A massive earthquake — the country’s worst in 80 years — rocked Nepal on Saturday. The death toll from the devastating calamity climbed above 4,000 on Monday and was continuing to rise as locals struggled to assess the full scale of the disaster and people hurried to provide desperately needed aid. The whole world is watching this tragedy unfold with a broken hearth for Nepal as the Himalayan nation tries to rebuilt itself bit by bit. The Baltic Review interviewed victims, officials and experts, to make sense of the tragedy, but also to understand how the Alpine-Himalayan-Asian earthquake belt can better respond to natural calamities in the future.
The power of Social Media
I woke up on April 25th in the United States, checked the news and started crying. Headlines of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal flooded media outlets and social media. I immediately logged into my Facebook account to contact the friends I had made living in Kathmandu for five years – a city I left less than a month ago. I read that many buildings did not withstand the significant seismic event. Thousands of people had been reported dead. Many more were trapped.
The city’s main hospitals were overwhelmed by casualties. “Nurses in and around Bir hospital trauma center, please report immediately. Due to the lack of assistance, surgeries are on hold! If you know anyone who is a nurse please pass this message,” Max Dipesh Khatri, a social worker urged on social media. The total death toll was rising quickly as minutes passed by.
I tried to call my friends in vain. Through the Nepal Earthquake Facebook safety check I saw that most of them were marked as safe. They were OK. “We are fine. It’s crazy,” a close friend texted me after a couple of hours. “It was horrible. I’ve never been so scared in my entire life”. “I never felt so tiny as I am feeling right now. Today, there is no difference between the one who has nothing and the one who has millions,” friends tweeted.
In times when phone services are almost universally down and traditional communications channels hamstrung, online tools proved to be hugely beneficial in Nepal. People turned to social media to stay informed, locate loved ones, notify authorities and express support during the emergency. In an attempt to aid rescue efforts, Google has once again opened up its Person Finder tool – a simple crowd-sourced missing persons database first launched following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. At the time of writing, about 5800 records have been collected from Nepal and that number will likely continue to grow throughout the day.
“Even though many have no access to the Internet, the army found social media tools instrumental during the earthquake response,” Army spokesperson Brigadier General Jadish Chandra Pokharel, told the Baltic Review. “The situation is critical outside the capital as rescuers struggle to reach rural communities.”
Several groups have been established to use social media and crowd sourcing information to account for so far missing people. A Facebook page has been created, where people from Nepal or foreigners who have friends, relatives currently in the country are posting information but also asking for help.
“People stay united and Nepal will stay strong”
By the time I got some news, I was shaken by more of just the earthquake. I kept thinking about the uncertain future all this held for Nepal. The quake caused dozens of buildings in Kathmandu to collapse, including several UNESCO world heritage sites, and triggered avalanches on Mount Everest. These were sources of national pride, but also of tourism – crucial to the country’s weak economy.
Some of my friends told me via Facebook message that they were facing a night on the streets with nowhere to go, others were in the middle of the road out of fear for aftershocks. They were sticking together, posting pictures of the tragedy on social media and sharing links to donate money to charities that had an established presence on the ground. They had lost count of the number of shakes.
The houses their families had spent a whole lifetime building, were now destroyed, together with the hope of overcoming the financial vulnerability they had faced for generations. It was already night in Nepal when I was talking to them, but rescuers continued to dig through the rubble – mostly barehanded. They wouldn’t stop because this is what Nepalese people do; they help each other out. Nepal isn’t giving up. “People stay united and Nepal will stay strong,” I read on social media.
“Community came together to help out in my neighborhood as we all rushed to set up temporary camps and sleeping arrangements. Security forces were out and about to check on the neighborhood multiple times too,” Utsav Shakya, told the Baltic Review. “Walls folded like a house of cards”. Shoulder to shoulder, donating energy and time, everybody was working together for a common goal: saving lives. “I saw the real faces of my people: brotherhood, dedication, selflessness and humbleness,” wrote Asteek Nistelrooy Baral on his Facebook wall.
Drop, Cover and Hold
On the ground reports from across the country could be viewed via renowned Nepali writer, Manjushree Thapa’s Nepal Twitter list. It became increasingly evident that authorities were ill-equipped and had trouble maintaining adequate supplies of basic necessities.
“The environment is that of fear where people don’t know what to do and what to expect. People have gathered in groups of close relatives, neighbors and friends, helping each other out with food, water and other immediate supplies,” Jay Paudel, founder of Stories of Nepal, a platform inspired by Humans of New York, sharing stories of everyday people in the Himalayan nation, told the Baltic Review. Where he was, government assistance was nowhere to be seen. He noted a rise in the price of everyday needs.
“Though people have come together and it’s great to see humanity rise from the rubble, I also saw people looting pipes and tents; burning woods carrying historical and architectural value to cook,” Paudel added.
I begun remembering the streets I used to walk on every day. I would wake up with the sounds of devotees praying at the nearby temple. I was lucky to witness the beauty of the country, the warmth of its people and the complexity of its history. As I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and realized the extent of the damage, the nightmare scenario experts had been warning Nepal about had materialized. The massive destruction, the loss of lives, and the million-dollar question of what was going to happen next. And just when you thought that things were getting better, the Kathmandu area was struck by a magnitude 6.7 aftershock, a day after the massive earthquake.
With friends we would often talk about the eventuality of an earthquake. You didn’t want to think about it, but you knew it was coming; the only question was when. But if the topic wasn’t a taboo in my entourage, it was in many others. I still remember talking about it with a family in a Kathmandu slum last year. They wouldn’t believe me when I told them that the city was one of the earth’s most quake-prone areas. I had to show them an article on my smartphone. This unveils the deep inequalities inherent in the Nepali society, and raises questions of who is responsible for people’s earthquake education. Although the majority of the population was not ignorant, some were. Today, my thoughts are with every Nepali, in particular with those who had no idea of what to do post-earthquake. With all those families that didn’t even know that they had to “Drop, Cover, and Hold On”.
Was the government prepared?
Previous calamities had failed to spur the government into action. Seismologists and disaster experts had been warning that another big earthquake was looming. They repeatedly urged authorities to “wake up” to the dangers posed by such calamities as risks grew for the population of 30 million.
We would read articles on newspapers about it on a weekly basis. But more than 80 years after Nepal suffered its worst recorded earthquake, which measured 8.4 on the ritcher scale, destroyed more than 80,000 buildings and claimed 8,500 lives, many argued that Nepal was not better prepared.
The truth is that we knew that if an earthquake was going to hit this was going to happen. This was going to happen because despite the increase in disaster preparedness awareness, a Nepali family would have never left its non-earthquake proof house. To go where? This was going to happen because protracted political instability has weakened risk-proofing potential, investment in disaster management and effective preparedness. And all of this was no secret. Nepal’s entire model for development – for which the country receives nearly US$1 billion per year in foreign aid – was unprepared to reduce and respond to these devastating effects.
“People are out on the streets, terrified. The truth is that we lack proper equipment, capacity and coordination between different rescue operations,” Khadga Sen Oli, Advocacy and Outreach Manager, at the National Society for Earthquake Technology Nepal (NSET) told the Baltic Review.
Rebuilding a nation
Just last week a group of 50 earthquake specialists gathered in Kathmandu in the framework of the project Earthquakes Without Frontiers (EwF) to try to figure out how the country could prepare for the major earthquake they feared was imminent.
James Jackson, head of the earth sciences department at the University of Cambridge, who was at the meeting, told the Baltic Review that despite the current state of scientific knowledge which is unable to predict or forecast the time or dates of earthquakes, “the understanding that Kathmandu was at considerable risk has been a well-publicized fact for many decades, certainly since the last very big one in 1934”.
According to Jackson, organizations such as the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) and the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA) have been working very hard for some time to raise awareness and sponsor practical involvement in reducing earthquake risk, such as retrofitting schools, promoting preparedness, training of masons, and education.
“Both were trying their best to make a difference and, in my view, succeeding in a modest and small step-at-a-time way,” Jackson said. A Nepal earthquake has long been dreaded, not just because of the natural seismic fault, but also because of the human conditions that make it worse.
Geohazards International, a group that works to try to minimize earthquake risks around the world, updated a report earlier this month that detailed the dangers that were present in Kathmandu. “A person living in Kathmandu is about nine times more likely to be killed by an earthquake than a person living in Islamabad and about 60 times more likely than a person living in Tokyo,” noted the report.
In terms of per capita casualty risk, the Kathmandu valley, with its topography, declining or non-existent construction standards and haphazard urban development, is considered among the most dangerous places in the world.
“With an annual population growth rate of 6.5 percent and one of the highest urban densities in the world, the 1.5 million people living in the Katmandu Valley were clearly facing a serious and growing earthquake risk.”
Although Nepal was making progress on reducing its vulnerability to earthquakes, experts believe that the gains were not quick or meaningful enough.
Jackson told the Baltic Review that the difficulty faced by the government as well as organizations in Nepal, is in getting people to concentrate and invest in reducing earthquake risk, which seems remote, when they have everyday concerns common to Asian urban life that are much more real and pressing: like pollution, air and water quality, traffic and simply poverty.
“Those immediate priorities are understandable, but that doesn’t mean the earthquake threat will go away, as this tragedy has demonstrated. This is not a problem limited to Nepal and Kathmandu, but is common to most countries in the Alpine-Himalayan-Asian earthquake belt,” Jackson argued.
Many countries and international charities have offered aid to Nepal to deal with the disaster but major earthquakes struck the region about every 75 years. The tragedy sheds a light on the urgent need of increasing efforts in preparing the entire region for future earthquakes. This change must come from different directions: from the government and the civil society but also from citizens who must be prepared to face and react to the rage of nature.
The city has not been completely flattened as ShakeMap shows. Nepal is struggling to come to terms with the large-scale devastation but there is still hope. I have lived long enough in the country to know that the Nepalese people will rebuild their lives, their buildings and their future. Brick by brick. Stay strong Nepal.
To know how help victims of the Nepal earthquake click here.