UK media:Nepal earthquake Shaken in the mountains

UK media:Nepal earthquake Shaken in the mountains


Nepal earthquake

shaken in the mountains

A severe quake hits one of Asia's most vulnerable countries, killing hundredsShaken in the mountains


A man is pulled from the rubble in Kathmandu

SEISMOLOGISTS, politicians and ordinary residents of Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, have long feared the consequences of a big earthquake striking in or near the sprawling city. It lies within a bowl-shaped valley, and as the population has poured off the fields in recent decades (hurried along by a nasty decade of civil war), Kathmandu has swollen fast. Teetering concrete buildings, narrow alleys and almost non-existent building standards—combined with prevalent corruption among inspectors—meant the city was at risk. Over 5m people now cram in and around Kathmandu, but there are only a few roads that are passable into the valley.

On April 25th, the big one finally hit. A massive earthquake struck 80km to the west of the city, rated at a magnitude of 7.9, a scale that generally occurs at most a few times a year globally. As far as the Indian capital of Delhi, windows rattled and water sloshed in jugs, and metro service was suspended. India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, suggested that his country would send rescue teams and assistance. A Nepalese minister, Minendra Rijal, spoke of enormous damage and called for help from international agencies. As reports of hundreds of casualties began to filter in, an automated predictor developed by the United States Geological Service predicted the deaths would ultimately rise to well over 1000.

A resident in Kathmandu, speaking moments after the first shock, said he seen buildings collapsing, with older buildings proving the most vulnerable. One symbol of the city, the Dharahara tower, an eight-storey, 213-step tower originally constructed in 1832, was toppled. In Patan square, a historic site in the centre of the city, monuments that have long drawn pilgrims and tourists were instantly reduced to rubble. A 72-year-old man called the quake the strongest he had felt in his life: "It was exactly what everyone was afraid of." By afternoon on April 25th over 800 people had been confirmed dead; many more were trapped under rubble (like the man pictured above being freed by rescuers). It was fortunate that the earthquake struck by day, when many were outside or able to quickly leave their buildings.

Earthquakes are relatively routine in northern India and along the Himalayas, as the Indian tectonic plate pushes northwards by about five centimetres a year, lifting mountains (including Everest) but also causing tremors where the plates slip. The last quake of similar magnitude in Nepal was in 1934, and because an average of 70 to 80 years appears typical between big quakes in the region, it was not unreasonable to expect another one now. The quake's epicentre 11km under the surface was unusually shallow, exacerbating the ground-shaking, said David Rothery, a professor of geosciences at Britain's Open University. He added that Nepal's mountainous areas are partly shielded from the shaking because they stand on bedrock; the ground-shaking in the silt plains of southern Nepal and northern India may have been even worse.

The quake triggered an avalanche on Everest, burying part of the base camp used by climbers and killing at least eight. One climber tweeted that he had run for his life, from his tent, as he saw the snowslide approach. Given the remoteness of many settlements in Nepal, it is likely that reports of death and destruction will take days to be heard.

Some efforts have been made by foreign donors to prepare Kathmandu against the consequences of earthquakes by retrofitting a few public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. It is commonplace for foreigners working in the city to demand buildings that are designed to be at least modestly tremor-proof. But Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and suffers from prolonged political dysfunction, and there have been no sustained efforts to protect the large population against earthquakes, or even educate them about the risks.

There is scope for regional help, and Mr Modi looks inclined to offer some leadership. Nepal recently hosted a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, where national leaders pledged that barriers between countries must be reduced and greater help be given across borders. This earthquake is an early test of whether such words will be met with actions.



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