1-7 May 2015 #756

A slow start

Whatever happened to ‘Disaster Preparedness’?
David Seddon
Over the last few days, a massive earthquake followed by a series of ‘aftershocks’ - many of which were also extremely severe - have together killed probably as many as 6,000 people, injured possibly twice as many as that, buried whole villages and destroyed or severely damaged thousands of homes and public buildings across the hill areas of central Nepal, including the Kathmandu Valley.

The response to this disaster has been relatively swift, compared with the response to many disasters in other countries on other occasions, at least in the Kathmandu Valley itself. But serious questions need to be asked as to why the government and other agencies in Nepal were not able to provide the kind of technical and material assistance that was urgently required across all the areas affected within the first crucial days after the initial shock.

We should also question whether the funds that are now pouring in from public and private donations (already approaching $50 million) will be used effectively and accounted for, transparently. It is still not clear what happened to the substantial fund of donations given last year both to the PM’s Disaster Fund and to CDOs in many districts to provide relief after the exceptional summer of drought, floods and landslides.

The earthquake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing at least 18 in the area of the Base Camp. It also triggered another huge avalanche in the Langtang Valley, where villages were buried and several hundred people at least are missing. Large areas in the western districts of central Nepal, like Gorkha and Lamjung, and in the region to the northeast of Kathmandu, such as Kavre, Sindhupalchok and Dolakha, were severely affected, with whole villages devastated in some places. In the Kathmandu Valley, in addition to generally older residential buildings, many centuries-old structures were destroyed, including some at UNESCO World Heritage sites.

This series of earthquakes and aftershocks constitutes the most severe ‘natural’ disaster to strike Nepal since the 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake. Its effects were also felt across large areas of Tibet, North India and Bangladesh. When it came, it came as a surprise but geophysicists had warned for decades that Nepal was vulnerable to a deadly earthquake and Kathmandu is universally regarded as the city most likely to experience a major earthquake for many years.

In the last five years in particular, the numerous aid agencies in Kathmandu have been preparing programs, projects and protocols relating to ‘disaster preparedness’, which has become something of a mantra in ‘aid’ circles. DFID Nepal, for example, last year approved a new, generously funded Community Development Programme (CDP) with a particular focus on strengthening the resilience of local communities.

The Government of Nepal has also signed up to this new conventional wisdom regarding the priority to be accorded to ‘disaster preparedness’, particularly in the context of climate change, and has in recent years established its own institutions and procedures, from the national down to the local level. For example, the Prime Minister’s Disaster Fund was set up to receive donations and to allocate resources at a national level, while in each district there is now a Disaster Relief Committee which, together with the CDO and LDO, is supposed to respond to and coordinate responses to natural disasters in any given district.

However, despite all this talk of ‘disaster preparedness’ and some effort to educate the population at large in the need to ‘be prepared’, there is little indication that either the government or the foreign agencies on the spot in Kathmandu, or the hospitals and other emergency services, were in fact adequately prepared to meet the demands resulting from the earthquake and series of aftershocks in the crucial first days.

In all such disasters, the immediate priority is to provide adequate resources for the rescue of those buried under collapsed buildings and the treatment of injuries sustained in the disaster. It is evident from reports that the response provided by those government and non-government agencies on the spot in this initial crucial phase was inadequate.

By contrast, the Indian Armed Forces, with the support of the government, swiftly initiated Operation Maitri (Operation Amity or Friendship), a humanitarian mission with the primary objective of conducting relief and rescue operations in Nepal. The Chinese government quickly sent a team to assist in the rescue and relief operations, and offers of assistance and pledges of funds were received from many other countries within a few days, including a generous $1 million by the government of Bhutan. Money is not a problem, but effective action on the ground has been.

Rescue operations were largely confined in the first 24 hours to the central areas of Kathmandu and Patan and appear to have been mainly the result of impromptu and largely uncoordinated efforts by local people and some local service providers. In the first two days, information provided regarding the impact and implications of the disaster was heavily reliant on individuals posting reports and taking photographs of areas where destruction had been particularly severe; there was virtually no information of any kind, and certainly none on the situation in areas outside the Kathmandu Valley, provided by government sources or by any of the foreign aid agencies. Such reports tended to focus on Kathmandu and Everest Base Camp.

The hospitals and clinics in Kathmandu were clearly unprepared and effectively overwhelmed by the sudden demand for treatment from the many people injured: there were even private hospitals and clinics that turned people away, presumably because they could not pay – although the government did quickly intervene to oblige private hospitals to treat all patients in need. In part because of their unpreparedness and sudden massive demand, but also because of disruptions to power and the danger of collapsing buildings, hospital and clinic staff treated many of their patients outside in the streets.

It was not really until the second and third days that it was recognised that the major areas affected would be the towns and villages outside the central conurbation of Kathmandu and Patan where most of the attention had hitherto been focused. Now, increasingly, there were reports from further afield inside and outside the Valley – that Bhaktapur had been badly hit and that towns no more than 25 miles outside the main conurbation were also sites of death and destruction. Initial reports from aerial stories to the areas considered to be the epicentre of the earthquake (Gorkha and Lamjung), began to reveal both the extent of devastation and also the lack of resources for rescue and relief.

But it was not until the third day that aerial and satellite photos revealed that large parts of districts to the north east of Kathmandu, such as Kavre, Sindhupalchok and Dolakha, were also severely affected and effectively constituted another major disaster area. Not until days three and four was there any real ‘on the ground reporting’ from any of these areas, let alone any attempt to bring resources to bear to assist with local efforts at rescue and relief.

After the initial phase of rescue and treatment of injuries, the main concern in responses to disasters is usually to provide relief, usually in the form of shelter, blankets, drinking water, food and continuing medical treatment. It seems clear that the initial responses in most areas were simply those of the local population, fleeing damaged and collapsing buildings or running for cover, working together to look after family members, friends and neighbours, or simply trying to save themselves, often camping out in the open for night after night. By days four and five there were indications that, in Kathmandu and in the other areas severely affected, there was growing anger at the apparent lack of government or other external support for largely local efforts to respond to the growing needs of a devastated population.

Within Nepal, the UNDP moved quite quickly into action to coordinate a response, but there was little indication that the government of Nepal was in a position to take the lead and it was not until several days after the initial earthquake that the Prime Minister made any kind of public statement. A few politicians, notably Babu Ram Bhattarai, were prepared to take action individually, but in general there has been a woeful lack of responsibility from those supposedly governing the country.

None of the many bilateral and multilateral aid agencies with a presence in Kathmandu were prepared practically for such a disaster by, for example, stockpiling the predictably required essential goods, such as blankets, tents, bottled drinking water, food supplies, medical equipment and medicines, sanitary towels etc. which they could make available immediately during the crucial initial rescue and relief phases.

Nor does it seem that they had made any preparations to have teams of appropriately trained technical personnel available for the inevitable rescue operations, to support the government emergency services and Army. There is little indication either that any of the numerous INGOs or NGOs based in Kathmandu, but with branches outside the Valley, have been initially in a position to provide immediate assistance, despite their awareness in principle of the importance of ‘disaster preparedness’.

There is no intention here of ‘blaming’ anyone – and it should be recognised that the efforts now being made by all parties are impressive – but it was a slow start, and there are serious questions to be asked as to why there was so little ‘disaster preparedness’ to respond effectively to the needs and demands of the Nepali people so terribly affected in those crucial first few days.

There is also a real need to monitor and to account openly for the flow of funds being donated for disaster relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, something that will take many months and even years to achieve, under the best of circumstances.


Read also:

Thanking the Living Goddess for life, Min Ratna Bajracharya

Langtang is gone”, Sahina Shrestha

Teacher’s tragedy, Cynthia Choo

Small is more useful

The earthquake from above, Kunda Dixit

Monumental loss, Stéphane Huët

Microcosm of a calamity, Cynthia Choo and Sonia Awale

Mapping the aftermath, Ayesha Shakya

Coming out stronger from crisis, Anjana Rajbhandary

Believe it, or not, Tsering Dolker Gurung

Rising from the dust, From the Nepali Press

Barpak in ruins, From the Nepali Press

Not-so-big One, From the Nepali Press

Surviving Dharara, From the Nepali Press

Surviving trauma

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