As images of a devastating earthquake in Nepal kept trickling in across the television screens, the death toll quietly climbed to 2,200 by Sunday. The toll continues to rise as harrowed disaster management professionals struggle to make sense of the full scale of the disaster, which has devastated Nepal. Saturday’s earthquake, which had its epicenter outside Kathmandu, was the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in 80 odd years. The earthquake which occurred around noon swept the densely populated Kathmandu valley and then quickly spread north towards the Himalayas and Tibet. At 7.8 on the Richter scale, this was an immensely powerful earthquake – and its source was a mere 11km below ground. Experts say the earthquake happened due to the Indian tectonic plate driving beneath the Eurasian plate, along the fault line that defines the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Because the quake originated so close to the ground level, its impact was amplified considerably.
The high seismic activity combined ominously with the poor structural qualities of buildings in Kathmandu to unleash a wave of deaths in the densely populated area, with most deaths occurring due to people getting crushed under the debris of collapsed buildings. Post the quake, the residents of Kathmandu did not get a moment’s reprieve, as aftershocks continued to ripple through Kathmandu, even on Sunday afternoon. Thousands of Kathmandu’s residents were forced to spend an uncomfortable night sleeping in the open, shivering in the cold and rain, out of fear of going back to whatever was left of their homes. Most areas were without power and water. The United Nations said hospitals in the Valley were overcrowded, and running out of emergency supplies and space to store corpses. Away from the crowded environs of Kathmandu valley, in the isolated and pristine heights of Mount Everest, climbers on the world’s highest mountain pleaded for help after the massive earthquake in Nepal triggered an avalanche at Everest base camp, killing at least 10 people and sparking panic.
The impact of the earthquake lessened as one traveled further away from the valley. Amidst the aftershocks and dead bodies trapped in the debris of collapsed buildings, rescue teams were significantly hampered in their efforts due to landslides along major routes. Relief efforts were marred by a collapse in the entire communication infrastructure of the Kathmandu valley in one fell swoop. Further adding to the chaos was the lack of coherent response from government officials. There are reports that the government of Nepal is looking to quickly set up a unified disaster management authority, which can act as a single-window clearance mechanism for all rescue efforts.
Meanwhile, the earthquake did not spare India either. So far, 62 people have died and 237 have been injured in the three states bordering Nepal -- Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. What was perhaps heartening in the whole situation was the lightning speed with which various countries, including India, responded to the situation. India dispatched a military plane and disaster management personnel to Nepal. India also sent sniffer dogs, equipment to cut through rubble and experts on collapsed structures to Nepal. The US pledged $1m to the aid effort and said it would send a disaster response team, and Sri Lanka sent a plane with doctors, engineers and other supplies. Britain has sent a team of experts and a 68-strong search and rescue team from China has already arrived in Nepal.
The first 72 hours will be critical for Nepal, which was jolted by the biggest earthquake since 1934. After the first three days, the chances of finding survivors decrease. There’s also the risk that with so many people with massive and traumatic injuries, those with seemingly minor injuries won’t receive the desired level of medical attention. Another huge challenge is logistics, as highlighted by the United Nations in a situations report. Nepal has a notoriously mountainous terrain, in which scraggly, rocky roads circle around giant hills. On regular days, access in and out of towns can easily be obstructed by rock falls and potholes -- but an earthquake can completely choke access. According to experts all early signs indicate that this is just a tip of the iceberg of the widespread humanitarian disaster, which has probably hit the region. Nepal will and should get all the help the global community can provide at its moment of crisis.