Our Perspectives

Seeing disaster risk first hand in Nepal


Damaged roads in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Valley following the 25 April earthquakeRoads are damaged in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Valley following the 25 April earthquake. Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhus / UNDP Nepal

On the morning of Saturday, 25 April I was at a restaurant in Kathmandu when I felt a mild vibration of the floor similar to the one felt by the movement of a heavy vehicle. Before I could make out what it was, the vibrations became intense and the waiter just ran out the door of the 2nd floor restaurant. I immediately followed him, sprinting down the stairs.  As the shaking became vigorous, I wasn’t able to stand any more. Somehow I managed to sit on the floor, slide down to ground floor, and escape to the middle of the road, away from the buildings.

All of this happened in a very short time, without any early warning. People were still rushing out to the road and one could see the panic on everyone’s faces. Traffic came to a halt while people waited in the middle of the road. Everyone seemed to know to run to an open space during an earthquake and I, amongst many, remained on the road for the next 4 hours. Later, on the way back to my hotel, I saw cracks in the roads and heard about the collapse of buildings in different parts of the city.

Ironically, I was in Nepal to work with the Government and partners on disaster risk reduction (DRR). I had no idea how up close and personal I was going to get to the subject matter.

I had arrived in Kathmandu on 23 April to assist the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium – a grouping of international partners, including UNDP, led by the Government – to take stock of all the work done so far on assessing disaster risks (including earthquakes, landslides, and floods). The idea was that after completing this stocktaking and analysis, we would know better what already existed in Nepal and what gaps need to be addressed to reduce risks and minimize losses from future disasters.   

While a great deal of work has been done in Nepal these last several years, the tragedy showed that there remains much more to be done.

That night was a difficult one. I, along with many others, spent it outside. While safer than we would be inside, it was still impossible to sleep while the ground continued to shift beneath us. As the sun rose the next morning, both locals and international visitors rushed to the airport, only to find that the airport was closed due to tremors and some flights had been turned away or landed elsewhere outside Nepal.

After the earthquake, I was immediately asked to help UNDP Nepal respond to the earthquake. As all staff members and their families were affected by the earthquake, they were asked to first attend to their families to ensure their safety and well-being. I in turn helped the UNDP Nepal office to organize itself so that it could immediately start assisting the government in putting together programmes for providing immediate assistance and laying the foundation for a long-term recovery.

While I have spent years working in DRR, there is little that can prepare you emotionally for that moment. The experience in Nepal taught me lessons about seismic risk, and brought home the reality of how quickly and harshly an earthquake can hit. I am grateful to be alive and saddened by all of the others who perished or lost loved ones.

It is clear that much more work needs to be done to protect people against future risks in Nepal. Better infrastructure, adherence to building codes, and more awareness about earthquake safety and preparedness around the places where we live, shop and eat (closer to ground floors or on a higher floor inside a weak building, near open spaces or inside narrow alleys) can make a big difference to what happens in an earthquake and can affect one’s survival.

The 25 April earthquake exposed the weaknesses in our development practices and now we have the opportunity to ‘build-back-better’ to ensure that we do not lose valuable human lives and incur losses when a similar earthquake strikes Nepal in the future.

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