The news on Saturday came as a bombshell – although not a total surprise. All of us who work or have worked in Nepal are aware of the earthquake risk, and there had been predictions of “a big one” for some time. Yet of course it’s never known exactly when, where, or how big this might be. I was in Kathmandu myself in the last, relatively minor earthquake of 1988; the brief eerie silence immediately afterwards, followed by cries of fear, are not something I’ll forget.
The first thing when an event such as this occurs is to account for our own staff. We have a procedure for emergencies in which staff are regularly drilled – so everyone out of our 230 Nepali and five expatriate colleagues knew what to do and who to call. Luckily the mobile network coverage in Kathmandu and to the larger towns outside has remained functioning, so we knew very quickly that all Helvetas staff had survived. Some, though, are stranded in other parts of Nepal that they happened to be visiting when the earthquake struck. Ensuring safety remained a priority. Our country director Bharat Pokharel wrote early on the Sunday morning: “The earthquake was scary, frightening, terrifying. Everything was shaking around us. Buildings, electricity poles, trees were collapsing. The roads and old buildings were cracking apart. After shocks are still going on even after 24 hours. The streets and open field are full of people. There is so much tension, chaos and fearfulness. It is beyond anyone’s imagination…” He himself spent those two first nights camped outside his house with his family and neighbours, everyone too fearful to venture inside given the on-going tremors. There was no electricity or running water, and no possibility to buy food. He kept in contact by mobile phone, powered by his car battery, but wrote that in the midst of the fear, there was a lot of solidarity. People in each neighbourhood joined rescue efforts and pooled resources.
Meanwhile in Switzerland, our communications team was busy over the weekend providing information and starting an appeal. Whilst we are not at core a humanitarian organisation, when a disaster strikes any country in which we have a strong presence, we do whatever possible to support the immediate relief effort – and then reconstruction. Given our very large, long-standing programme in Nepal, we are particularly well placed to do this. Furthermore, having recently joined Alliance 2015, we have an immediate set of partners specialising in relief efforts.
By Monday evening in Kathmandu, our Nepal country programme management team of four had already spent the day organising next moves, coordinating with other agencies. Over the now restored landline (with running water and electricity also functioning again), Bharat reported progress. Supplies are arriving, and it is urgent to investigate the situation beyond Kathmandu valley, in the areas of where we work and that are known to be badly affected. A second large earthquake on Sunday occurred a little to the East of the first, so one team will go there, to Sindhupalanchok district. As a lot of relief efforts are likely to head to the Northwest, which was at the epicentre of the first quake, we will try to focus there in areas that are more remote, generally disadvantaged, and not served by other agencies. Coordination with the district authorities is also required; they are calling for a “one window” approach, working through the Chief District Officer and Police. This of course makes sense, although it may not always be fully compatible with speed in the immediate rescue effort.
The major concern is that all those after-shocks, over 80 in total, had a devastating effect on the mud and stone houses that are the norm in rural Nepal. Homes that withstood the first large shock crumbled afterwards. There are fears of huge numbers of people being homeless with the monsoon due to start in just a month or so; ensuring drinking water supplies and sanitation will be crucial.
In the Nepali language, it is common to make a play on rhyming words; one such couplet is “bikas binas”, literally, development destruction – with the implication that the two go hand in hand. The destruction has been huge, and years of development progress have been lost. It is still too soon to imagine how anything positive can come out of this disaster – but at least in the energy and positive spirit amongst our team in Nepal, there remains hope.