Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Seeing into the future - Kathmandu's nightmare

Last week I had the opportunity and privilege to spend time in beautiful, crazy Kathmandu. We were there as part of a gathering of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from all over Asia Pacific. Colleagues from as far afield as North Korea, Mongolia, Maldives, Philippines, China, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Australia, Thailand and East Timor, to name a few, were working together to try and improve our emergency response and preparedness.

Fail to prepare - prepare to fail, is what Roy Keane used to mantra all the time. And of course he's right. But in Kathmandu's case the future will inform us on the usefulness of foresight. We know for instance that Kathmandu tops the list of the world's most at risk cities in danger of being stricken by an earthquake.

Seismologists are certain. Indeed they agree that it is overdue and that the longer time passes without it happening the worse it is going to be. Right now there is general agreement that the would-be quake will register 8 or more on the Richter scale i.e. about ten times harder than Haiti's horrible quake. And this will happen in a city of 2.5 million people living in cramped, poorly constructed homes, with little or no awareness of the imminent dangers.

Aid agencies believe that the one-strip runway will be destroyed and rendered useless, possibly for weeks. Even if it isn't its capacity to cope with the aid that will be required is worse than Haiti's (which could take four planes an hour - and only if it had the resources at hand to unload the cargo fast enough - you may remember that particular controversy) - but Haiti had ports and Kathmandu is landlocked, mountainous, inhospitable terrain - especially for a massively urgent aid operation. Logistics experts who know the region say Kathmandu could be cut-off for more than one month.

Casualties in Kathmandu are expected to be huge, some say that they will 'incapacitate' 70% of potential workforce (working to rescue, evacuate, support the injured etc.). There are plans to evacuate survivors to flat areas which are safer from aftershocks and more accessible for air-drops and so forth. The only problem here of course is that most of these areas are high in the mountains far from any services such as water and sanitation.

These are the type of reality-based conundrums that local government, civil society organizations and other actors such as ourselves are trying to get our heads around in Kathmandu (and in Delhi, Istanbul, Tehran, Ecuador, Manila and other hot spots). Preparing now to mitigate loss of life and injury is important but massively complex. Preparing for the response likewise. It doesn't bear thinking about but think about it we must.



  1. Good post, Paul, but you stopped short of answering the question: what's being done, especially at the official/government level? Is there anyone in charge of disaster preparedness? Does the country (or capital) have a disaster preparedness plan? And if not, is the Red Cross and/or anyone else trying to nudge the government in that direction? Are there any developing countries in Asia-Pacific that have decent disaster preparedness plans? Is there an organization anywhere on earth that has created or can create a ready-to-serve disaster preparedness template for developing countries? I imagine that to develop something that would give countries/governments a good head start on the problem would not be difficult. Is anyone doing it? And if not, where's the starting point for setting that up?

  2. Thx for the comment Roberto and of course all your questions are pertinent. I did not dive in too deep in a blog post but merely focused on the dilemma faced by a country/community that knows it will be hit by a massive earthquake and how that knowledge can somehow overwhelm. In Nepals case there is serious amount of work being done but the feeling is nevertheless because of its location, poor infrastructure, overcrowded capital city, remoteness and so on, that any mitigation that may be achieved by preparedness will be limited (some would say, marginal) and the response will be massively complex and challenging - we won't basically know how complex until afterwards as seismology is not an exact science. There is also the unknown factor of what other natural calamities might be triggered by a massive earthquake, esp. landslides and floods. Having said that, the Nepal RC, with our support, is actively engaged in the following in an attempt to strengthen its future disaster responses operations for flood/landslide, fire, and earthquakes:
    • Warehouse Management
    • Institutional Disaster Preparedness/Human Resource Development
    • Community Based Disaster Preparedness (CBDP) program:
    • Earthquake preparedness program
    • Disaster Risk Reduction through Schools/academic institutions
    • Flood Mitigation Program
    • Publication of Information Education & Communication (IEC) interventions for risk
    • Population Movement Program (IDPs and Refugee Assistance program)
    • Reconstruction and Rehabilitation program:
    • Coordination, Advocacy and Networking activities

  3. Incredible, just found your blog and your pictures and accounts are incredible. I will be stopping by often.

  4. PAUL, AN INTRESTING POSTING. I was the first Red Cross delegate there in 1975, a DP delegate funded by the Swedish Red Cross. I often walked for ten days at a stretch to reach the remote branches. We started training all 72 branches on preparedness for earthquake, mudslides, floods etc., and over the next 35 years this training and preparedness continued at RC and Government level. We built zone warehouses, district warehouses that are always well stocked. The people of Nepal are among the hardiest I have seen in my travels, and community resilience is unbelievably high. Dhaka, Kathmandu, Almaty and Wellington are all disaster cities waiting for an earthquke. Despite the population, the chaos, the disorganisation, I woiuld bet my bottom dollar the relient people of Nepal will survive an earthquake better that most other EQ prone capitals. Buildings in Kathmandu are more likely to twist, bend and buckle, rather than the totally collapsed building we saw in 2005 in Pakistan earthquake. Whe I was HoRD for 6 years in New Delhi I went to many meetings on the subject of an earthquake hitting the Kathmandu valley. It is good you are keeping this threat alive and being debated. Bob

  5. Just found your blog via Twitter and am following it now - interesting to see what's happening in the development field now - having been out of it for over a decade after two decades working for Irish/Swiss NGOs (LWF and Concern) and living in Africa and Asia. Drop by my blog if you like - it's a bit less focused than yours - and I am still interested in issues overseas. We lived in Laos and had Red Cross friends there - English woman and her hubby was from Pakistan I think. Worked closely with ICRC in Tanzania back in the Rwandan genocide. good to see what's going on in different parts of the world - only visited Nepal on hols from Bangladesh way back
    All the best, Catherine

  6. Mantra, a good word to use in a Buddhist country, is a noun, not a verb...

  7. @anonymous - works well as a verb too tho don't you think? As Chomsky said - language is about comprehension not rigid rules. To mantra preferable (to my ears at least) than a lot of current bastardisation jargon such as 'to workshop'.

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