Video shows Nepal quake damage.
(photo credit: screenshot)
Nepal and parts of neighboring countries were struck over the weekend by a terrible tragedy. News agencies were reporting on devastation in Kathmandu and in outlying areas after an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 wreaked havoc.
The death toll was reported to be approaching 3,000 in Nepal. Thousands were injured and tens of thousands are without shelter.
As in similar tragic circumstances, Israel was one of the first countries to offer aid, medical assistance and condolences to Nepal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the State of Israel and its citizens “stand alongside Nepal in this difficult hour.”
Dozens of Israelis trekking in Nepal remained unaccounted for. And there were also a few dozen Israelis in Nepal as part of the process of surrogate childbirth. Single-parent and same-sex couples living in Israel who want to have a child through a surrogate mother must go abroad. Nepal happens to be one of the only places in the world where this is possible.
But there is another Israeli connection. Israel could follow Nepal in becoming the epicenter of a major earthquake.
Israel is located on the Syrian African Rift which stretches from the Bekaa Valley in the north, passes through the Hula Valley into Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and continues south through the Jordan Rift Valley to the Dead Sea.
Every 80 to 100 years on average, there is an earthquake of 6 or more on the Richter scale. The last one took place in 1927. Yet our political leaders have been surprisingly lax when it comes to prevention.
An earthquake scenario was prepared about five years ago by an interministerial steering committee for earthquake preparation. In a case where an earthquake with a 7.5 magnitude strikes in the North, the committee estimated that 16,000 would be killed, 6,000 would be seriously wounded, 83,000 would be moderately injured and 377,000 would be made homeless. A 2011 comptroller’s report found that for decades, consecutive governments have done precious little to prepare for a major earthquake.
A number of hospitals in the North and in the South have not been reinforced to sustain the shock of an earthquake, according to the report. And we are not aware of any positive developments since the report was published.
In 2013, Dr. Efraim Laor of the University of Haifa, an expert in natural disaster preparedness, warned in an interview with The Marker that if an earthquake were to hit Israel during the day, when children are at school, the tragedy would be multiplied because many of our schools are not constructed to stand up to an earthquake.
Buildings constructed before 1980 are not covered by Israel Standard 413, an internationally accepted building code designed to protect against earthquakes.
In 2005, Israel passed Tama 38, a nationwide program to reinforce older residential buildings, which includes various incentives such as state-subsidized renovations and room additions in exchange for agreeing to participate.
However, while this program, which essentially privatizes earthquake preparation and makes it the prerogative of the citizen, has been modestly successful in areas where real estate prices are high, it has utterly failed in outlying areas, which happen to also be most at risk of being hit hard by an earthquake. There are about 70,000 apartments in danger of collapsing in the event of a massive earthquake, according to a study commissioned by the Construction Ministry.
Another major danger is exposure to dangerous chemicals as a result of an earthquake. The comptroller’s report mentioned the Haifa Bay area as being particularly vulnerable.
Even without an earthquake, there have been a number of incidents involving the release of chemicals such as ammonia into the atmosphere, most recently in September in the Hefer Valley. Nevertheless, a large ammonia tank remains in place in Haifa, despite repeated attempts to move it to a less populated area.
The incoming government should take the horrific devastation visited upon Nepal as a wake-up call. Public buildings such as schools and hospitals must be reinforced. In addition, the Tama 38 plan should be reevaluated in outlying areas. Grants or interest-free loans should be provided to citizens in the North and South to encourage implementation.
And industries that produce dangerous materials should be moved away from highly populated areas.
We have no control over when the next major earthquake will hit Israel. But we can prepare for the worst, before it is too late.