Humanitarian efforts are underway in Nepal after the South Asian nation was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake last Saturday — considered the strongest earthquake in the region in more than 80 years.
The destructive temblor that hit the capital Kathmandu and the nearby Lamjung district has resulted in an estimated 3,200 deaths and around 6,500 injuries. Millions of people have been displaced, while damage to property and a number of significant historical and cultural sites is expected to run into billions of dollars.
Officials from the country’s armed forces shared that search and rescue operations are continuing in the affected areas, although they are expecting that the death toll will continue to rise.
“[The figure] is expected to increase later on in the day,” Dibya Raj Prasai, a ranking officer from the Nepalese Army, told Devex. “Expected deaths, we guess, will rise and the current situation is horrible. Helicopters are being used in those remote areas, getting [provisions] needed by the people. We are also working on rescuing them.”
The army official told Devex that while efforts to provide relief and rescue have been steadily increasing with the support of bilateral partners and international organizations, numerous aftershocks and heavy rain and thunderstorms have hampered efforts.
Many thousands of people have stayed outside in the open for two consecutive nights, sheltering in tents provided by the government and other aid organizations — with their displacement exacerbated by near freezing temperatures at night that is feared will impact the health of the victims, particularly children and the elderly.
“The government is telling them that aftershocks are coming so they have to stay outside in a safe area,” said Prasai.
Meanwhile, the Nepalese authorities have officially requested international assistance to boost search and rescue efforts, as well as the provision of humanitarian relief. Some 35 of the country’s 75 districts are reported to be affected, according to the latest data from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Assistance and challenges
Hours after the devastating quake, international organizations including Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children have deployed relief teams on the ground — but accessing remote areas in this early stage of the response remains a significant challenge.
“Oxfam is providing support to get water on site, as well as with logistics and getting some shelter,” Cecilia Keizer, Oxfam country director for Nepal, said in an interview. “It is difficult to reach the most affected areas like Ghorka and Lamjung because there are no roads.”
Some of the most pressing needs among the affected population include food, water, medicine, shelter and electricity. U.N. OCHA clarified that five shelter camps with water supplies have been established, while 16 open spaces are being used as camps.
At the time of writing, World Vision has provided in excess of 1,000 tarpaulins and 600 blankets in Bhaktapur, one of the worst hit communities, with an initial goal of helping 100,000 people — some 20,000 households — in the worst-affected areas.
“Visibility and access is expected to be impaired, especially in remote areas, further hampering search and rescue efforts,” Liz Satow, World Vision’s national director in Nepal, told Devex. “Any delays will impact affected children and communities even more.”
This is echoed by Devendra Tak, media manager at Save the Children in India who is in Kathmandu for relief operations. The biggest pitfall that the international community should avoid, Tak shared, is to focus only on certain areas like Kathmandu at the expense of others, since there is “very little information” coming in from other neighboring towns that might affect organizations’ assessment of the situation on the ground.
Prasai also shared that one of the biggest issues facing response teams is the lack of capacity at hospitals to treat the injured and house the dead — something he hopes the international development community can act upon immediately to prevent further complications.
“There is lots of help from outside and they are trying to make it easy for the people, but what we need is hospital space because hospitals in Kathmandu are full of people,” the army official explained. “There are so many people [needing medical assistance]. Hospitals cannot accommodate all of them, so they are treating people on the ground.”
The latest U.N. OCHA situation report has confirmed that the Nepalese government has officially requested medical supplies and tents for makeshift hospitals, as well as body bags for the dead.
Caught off guard?
There have been a number of reports stating that a strong earthquake in Nepal has long been expected. But was the nation caught off guard by the sheer intensity of the deadly quake?
While preparations have been made, Prasai shared that the government and other stakeholders didn’t expect that the extent of the damage would be on such a massive scale. He shared that part of the preparations included information awareness programs that informed people “what to do, what not to do, how to build a house that can resist an earthquake,” while also showing pupils and students how to react when an earthquake strikes.
Even neighboring countries like India have not been spared the devastating effects of the earthquake — both physically and psychologically. Anurag Agarwala, an entrepreneur from Siliguri in India, told Devex that more than the damage, “the fear of earthquake and major destruction has gripped everyone’s mind.”
“There is absolutely no doubt that both governments have completely been caught off guard,” he shared, saying that there were no disaster management training in his area despite it being classified as a high-risk zone. “This incident is an eye opener for everybody. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we provide a sustainable society.”
As for the next steps, Prasai concluded that authorities and its international partners “will continue delivering relief items to the people” and continue search and rescue operations for those currently trapped in their homes and other buildings.
What steps should be taken by the Nepalese authorities and its international partners to mitigate the effects of such a catastrophic quake? Have your say by leaving your comments below.
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