Lessening the pain of Earthquake affected communities

The number of people dead or affected by earthquake in Nepal has been increasing every day. It seems 10-15 thousand people might have lost their lives; ten to twenty times more have been hurt and traumatized.  There are obviously a lot of mistakes which have been committed in preparing for the disaster in one of the most vulnerable regions. But our own preparedness may not be too good. Let me summarize some of the lessons once again that we have refused to learn from the Gujarat earthquake 2001.

Soon after relief material started arriving at airport, the administration had faced a challenge of organising inventory, managing supply chain and distribution mapping and tracking problem. Lot of material was lying unsorted, stacked and inventorised. Several students and faculty from IIMA offered to help and within 24 hours, a software code was written to track the distribution of materials.  Despite availability of GIS maps, we could not integrate the sourcing and distribution system with GIS-enabled maps due to security concerns in Kutch. But in the age of Google Maps, I am not sure how much sensitive we should be even in border regions. Such software applications should be available in open-source in every major city and community in the world.  Can we claim that to be the case in every district of the country? Ask the NDMA! In the absence of such an MIS, too much  relief material may reach some villages while others may be completely left out, with no way of systematic accountability. The relief coordinators in Kathmandu are facing a big challenge just now in the absence of such a MIS. It is not too late to do so.

In the first 24-48 hours, and in many places even for next 4-5 days, the main tools for managing the crisis and saving lives is crossbar, spade hammer, chisel etc. Every community should keep record of such tools because these are needed urgently. Ideally, when people run out of house, carry some of these with you if possible without losing much time. A stock of these tools can also be kept in a school or common place.

The electricity and telecommunications were restored within 2-3 days in Kutch which was a great help in providing relief.  The ham radio operators had set up a control room immediately at the state headquarters. When it came to providing water, lot of water pouches were distributed which created environmental havoc. Most of water tanks had cracked and thus there was nothing in which water could be stored. Plastic tanks were quickly mobilized and distributed to get over this problem. The construction codes are  flouted with impunity. In China when children died in a school poorly constructed, severe action followed due to community protest.

Food packets were assembled by packing sugar, tea, milk and some snacks in one packet so that each household could be given a packet rather than some getting only part of the material. A very large stock of old clothes was sent by people from all over the country forgetting that disaster struck people also have self-respect.  Sending unwashed, un-ironed, and sometime outright dirty cloths was like rubbing salt in the wound. Much of it was wasted and thrown away.

Lot of fractures had to be bandaged without x-ray. Mobile x-ray machines were not easily available and where these were available, there weren’t enough X-ray plates. A control room was set up in IIMA to assist about 200 voluntary organizations. There were several such groups which were trying to help communities in distress. People will send a truckload of things to reach in the middle of the night and then volunteers were needed to unload the truck, sort out the things and stack them in meaningful way. Much of it could be done though volunteers in the Institute and outside. A close coordination among army, air force, state government and civil society was the most impressive feature of relief activity. In fact, as I mentioned at Army Headquarters in a seminar on lessons of disaster management, the super-efficient Indian army somehow did not put enough pressure on civic administration to rise to the occasion with the similar alacrity and efficiency. The State seems to have accepted that army will manage and thus they did not have to have as many preparatory drills and skills, databases and distributed network as needed.A database of volunteers (see sristi.org/dmis) could come in handy. First person who volunteered when we launched the site was a retired fire brigade professional, how relevant.

There was also an  unfortunate spectacle of disaster tourism. Many people rushed to the sites of disaster choking roads and creating miles long traffic jams and slowing down the movement of relief materials. Such eventualities have to be avoided.

Let me hope that many institutions will not avoid mock drills and thus get caught unaware in the event of an actual disaster. Nepal had been warned only a few months ago in an international meet about serious hazard proneness of the place. But social inertia is not easy to overcome. Maybe we should all ask ourselves when did we have last the drill, what were of lessons learned and are we better prepared now.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place