Megacities like Kathmandu create conditions for ‘colossal disaster’

    The death toll from the massive earthquake that hit Nepal last week continues to rise

    The death toll from the massive earthquake that hit Nepal last week continues to rise

    Nepal’s quake exposes the effects that poverty and unfortunate geography can have on a city.

    The death toll from the massive earthquake that hit Nepal last week continues to rise, and millions of people are without shelter. Rebuilding efforts for the city of Kathmandu will have to get underway quickly, so what could be done during this process that might prevent similar devastation during future quakes?

    “In the developing world, if a building is built a few stories high, the bottom story is often retail space with big glass windows,” explained Ross Stein, an emeritus scientist at the US Geological Suvey, and consulting professor of geophysics at Stanford University. “Then story after story is built on top, and the combination of unengineered additions, and the soft first floor, these buildings are weak at the knees, the bottom collapses, and the rest drops on top of it.”

    Fatalities from earthquakes have risen dramatically in recent decades, a fact Stein blames on the rapidly growing numbers of people living in megacities. “Many of those gigantic cities are astride the great plate boundaries,” said Stein, creating what he calls “targets of chance.”

    “If you have a quake near Kathmandu, Port au Prince, Tehran, Manila, Caracas, or Quito, Ecuador, then we have the conditions for a colossal disaster, because we didn’t use to have 10 or 20 million people in one place, living in poorly constructed buildings.”

    Stein says the absolute best way to avoid damage during earth quakes is to build domes. “We all should take a page from Buckminster Fuller, who showed us that really, integrity comes from triangles, not cubes.” The California architect popularized the geodesic dome.

    “If we all lived in domes, earthquakes would be fine, there be no damage at all. [Domes] are light, they are strong, and they don’t collapse,” explained Stein.

    He added that even though humans love to build in cubes stacked on top of each other, cubes are not as strong as they may seem. “A cube can twist itself into being flat, it is only strengthened by internal triangles, which we can add, but if we don’t, then the weakest corner, if that breaks, can take building down.”

    He says building codes used in the US ensure that structures are made in a way that they don’t collapse and entomb those inside. Preventing similar devastation in the future will depend on how Kathmandu is rebuilt, said Stein, adding that building safer constructions is neither very difficult nor very costly.

    “We should look at what’s happening at Port au Prince in Haiti,” said Stein. “There are enormous pressures of rebuilding quickly, but after an earthquake tears down all the weak buildings, this is the moment to rebuild well.”

    Stein added that too often, developing countries don’t have the funds or know-how to rebuild stronger cities.

    Watch Ross Stein’s Tedx Talk here.

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