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Disaster preparedness

Gabriel DomínguezApril 27, 2015

A powerful earthquake recently struck the Himalayan nation of Nepal - a poor country that has been plagued by political instability in recent years. How was the country prepared to deal with such a disaster? DW examines.

Emergency rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher after Dharara tower collapsed on April 25, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal (Photo:Omar Havana/Getty Images)
Image: Reuters/N. Chitrakar

Shortly before noon on Saturday, April 25, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck an area between the densely populated Nepalis capital, Kathmandu, and the city of Pokhara. The quake was the worst to hit the South Asian nation in more than 80 years, killing more than 5,000 people in the region and destroying infrastructure, homes and historic buildings.

To make matters worse, a series of strong aftershocks have jolted the region, causing further deaths and damage to the mountainous area, and sending people running from their homes in search of open spaces.

"The country is in a state of shock," eyewitnesses told DW.

As a result, tens of thousands of Nepalis have spent the night under a chilly sky afraid to return to their homes, while others have begun to flee Kathmandu, fearing shortages of food and water, and the spread of diseases.

25.04.2015 DW Karte online Nepal Indien China Bangladesch Mount Everest Erdbeben englisch
The quake was the worst to hit the South Asian nation in more than 80 years

However, some analysts point out that, at least in geological terms, this was a disaster waiting to happen. The quake resulted from a collision between the Indian and Eurasian seismic plates. Seismologists have found out that the Indian subcontinent is moving north at a speed of 45 millimeters (1.7 inches) a year under the Eurasian plate, thus building the Himalayan mountain range.

This fault line runs along Nepal's southern border and the constant friction between the plates eventually unleashes an enormous amount of energy in the form of earthquakes. In fact, according to a report by Nepal's National Society for Earthquake Technology, the seismic records of the region suggest that a major earthquake occurs approximately every 75 years, with previous tremor of such magnitude striking the region in 1934.

Panic and chaos

So how prepared were the Nepalis authorities for such a disaster? Three days after Saturday's quake, tens of thousands are still in need of aid as international relief efforts get underway. The United Nations says hospitals are overcrowded and running short of emergency supplies. Nepal has only 2.1 physicians and 50 hospital beds for every 10,000 people, according to a 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report.

While nearly the entire 100,000-soldier army has been involved in rescue operations, according to local officials, most open areas in Kathmandu are still crammed with people, sitting and waiting in a state of shock. There are also reports of jammed roads leading out of the Kathmandu Valley and of long queues at the airport with people desperate to get a flight out.

But especially in the minutes and hours after the 7.8 magnitude quake, the authorities and energy services seemed to have been simply overwhelmed, as George Varughese, a Kathmandu resident and Nepal country representative for The Asia Foundation, told DW.

"Following the event, it was well evident that preparations were really poor for triaging and moving casualties to treatment locations. Hospitals were overwhelmed quickly with the flood of casualties. Even if medicines and blood were in stock, there were insufficient trained personnel to dress wounds and provide nursing care. We had instances of students who went to donate blood, assisting to dress wounds and insert catheters."

'We were not prepared'

It ultimately took the government four days to admit that they weren't prepared to cope with such a disaster: "We were not prepared for a disaster of this scale," Interior Minister Bam Dev Gautam said. "We do not have enough resources and will need more time to reach out to everyone."

While Nepal has a national coordination center with several functionaries who can meet at short notice, Varughese pointed out that when events like this happen, the preparations appear inadequate for the activities required in the immediate aftermath.

"There has been a repeated failure of execution in this respect, from the Sunkoshi landslide and TS Hudhud to the Turkish Air mishap to the swine flu epidemic and the quake, all within one year," he said.

In order to fully comprehend the government's ability to respond one needs to take into account the current political and economic situation in Nepal - a nation with a population of some 28 million.

An impoverished country

With a total annual GDP of $20 billion last year, and an annual per capita GDP of only $1,000, Nepal has an extremely limited capacity to fund disaster relief and long-term reconstruction efforts, as Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the analytics firm IHS, told DW.

The standard of housing construction in the country is considered extremely low, which is why the damage to buildings has been extremely severe. In fact, a 2013 Nepal Disaster Report by the Ministry of Home Affairs had already warned that poor building practices undermining seismic resilience would severely affect major bridges and critical infrastructures in the event of an earthquake, thus "posing significant challenges for an immediate and effective response."

No constitution

And then there is the issue of political instability which has affected the country in recent years. Following the abolition of the Nepali centuries-old monarchy in 2008, the country elected a Constituent Assembly (CA), with the Maoists' political party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist (UCPN-M), winning a majority of the seats. However, the CA was dissolved four years later, mainly because of its inability to reach a consensus.

Nepal Menschen verlassen ihre Häuser nach Erdbeben in Bhaktapur
Tens of thousands of Nepalis have spent the night under a chilly sky afraid to return to their homesImage: Reuters/N.Chitrakar

In the subsequent November 2013 elections, the more conservative Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal–United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) overshadowed the UCPN-M and formed a coalition, temporarily alleviating the political deadlock in the Himalayan nation. However, the new CA also failed to meet the January 22 deadline as the main political parties squabbled amongst themselves over key issues, triggering civil unrest across the country.

According to Alison Evans, senior Asia analyst at IHS, this level of political instability has had a direct impact on the country's disaster preparedness. "In 2008, Nepal finalized its National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management, but the fractured political situation since then has prevented substantial progress towards implementation of, for example, more rigorous governance of building practices or wide-spread public awareness activities," Evans told DW.

Change needed

Evans is also of the view that the failure of the current CA to agree on a new constitution means that Nepal's political deadlock is likely to continue: "This is likely to hinder efforts to swiftly and effectively respond to this current disaster as well as efforts to enact policies in the next few years that would limit similarly widespread loss of life in the future."

Varughese has a similar view. He argues that while projects on disaster preparedness and management are operational in Nepal, such key public policy matters have been held hostage to the political situation centered on the development of a constitution.

Nepal Tumulte im Parlament 22.01.2015 Polizei vor dem Gebäude
The new CA failed to meet the deadline for drafting a new constitution this JanuaryImage: AFP/Getty Images/P. Mathema

"Having a constitution may have helped in that respect, by getting past the distraction of the constant wrangling and horse-trading. However, this would not have assured a proper execution of emergency plans," he said. What is important, he added, is that national security issues such as natural disasters are elevated to the apex level of government, for example, the prime minister's office with a super-empowered individual and supporting team.

Reconstruction costs

As for the structural damage caused by the earthquake, long-term reconstruction costs in Nepal - using proper building standards for an earthquake zone - could be more than $5 billion - according to an initial estimate by economist Biswas.

This would amount to approximately 20 percent of the country's GDP, meaning that it would need to be funded by bilateral assistance from donor nations and development financing agencies under the coordinated management of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.