24 - 30 October 2014 #729

Post-mortem of a tragedy

We know that our preparedness was disastrous, the question is how do we reduce the chances of needless casualties in future blizzards

As with the other disasters in Nepal this year (Bhote Kosi landslide, Surkhet-Dang flashfloods and the Everest avalanche) there has been a lot of blame-throwing after the Annapurna blizzard last week that claimed at least 45 lives. This is not helpful.

The easiest scapegoat has been the government. There is a lot of things the government didn’t do that it should have done, no doubt. Had there been better regulation, enforcement of existing rules and on safety standards for porters and guides, the death toll may have been lower. But that would be too much to expect from a bungling state that is so incompetent it could not even designate an official spokesman to provide the international media with a coherent and consistent message about the search and rescue.

The Disaster Response Committee did meet at the PMO, but it underestimated the scale of the disaster, and in typical Nepali fashion, hoped for the best. The Nepal Army and its rescue helicopter pilots, battle-hardened during the conflict, did an exemplary job flying in difficult terrain and tricky weather to rescue those stranded in the high passes. If some of its choppers had not been commandeered by the army brass for an ill-timed inspection visit to western Nepal on Sunday, more lives may have been saved.

The private sector filled the gap with air support as well as communication through social media. Much of the information from the local administration was contradictory, sketchy and too obsessed with numbers of dead, missing and rescued when relatives and friends in Nepal and all over the world really needed were lists of names, times and places. This would have demanded better coordination between the army, local administration and the private sector.

It was pointed out in this paper last week that the blizzard was not unprecedented, and there was plenty of warning. Information is important, but much more important is to get that information to where it is needed the most. Trekking lodges in Manang Village and Jomsom had the news, but hundreds of trekkers had already moved up the valley on the trails to Thorung La and Tilicho who could not be reached.

Helicopter rescue flight to Thorung La

Courtesy: Simrik Airlines

Where the government can come in is to require telecom companies to build cell phone towers on places like Thorung La, Larkya La, Gokyo and Renjo La which have heavy trekking traffic in the peak season. This may actually be a business proposition for telecom companies which will benefit from trekkers uploading selfies and videos on social media from phones.

ACAP collects $30 from every foreign visitor, and the government makes another $10 on the TIMS card. Multiply that by the 100,000 trekkers in Nepal and it adds up to a whopping $4 million a year just from fees. It would only take a tiny fraction of that as a one-time cost to build shelters every one hour walk up to Thorung and other popular high passes. These shelters could be leased to tea shop owners in the peak season.

The Thorung traverse is not for beginners, and many trekkers underestimate its altitude and terrain. Trekking companies taking clients to passes above 5,000m could be required to have satellite phones, and better equipment and clothes for their porters and guides.

None of the above measures need a lot of money. In fact, had only one of them existed (cell phone signal) many people would have perhaps survived the blizzard. The reason trekkers did not get prior warning of the approaching danger was this lack of communication, and that was also the reason the outside world had to wait so long for news of the identity and whereabouts of the  survivors to assist in timely search and rescue.

The wrong response to last week’s tragedy would be for the government to make even more regulations that will add yet another layer of bureaucracy and corruption. Experience from the TIMS card and trekker permits for national parks have shown that the original purpose of those measures has been lost. As with the Everest avalanche in May that killed 16 Nepali high-altitude guides, the best way to honour the memory of those who died so terribly and needlessly on Annapurna is to make sure that we do our best to minimise the loss of life in future.

Himalayan climbing and trekking will never be risk free. But it is in Nepal’s self-interest to make such an important source of employment and revenue to be made as safe as possible for us and our visitors in future.

Read also:

Go tell it on the mountain, Subina Shrestha

After the storm, Kunda Dixit

Dangerous business, Editorial

Extreme Everest, Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller

Man-made disasters, Editorial

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