Kathmandu reflections

by Martin Dawes

Aid worker, journalist and former Kathmandu resident, Martin Dawes, reflects on the earthquake.

The vulnerability of those living in the teeming Kathmandu Valley was clear and obvious.

It was not just severe poverty levels set among a kaleidoscopic fusion of Hindu and Buddhist cultures.

It was the brick-built buildings that searched their way upwards and seemed to loom over the roads, crowding in over streets that were seldom empty of cars, bicycles and hurrying people.

‘Good luck getting through that if it all comes down,’ I used to think to myself in the way of people seeing a danger they can do nothing about.

Sometimes it would be spoken as another floor was added to a building on the way home from work. Building restrictions were beginning to be applied to draw back from the vital roads, arteries that needed to be opened fast in a disaster. But by the nature of things, people built where they could as that residential bowl spread out to accommodate more and more people.

The threat of a catastrophic earthquake and what it would do were never far from our thoughts. Picturesque, smoggy Kathmandu lies in a valley where the flat ground used to be a lake. In a shallow earthquake the ground literally liquidises. Cheap buildings don’t stand a chance and even modern ones with reinforced concrete and steel can be challenged. From the tops of the houses is a view of the Himalayas, themselves evidence of a young and dynamic geology that is never still.

Living there we kept a metal trunk well away from the house with ropes, a medical kit, rice, water purification tablets and tents. If disaster struck ,we were told that it was unlikely that the airport would be opened quickly and even if a miracle were to occur, the roads into urbanised areas were likely to be impassable. Bulldozers? Some yes. But there were never going to be enough.

Prepare, they said, to look after yourselves for at least three weeks.

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