ahead for Nepalis and the large population of Tibetan Refugees that live in Nepal. See a USAid project overview below: https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDABA875.pdf. See award here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UN-Habitat_Scroll_of_Honour_Award

    The Japanese, German, French, US and Canadian aid programs will undoubtedly rise to the enormous challenge ahead by supporting recovery that embraces foresight to mitigate future events. Australia’s excellent earthquake expertise should be likewise deployed. Otherwise the lessons we are learning at home about the importance of mitigation will be strangely missing from our humanitarian efforts overseas.

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