Nepal scrambles in aftermath of quake

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By Jonathan Fowler

Geneva, 26 April 2015 - Nepal was scrambling on Sunday to save the lives of people trapped in the rubble following the country's devastating earthquake, as the death toll mounted to 2,000, and the population of affected areas remained outdoors as aftershocks continued to rock the country.

A day after the 7.8-magnitude quake struck Nepal's Western and Central Regions, including the densely-populated Kathmandu Valley, rescue workers were combing through the debris of collapsed buildings. Their task was complicated by the blocked narrow streets, and the impact of 6.7-magnitude aftershocks

A massive effort was underway to help the more than 4,600 people injured by the quake and the many thousands more displaced in Nepal, one of the world's most hazard-prone countries.

“It was the worst earthquake I have ever experienced in my life. The aftershocks are still strong. The indications so far are that this is a major emergency," said Fr. Pius Perumana S.J, Director of Caritas Nepal, in Kathmandu. "Lots of houses have fallen down and there are lots with cracks. Thank God it was during the day and on a holiday as many people were outside when the quake happened. Rescue is the first priority. Lots of people have lost their homes and are out on the street or in open spaces, so we will be looking to provide them with food and temporary shelter."

Hospitals in Kathmandu Valley were overcrowded, running low on supplies and short of morgue space. Medical workers were treating people in the streets. Shortages of food and water were compounding the difficulties for the displaced population.

Nepal's government has appealed for international assistance, including to bolster its search and rescue capacity, as well as for medical teams and supplies, tents for makeshift hospitals, body bags, heavy equipment for rubble removal, and helicopters for transport and to reach blocked-off areas.

Earthquakes are starkly familiar in Nepal. The deadliest on record is the 8.4-magnitude quake of 1934, which claimed more than 8,000 lives and levelled around 70 percent of the buildings in the Kathmandu Valley.

Eight decades later, population growth and urbanization has raised the spectre of an even greater impact if a similarly-powerful earthquake were to strike -- estimates put the potential toll at more than 100,000 dead, 200,000 injured and up to two million displaced.

Nepali expert Dr. Roshan Bhakta Bhandari, who has studied the 1934 disaster in depth, said the role of local residents as first responders was crucial in the current crisis.

"My initial impression shows that social capital and mutual self help has still been a crucial force for immediate rescue and recovery. Hats off to good social bonding and proactive survivors who has been toiling hard to save the lives of others," Dr. Bhandari said.

Among the areas of concern are limited resources for rescue and recovery -- though mounting international support, including from neighbouring India, was offering a glimmer of hope -- Dr. Bhandari added. Others were damage to critical services such as drinking water and electricity, transport infrastructure and, in the longer term, loss of heritage sites -- the historic Dharahara tower in Kathmandu is one of the buildings that crumbled in the earthquake.

In addition to earthquakes, mountainous Nepal is also vulnerable to flooding, landslides, avalanches and glacial lake bursts. Mindful of that, the government in 2009 created the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC) along with international organizations. Annual spending on disaster risk reduction grew from barely US$8 million a decade ago to around US$40 million in 2013.

The NRRC coordinates much-needed disaster risk reduction efforts, with five priority areas: school and hospital safety; emergency preparedness and response; flood management in the Koshi river basin; community based disaster risk management; and policy and institutional support for disaster risk management. While helping the country improve its preparedness, the NRRC focus has shown all too clearly the scale of the challenges, notably due to unplanned urbanization and a failure to respect building codes, as well as the extent of the work still to be done.

Retrofitting of schools to make them earthquake-resistant is a case in point.

The impact of the earthquake could have been far worse had it struck on an weekday, underlined US-based hazard expert Ben Wisner, who had on Tuesday returned after spending three weeks in Nepal, hosted by the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET). "Fortunately students were not in schools on Saturday. Of the 10,000 schools in the Kathmandu Valley -- half of the country's schools -- only 260 have been assessed and retrofitted," he said.

Wisner said there had been major strides thanks to NSET, other Nepali and international NGOs, the Nepal Red Cross and municipal governments, with local-level disaster preparedness and response plans, earthquake-aware construction, better building code enforcement in some historic areas, the creation of scores of open-air evacuation sites for people displaced by quakes, training in some cities in light search and rescue and pre-positioning of tools for this purpose. "I am sure lives were saved because of these efforts," he said.

"Recovery in Nepal has got to involve best construction practice and a redoubling of efforts in non-structural mitigation, preparedness and reduction of risk from secondary hazards," he added, pointing to risks from industrial sites.