Nepal Earthquake: How Rescue Efforts Played Out

20 May, 2015    ·   4875

Prof Hari Bansh Jha ties together the various aspects of disaster relief operations that followed the devastating earthquake

What took centuries to build, the deadly 7.9 magnitude earthquake on April 25 destroyed in a few seconds. The multiplier effect of the earthquake is great. It will take us several decades to rebuild destroyed infrastructure. But thousands of lives will never be recovered.

According to United Nations, nearly 600,000 houses have been either completely destroyed or damaged in the earthquake. Latest estimate has it that 200,000 houses have been reduced to rubble. In Sindhupalchowk, there were 66,000 houses before the earthquake; only 1,000 are left standing. Nearly 45,000 private houses have been completely damaged in Gorkha district. In Bhaktapur, a quarter of the city has been razed; while a half of it is abandoned. As many as 10,718 government buildings have been devastated; while 14,741 have been partially damaged. The number of affected schools is close to 5,000. In Kathmandu, 80 percent of ancient buildings, temples and monuments are completely destroyed. In the big picture, of the 5.4 million houses in Nepal, 7.5 percent are completely damaged.

Unfortunately, tremors continue to rock the country even after ten days of the first earthquake. As per official figures, the earthquake death toll has now reached 7,557 (as of this writing). Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has said the death toll could reach 10,000. But there are experts who believe Koirala's estimates are "uninformed" and the real number of deaths could be around 26,000. On the basis of calculation of Max Wyss of the Geneva-based International Centre for Earth Simulation (ICES), the death toll in Nepal due to earthquake could cross 100,000.

Nepal's official version is that 14,536 people were injured. But here too experts estimate the number of injured between 94,000 and 321,000. Nearly eight million of 28 million Nepalis are directly or indirectly affected. Of the 1.7 million affected children, 260,000 have lost everything, including their homes, warm clothes and families. They need urgent help.

While a large number of children have been orphaned, many women have become widows. Others have lost their sons, daughters, parents and beloved ones. In this situation, the risk of uncared children and women getting abused or trafficked has intensified. Worse still is the situation of 126,000 pregnant women who are directly or indirectly affected by the quake.

Even among survivors, more than 25,000 are in dire need of immediate psychological intervention. They have become depressed. Serious mental health crisis caused by the death of near and dear ones have resulted in suicidal tendencies among different people. Additionally, in many parts of the country the stench from human corpses and dead livestock trapped under rubble has created potential public health disasters. As many people are compelled to live under tents or under open skies, they don't have access to even temporary latrines, water, food and medicines. Many of them defecate out in the open haphazardly. Garbage is yet to be collected from our houses and public places. As such, there has been spike in water-borne diseases like fever, diarrhea and pneumonia in all the affected regions. If we fail to take precautionary measures, other diseases might crop up as well.

Transporting goods overland is a major challenge as roads are blocked by landslides. In such a situation, rescue and relief operation have become Kathmandu-centric. All of the 12 worst-hit districts in Nepal—including Sindhupalchowk, Kavrepalanchowk, Dolakha and Gorkha—are still beyond the reach of rescue and relief teams. Even in Kathmandu valley, many people are still complaining that they are without any rescue and relief support.

In the meantime, prices of essential goods and services have skyrocketed partly due to the lack of supply and partly due to rampant profiteering. People's wrath against the government, political leaders, I/NGOs and other concerned organizations is growing for their failure to come to their aid on time. Media reports have it that mountains of rescue and relief materials are piling up at Tribhuvan International Airport and at Birgunj Customs, but to what effect?

Despite this crisis, custom authorities are yet to relax their strict customs restrictions in the inflow of relief materials from overseas. The government says that it wants to inspect goods coming into the country. But if that is so, how did "Beef Masala" enter Nepali territories? Even a child knows this is the most sensitive issue for the predominantly Hindu population.

Unfortunately, certain organizations are trying to serve their vested interests, at the cost of the quake victims. Again, as per media reports, certain western Christian missionaries are planning to convert more and more Nepalis, taking advantage of their helplessness after the earthquake.

Our politicians have not helped matters either. Some leaders of left parties have given irresponsible statements that the Indian rescue and relief missions posed security threat to the nation. To the contrary, India once again won the hearts of the Nepali people for the urgency with which it provided rescue and relief assistance to quake victims in different parts of the country. In fact, India performed where the Nepali leaders failed. Besides, saving lives of many from under the rubble, Indian teams not only helped evacuate their own nationals stranded in this country, but many foreign nationals from difficult places on humanitarian ground. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even vowed to wipe the tears of each and every Nepali as he felt that Nepal's pain was that of India as well.

Life of each citizen is important—no matter whether that person lives in Kathmandu or in the peripheries of the country. Therefore, every effort should be made to bail out the people from distress in all affected districts. But the government has instead immaturely asked foreign rescue and relief teams to return to their home countries. The situation is that Nepalis should be cautious of their own government for its inept handling of post-earthquake efforts while they have every reason to be thankful to the individuals and organizations that have extended their whole-hearted support at this difficult juncture.

Note: This commentary was originally published on 5 May 2015 by My Republica  and has been republished with permission from the author.