The Economics and  Infrastructure in Nepal: an Earthquake Case Study

In looking at the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday, April 25th, I was struck by the high death tolls. As of Wednesday, the 29th, the death toll is above 5,000 people, a number that is expected to climb (Fuller and Barry). The 7.8 magnitude earthquake is estimated to leave up to $10 billion in damages, which is about 20% of the nation’s GDP (Mullen). This high number is largely due to the lack of infrastructure. Nepal, a country located between two colliding Continental Plates, is especially prone to earthquakes (Shimer). A majority  of the death toll is due not to the earthquake itself, but rather from collapsed buildings and falling debris. This is proof that it necessary for countries building on fault lines to strictly enforce earthquake resistant buildings, to minimize human structural damage. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons including a weak economy ($694 per capita GDP) and poor political leadership, there were no enforced building codes in Nepal. This caused a huge amount of collapse of both centuries old, historic buildings as well as newer homes and businesses. This poor infrastructure left hundreds of individuals trapped underneath, burying them and blocking roads and communication lines, preventing a speedy rescue effort (Mullen).

Roads are blocked due to falling debris. Source: http://a.abcnews.com/images/International/AbigailHunter_NepalQuake2_150425_4x3_992.jpg

Another important aspect of infrastructure that could mitigate damage is a decent road system, which  Nepal lacked prior to the earthquake. Most of the rural villages, accounting for approximately 80% of the population, are virtually inaccessible (Rural Population). Part of this is due to the massive landslides triggered by the earthquake and its aftershocks, blocking the few existing roads to these villages, making recovery and rescue difficult, at times only accessible by helicopter. But a large part of the problem is due to the lack of roads in the first place. This lack of roads decreases the ability for rescue teams, as well as individuals fleeing from the steep mountain slopes that are more at risk for landslides, to get in or out of the valleys (Khadka).

Landslides wiped out villages and blocked roads. Source: http://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/files/2014/08/14_08-Sunkoshi-3.jpg

The final impact the lack of infrastructure in Nepal was its lack of established communications systems. Within Nepal, only 13% of the population has regular access to the Internet, and cell phone service is intermittent (Purnell). This severely curbs the availability to communicate the needs of various communities to each other. Sending out calls for help is significantly difficult.This hinders immediate relief from agencies such as the American Red Cross which  was not as effective as it could have been because of the lack of information as to where what kind of help was needed and when.

The Nepal earthquake was unavoidable with modern technology. However, the death toll and estimated $10 billion in damage could have been greatly mitigated if there had been stronger infrastructure, which would have increased the availability of information and access to rural communities in need of immediate assistance (Mullen).

The high death toll and cost of damages are due in part to the lack of infrastructure; a solution would be to improve infrastructure in Nepal during the rebuilding process. However, such a solution comes with a high cost; time, resources, and political effort are required, as are large government expenditures to cover the cost of building improved roads and enforcing building codes. It is important to keep in mind the benefits of improving infrastructure. Improved roads and increased access to the internet and phones would improve communication and commerce, thus increasing most people’s quality of life. Arguably more important, however, is that there are people’s lives on the line; spending thousands or even millions of dollars on enforcing earthquake resistant buildings and improving the overall country’s infrastructure could save hundreds to thousands of lives in the next earthquake. It is hard to put a value on a human life, but it may be worth the government expenditure to save future lives.

NOTE: If you are interested in donating to help the relief efforts, consider donating to one of these organizations: http://www.bbb.org/council/news-events/news-releases/2015/04/nepal-earthquake-donation-tips/. Or stop by Whitman’s Reid Campus Center during lunch this Friday and all next week (May 4-8th) between 12-2pm, as well as this weekend (May 2-3) on Ankeny field from 12-2pm; all proceeds from the button sale will go to the American Red Cross relief effort.


Works Cited

Fuller, Thomas and Ellen Barry. “Villages Near Nepal Earthquake’s Epicenter Are Desperate as Death Toll Tops 4,000.” The New York Times 27 April 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/world/asia/nepal-earthquake.html

Khadka, Navin Singh. “Landslide Fears After Nepal Quakes.” The BBC 28 April 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32501206

Mullen, Jethro. “Nepal Can’t Rebuild Without the World’s Help .” CNNMoney 27 April, 2015. http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/27/news/economy/nepal-earthquake-everest-tourism/

Purnell, Newley. “Tech GIants Help Track Nepal Earthquake Survivors as Communications Are Hit.” The Wall-Street Journal 27 April 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/tech-giants-help-track-nepal-quake-survivors-as-communications-hit-1430119745

“Rural Population (% of total population) in Nepal.” 2015. Trading Economics. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/nepal/rural-population-percent-of-total-population-wb-data.html

Shimer, Grant. Personal Interview. 28 April 2015.

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