Sunday, May 10, 2015

Preparation for and response to earthquake disasters 

fail to use crucial information

by Max Wyss
Max Wyss

(International Centre for Earth Simulation, Geneva, Switzerland; email:

Seismologist's capability to estimate the extent of earthquake disasters for the future and immediately after a devastating event, like the M7.8 Nepalese earthquake of 25 April 2015, has greatly increase during the last decade. However, this advance is not being used by governments to prepare and reduce seismic risk, and by mass media reporting on disasters.

Countless individuals and organizations are doing their very best to rescue and help the victims of the disastrous M7.8 Nepalese earthquake of 25 April 2015. Some are high profile teams with colorful outfits bearing logos and organization names for the TV cameras, but most are desperate family members and neighbors digging with bare hands in the rubble, hoping to rescue a loved one. All of them, whether glamorous or faceless, deserve our admiration and thanks. Nevertheless, we may ask: Could we perhaps have done better to prepare for this event?

My remarks may be myopic because I have not researched this topic. I am relating some of my own experiences, only, in the hopes that this letter may trigger a discussion that will lead to a wider view.

Reliable earthquake predictions that specify magnitude, location and occurrence time are currently not possible. However, the first two variables can be specified, at least approximately. The looming danger of disastrous earthquakes in the Himalaya has long been recognized, based on past great earthquakes that were bound to be repeated, and on geodetically measured deformation rates. Among the many scientists who have estimated the amount of energy stored along the Himalayan collision belt K. Khattri, V. Gaur and R. Bilham (e.g. (1, 2)) are the most prominent, in my view. In addition, B. Tucker has often emphasized the precarious situation in the Himalaya, especially in Nepal, due to the deplorable state of the built environment.

The seismic hazard map of the world (3) is incomprehensible for community leaders (4), and inadequate when it comes to large earthquakes (5). To make the risk in the Himalaya clear to community leaders, the population and international donor organizations, I have calculated the expected human losses, when and not if, magnitude 8 class earthquakes would return to the Himalayan collision zone (6).

Out of my seven hypothetical loss scenarios, one was called Kashmir and another one Kathmandu. I estimated a range of fatalities of 67,000 to 137,000, and 21,000 to 42,000, respectively. Subsequently, the M7.6 earthquake of October 2005 in Kashmir killed about 85,000, thus my loss estimates are verified to be correct to within about a factor of two (7). Currently the count of fatalities is rising in Nepal and may surpass the aforementioned estimate.

Mean damage due to the Nepal earthquake of 25 April 2015 calculated by QLARM in near-real-time on a scale of 5 (blue=very light to red=very heavy) for settlements with dots proportional to size. Kathmandu is not readily noticeable because it is presented in 35 separate districts. This theoretical estimate serves to assist rescue organizations and governments to launch appropriate response efforts.

Moved by our deep concern about the earthquake threat hanging over Nepal like a Damocles sword, Philippe Rosset and I prepared a proposal, together with our Nepalese colleague, D. Chamlagain, to give our loss estimating tool, QLARM, to our Nepalese colleagues pro bono, and teach them how to use it. The purpose would have been for Nepal to refine scenarios for losses, to know the approximate extent of the disaster that was to be faced, and to prepare for it. Humanitarian funding agencies, including the World Bank, turned us down.

If we had been funded, our Nepalese colleagues would have been able to advise their government within minutes of the extent of the disaster on April 25. Instead, three days after the disaster struck, Nepalese officials still believe that only 10,000 may have died, when it will most likely turn out to have been a multiple of this number.

The reporting of fatalities in earthquakes lags behind the final count by necessity, as casualties need to be discovered. For this reason QLARM calculates an estimate of fatalities right after the earthquake. Here the fatality counts in Nepal (on the left), where access to much of the affected area is on foot or helicopter only, are compared to those in L'Aquila (on the right) in an industrial country with well developed infrastrucutres. Dots are media reports, the solid square shows the final count, the triangle indicates the near-real-time estimate by QLARM.

Mass media contribute to slowing down rescue efforts by initially reporting two (2!) fatalities, without mentioning that experts estimate that 10s of thousands have perished in Nepal. Similarly, in Morocco in 2004, the report of 2 people dead prompted the person in charge to refuse an official offer of help when an expert estimated within 102 minutes that 1,200 people had lost their lives. Later, it turned out that 631 people had died and thousands had been injured. Now that these experts have been proven to issue reliable loss estimates within minutes of devastating earthquakes, it is time that news media contributed to disseminate this valuable information.

The fact that no Nepalese government official uttered a public statement for three days after the April 25th disaster inflames the exasperation of desperate victims as they talk to television crews, amongst the ruins of their dwellings.

Although conferences had been held on earthquake danger in Nepal and many international organizations had been trying to design projects to reduce the latent risk, there exists startling evidence that the Nepalese government may not have cared much about this problem: The earthquake catalog for Nepal, a fundamental tool to assess the hazard and risk, has not been updated to the present, although a seismograph network has recorded events. The catalog available is missing information for the last 10 years, and Nepalese seismologists are struggling to complete this catalog.

Of course, we seismologists are focused on the danger we see, but governments are faced with many other problems, the solutions to which may seem to officials as more pressing, until an earthquake disaster strikes. The maxim that 1$ spent for earthquake risk reduction will reduce the losses by 10$ is ignored because there is no guarantee that the disaster will strike during the elected term of the current government. However, I am of the opinion that there is a guarantee that during the next three to four generations (the lifetime of people we know and care about),  that another 50,000 to 100,000 humans will perish in an earthquake, this time in the Indian segment of the Himalayan collision zone.

In my opinion, we could do better in protecting the population and reducing earthquake risk than we are doing now.


1. Khattri K. N. (1999). Probabilities of occurrence of great earthquakes in the Himalaya. Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences (Earth and Planetary Sciences) 108, 87-92.

2. Bilham R., Gaur 
V. K., Molnar P. (2001). Himalayan Seismic Hazard. Science 293, 1442-1444.

3. Giardini D. (1999). The Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program (GSHAP) - 1992/1999. Ann. Geofis. 42, 957-974.

4. Wyss M. (2015). 
Chapter 20, pp. 239-249. In: Wyss M. and Peppoloni S. (Eds.), Geoethics: Ethical Challenges and Case Studies in Earth Sciences. Elsevier, 450 p., Waltham, Massachusetts.

5. Wyss M., Nekrasova A., Kossobokov 
V. G. (2012). Errors in expected human losses due to incorrect seismic hazards estimates. Nat. Hazards 62, 927-935. doi: 10.1007/s11069-012-0125-5.

6. Wyss M. (2005). Human losses expected in Himalayan earthquakes. Nat. Hazards 34, 305-314.

7. Wyss M., pp. 5. In: 
Van de Walle B., Turoff M. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Conference of the International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (Newark, 2006).

(photo on the top from