Lessons from Nepal’s 2015 Earthquake – Part III

David James Molden
Eklabya Sharma
Gopilal Acharya

Discussing a number of lessons learnt, this series of articles argue for a holistic approach to disaster preparedness and recovery, mainly focusing on the significance of livelihoods recovery. The authors also highlight the importance of cooperation and coordination among countries in the Himalayan region to improve understanding of seismic risks and prepare for earthquakes and their impacts. 

Safeguard vital infrastructure

Experiences from around the world have shown that economic losses are substantially reduced if vital infrastructure like schools and hospitals remain safe from the disaster. While schools act as temporary shelters for displaced people, hospitals provide essential services to those injured or hurt in the disaster. However, both schools and hospitals should have sound emergency power and communications systems to deal with what is most often a chaotic situation. While the exact number of schools and other educational institutes damaged by the earthquake was not immediately known, it was reported that the total damages and losses in the education sector was estimated at NPR 31.3 billion. The damages to educational infrastructure and physical asset were estimated at NPR 28 billion (NPC, 2015). Further, educational services in the affected districts were severely disrupted with most schools remaining closed for a number of months following the earthquake. It was later found that out of 35,000 public and private schools, only about 350 to 400 were retrofitted (NDRRIP, 2015). The schools that were retrofitted with earthquake-proof technology actually did survive the disaster. The death toll among schoolchildren would have been significant if earthquake had struck on a school day instead of a Saturday, the day when schools remain closed in Nepal.

A total of 446 public health facilities (including 5 hospitals, 12 primary health care centres, 417 health posts, and 12 others) and 16 private facilities were completely destroyed, and another 765 health facilities or administrative structures were partially damaged. Further, nearly 84 percent of the completely damaged health facilities were in the 14 most affected districts (NPC, 2015). This severely affected the reach and response to healthcare needs of the affected people, and already vulnerable populations were deprived of access to timely healthcare services. If healthcare facilities are retrofitted and remain unaffected by disasters, they would be better prepared to deal with the injuries as well reach well-coordinated services to the affected populace. All this calls for a robust emergency plan in the health sector.

Improve coordination

Disasters unleash chaos in the absence of a preplanned coordination mechanism to deal with the aftermath. This is what happened in Nepal’s case following the earthquake. Coordination was lacking, roles were not clear, and much time and resources were lost in a disorganized relief and rescue effort. For example, responders on the ground didn’t know who to turn to for correct information, and foreign helicopter pilots had difficulty accessing crucial flight information. Indeed, one of ICIMOD’s first interventions was to assist helicopter pilots doing rescue and relief missions. From 29 April, a team of ICIMOD scientists worked from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu providing crucial flight information to pilots and dispatchers to help them navigate unfamiliar terrain, identify destinations, map potential flight paths, and plan appropriate landing sites using satellite remote sensing and GIS data information.

Therefore, a coordinated but decentralized response mechanism is what governments need in disasters like the one Nepal faced. The mechanism has to take into account that hundreds of government agencies, security forces, non-state actors, charities, NGOs, private sector, faith groups, and volunteers turn up for action following a disaster, and coordinating them for effective services delivery becomes a massive task. Moreover, response to disasters like the Nepal earthquake warrants regional and internal collaboration. Here too ICIMOD’s geo-hazards task force played a critical role bringing together a broad international coalition representing the Governments of India (Indian Space Research Organization), Pakistan (Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission), China (Chinese Academy of Sciences), and Nepal, as well as other bodies like the National Aerospace and Space Administration, the University of Arizona, United States Agency for International Development, Environmental System Research Institute, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Digital Globe, US Geological Survey, and signatories to the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, among others. The task force worked around the clock to process and analyse satellite data to inform relief and recovery operations. The task force later prepared a Status Report focusing mainly on landslides and glacial lakes.

It is important to keep pace with emerging technologies and innovations in disaster response, and the tools must be customized so that they can be effectively used in the mountain context. To this effect ICIMOD, in close collaboration with Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs and with technical support from Esri developed and deployed a ‘Nepal Earthquake 2015: Disaster Relief and Recovery Information Platform’ (http://apps.geoportal.icimod.org/ndrrip/). The Platform was formally integrated by the Ministry of Home Affairs as part of its own ‘Nepal DRR Portal’. The Platform was created as a single-gateway for validated data and information related to the earthquake to enable judicious planning and decision-making on resource allocation and mobilization and foster coordination among various actors on the ground.

Strengthen preparedness

One of the lessons we learn after each disaster is that preparedness is critical and necessary safeguards must be put in place. Approach to preparedness in the mountain areas should be different, keeping in mind access infrastructures (helicopters landing sites, bridges, roads, etc.), mountain hazards (weather forecasting and early warning systems) and good information systems. Such an approach should be developed for all the mountain areas of the Himalayan Arc. Preparedness must take into account other forms of disasters in the region and accordingly prepare the responses. For example, flood situations would require a totally different kind of response and interventions.

Drills and simulations must be conducted and communities must be involved in mapping risk and writing disaster management plans. Safe settlement areas must be identified and hazard-prone areas zoned. Safe areas for food and seed storage must be identified, and community resilience models and strategies must be implemented. Vital go-kits must be distributed, public awareness should be raised, and emergency plans must be rehearsed.

Contributed by David Molden, Eklabya Sharma, Gopilal Acharya 

David Molden (PhD) is the Director General of Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD); Eklabya Sharma (PhD) is ICIMOD’s Director of Programme Operations; Gopilal Acharya (formerly ICIMOD’s Communications Specialist) is a Thimphu-based independent consultant.

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