How the UK was able to quickly mobilize aid to Nepal quake victims

By Gabriella Jóźwiak 05 May 2015

Humanitarian aid and equipment for special search and rescue operations arrive in Kathmandu from the United Kingdom, four days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25. The U.K. was able to send emergency support to Nepal within hours of the temblor. Photo by: Deepti Soni / FCO / CC BY 

Ten days have passed since Nepal was struck by a magnitude-7.8 earthquake, killing more than 7,600 people and affecting upward of 8 million — more than a quarter of the country’s population.

The U.K. Department for International Development deployed a team of humanitarian experts within hours of the April 25 temblor. A week later it confirmed a 22.8 million pound ($34.5 million) package of emergency aid, including more than 60 search and rescue responders, a 30-strong medical team, three Royal Air Force aircraft and 2.5 million pounds in funding for additional U.N. helicopters, and a 5.3 million pound aid support package for the United Nations following its flash appeal.

It also pledged to match the first 5 million pounds of public donations made to a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, provide 2 million pounds to the British Red Cross and release 3 million pounds under its Rapid Response Facility, which provides bilateral funding to nongovernmental organizations for humanitarian emergency responses.

Within a day of launching its Nepal Earthquake Appeal, DEC received 14 million pounds from the British public, triggering the DfID match funding, which brought the total to 19 million pounds. That amount has risen to 33 million pounds by May 2. DEC’s Head of Communications Brendan Paddy told Devex the overnight figure was among the highest the organization has ever seen, exceeding amounts raised in the first 24 hours for the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The money will be distributed to its 13 aid charity partners, which include ActionAid U.K., Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision.

Paddy said the appeal was successful because of Britain’s historic colonial connection with Nepal and its continued popularity as a tourist destination for hikers. Nepalese soldiers, known as Gurkhas, still serve in the British army — a tradition dating from the 1800s — and have been deployed to Nepal by the U.K. government to aid relief efforts.

“It’s a large earthquake that’s caused a lot of visually dramatic destruction and suffering, and that’s something people find shocking and moving,” he said.

Early preparations

The British Red Cross has worked with the Nepal Red Cross Society to prepare for such an earthquake in 66 vulnerable communities in the Kathmandu Valley since 2012. Nepal is ranked 11th among the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Before April’s temblor struck, the country’s National Society for Earthquake Technology had estimated a large-scale earthquake in Nepal would displace more than 1.8 million people, kill in excess of 100,000 and injure a further 300,000.

British Red Cross Disaster Response Officer Stephen Cox told Devex the preparations put in place were working. He said tens of thousands of local volunteers trained in emergency preparedness were helping with search and rescue efforts, administering emergency first aid and pulling people from the rubble.

“Around Kathmandu we have prepositioned around 18,000 nonfood item kits with things like blankets, tampons, buckets, hygiene kits and kitchen sets,” he explained. “These have started to be distributed to the affected population. The Nepal Red Cross Society also has access to other stocks and has been distributing oral rehydration salts, aqua tabs and tarpaulins to assist in the initial relief efforts.”

The stocks are kept in earthquake-resistant shipping containers located away from tall buildings, which could bury them during a quake. However, Cox said the number of kits was a “drop in the ocean” compared with the number of people needing assistance. “It’s good to make a start but it has to be followed up with large-scale international aid, which is what we’re trying to get in now.”

Cox said one of the main challenges aid organizations faced was access as Kathmandu airport was experiencing a flights backlog, and roads had been blocked by landslides. He also said local volunteers and aid workers were operating having potentially lost family members, friends and their homes in the disaster. As of April 29, the organization had confirmed two volunteers and one staff member had been killed.

The British Red Cross confirmed it will use DfID money to meet priorities outlined in an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies plan of action for Nepal. IFRC wants to raise 20 million pounds to meet the needs of 15,000 families over 18 months. Cox said this would buy interventions such as shelter, water and sanitation, medical, first aid, cash transfer programs and emergency response units.

“Specifically we would like DfID’s funding to cover cash transfer programming and shelter,” he said. “We’re expecting that 20 million pound figure to double or triple in the coming weeks because it’s such a huge operation.”

Response on the ground

Smaller British NGOs have also contributed to the earthquake response, including Search And Rescue Assistance In Disasters. SARAID is a U.N.-recognized search and rescue team funded by charitable donations. After receiving a U.N. call for help after the quake, it sent 15 search and rescue experts to Kathmandu.

U.K. coordinator Rob Davis said it was likely his staff would be working at the scene for up to 20 days.

“The window for survivability for someone trapped under a collapsed building is normally 15 days,” he said. Using search technology, including sensitive sound location equipment, carbon dioxide probes and dogs, staff members have scoured the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors.

“They’re also using fiber optic probes, drilling holes in structures and sending camera equipment in to have a look around,” Davis described. So far, his team had only recovered dead bodies, but “hope is always there.”

Development implementer Crown Agents is also responding to the disaster both on the ground in Nepal and from London. It has an embedded team of operations staff at DfID who provide emergency humanitarian response services. Consultancy Director Jonathan Borsley told Devex that Crown Agents is supporting DfID’s efforts in the country in the immediate and long-term response through “logistics, coordination (and it’s important that it’s led by the government or the U.N.), prioritization and rebuilding.”

Before the earthquake, Crown Agents was working on a DfID-funded public financial management project in Nepal to assess the capability of national systems to make more efficient use of aid funding.

“In that vein, a role we could have in the longer term work would focus on the fiduciary risk element of the response work, making sure that the response money is spent properly,” Borsley added.

In a statement released over the weekend, Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening said Britain would provide charities on the ground with fast-tracked funding, and help the U.N. coordinate the relief effort to “ensure everyone affected by this disaster continues to get the support they need.”

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About the author

Gabriella jozwiak profile
Gabriella Jóźwiak@GabriellaJ

Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.


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