Kathmandu was ever a disaster-in-waiting. The densely populated capital of one of the world’s poorest countries clings to the slopes of the seismically unstable Himalayas. The city was nearly levelled and 8,500 killed in its last great earthquake 81 years before. It had history. On Saturday the long-feared calamity struck.
Nepal earthquake death toll expected to rise sharply
Aftershocks hinder rescue efforts in the Himalayan nation as death toll passes 3,800 after a devastating 7.8 magnitude quake near Kathmandu
I first arrived in Kathmandu in 2007 to begin a new job with Oxfam. I’d been with the charity two years earlier and 1,000km west along the Himalayas as part of the international aid effort following the Kashmir earthquake. I saw towns there razed by the shifting tectonic plates that lie beneath that mountain range. More than 75,000 people were killed then, 85,000 were injured, and more than 3 million were made homeless.
With the Kashmir tragedy fresh in my mind, I remember looking at the thousands of flimsy shacks and hovels lining Kathmandu’s dusty slums and the sturdier, but still precarious, multi-tiered family homes, the cheaply built apartment blocks and ornate temples that collectively give the city its colourful, distinctive appearance. We all understood and feared what a big earthquake would surely do there.
But it’s not just its violent geology that made Kathmandu fundamentally flawed. More than a million people are crammed inside it. Even before this latest earthquake, half of Nepal’s 28 million population didn’t have access to improved sanitation and lived below the poverty line, around one in three of them in severe poverty. Their ability to cope with a major disaster is crippled by the lack of economic and social infrastructure that people in richer nations take for granted. Many thousands of Nepalese are going to need a great deal of help.
Nepal has long been desperate for a huge, sustained investment to strengthen its physical infrastructure and keep its people safer, and to develop its economy and services so that local communities and the state have enough assets to fall back on. The challenge now will be to invest the outpouring of international aid – which certainly will come – into a rescue, recovery and eventual reconstruction effort that will do exactly that.
Such an effort in the near-term will be extremely challenging. As I write, many of my Oxfam colleagues in Kathmandu are preparing to bed down with the rest of the city’s inhabitants for their second night in the cold, under the stars. Terrifying aftershocks that continue to shake a structurally damaged city mean that it’s too risky to sleep with a solid roof over your head. We are trying to talk to our staff and friends, but the phone and digital services are weak and in many cases broken. A few old friends with electricity generators have managed to keep in touch via Facebook, telling of the previous sleepless night amid the aftershocks.
Communications are vital for workers to coordinate relief and aid, so the ability of medical and engineering staff to work easily is likely to be severely hampered. We have staff on standby in India and around the world – and tonnes of relief supplies now readied in our warehouses including in Bicester in the UK – prepared to fly in to provide more capacity to our country team and aid for a traumatised population.
But the airport was closed, roads and bridges damaged, and tonnes of rubble are blocking the streets and alleys of Kathmandu. Water supply pipes, electricity generating substations, bridges, treatment plants – all these things will be affected, and food, water, fuel and medicines will be immediately in short supply. From today people will start skipping meals and relying on friends and relatives for support. Some will be moving to areas they consider more safe, where they will set up camps. Others will choose to stay close to their belongings and shattered homes, perhaps waiting for missing relatives. They will start selling assets in “distress sales”. They will use what food, cash and property they have just to get by. They will start borrowing. Many poor Nepalese will already be in debt.
Why was the earthquake in Nepal such a devastating event?
All these contingencies and actions are described in Oxfam’s programme plans for exactly this kind of eventuality. It has invested a lot of time, effort and resources over the years in working with partner groups in Nepal on what we call “disaster risk reduction” programmes. All of this work will be severely tested over the coming days and weeks and months. I know many of these groups as knowledgeable, networked and committed from having working alongside them.
But in the first night since the earthquake struck, of course, all these same men and women, and their children too, have been sleeping out in the open. The challenge of mounting a coordinated aid effort led and directed by local officials and organisations will be huge.
Nepal will benefit from much international goodwill. The interest of governments and citizens from donor countries who want to help will be substantial. The country is a popular tourist destination in the shadow of Mount Everest and the Himalayan mountains. Its Gurkha soldiers are famous.
In the meantime, however, local people – medical staff, local officials, local aid workers and affected communities – will be striving to help each other while trying to make sense of the chaos and destruction.