After the quakeThe problem is not a paucity of relief material but quickly getting them to all the places they are needed.
The immediate post-quake response of state agencies was mostly on target. The magnitude 6.4 earthquake that struck Western Nepal late on Friday caught the locals unawares. As of this writing, at least 157 people have died in Jajarkot and Rukum West districts while 208 remain injured. One reason human casualties were high was because most people were asleep at the time. The prime minister quickly flew to the region to take stock of the situation, all three security agencies were promptly mobilised, and other related agencies also swung into action. Health professionals from around the country had started descending on ground zero by the next morning. This swift response can be attributed to the learning from the 2015 earthquakes and the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to coordinating efforts and pooling resources in times of crisis. On Sunday, the federal government decided to begin relief and rescue, including arranging shelter, food and security requirements of those displaced. The rebuilding of vital infrastructure that was destroyed by the earthquake is to be completed within a year alongside the identification of safe places for resettlement of the uprooted families.
Yet while the post-quake response was decent enough, the same cannot be said of preventive measures to ensure people’s safety. Eight years after the devastating 2015 quakes, building codes are being openly flouted even in urban centres, never mind far-flung districts like Jajarkot and Rukum West where many of the houses that fell and killed people on Friday were built with mud and zero engineering input. Many families in the affected areas did not seem to know even the basic safety measures to be taken after a big earthquake. For instance, many of them went back into their cracked homes immediately after initial tremors stopped, not knowing that big quakes are often followed by aftershocks. This again highlights the abysmal level of earthquake awareness in a country that is historically prone to massive temblors. As the experts on earthquakes like to say, it is not the shaking that kills people but shoddy construction. An M6.4 earthquake is classified as ‘moderate’, in that it should not cause much structural damage. But that is clearly not the case in Jajarkot, Rolpa West or most of the western half of the country.
Hopefully, Friday’s earthquake will act as enough of a reminder for the state as well as people living in earthquake-prone regions to take the importance of building resilient homes seriously. But that is something that calls for a long-term outlook. Immediately, the focus should be on arranging temporary shelters and food for the displaced families. As of Sunday evening, no relief material had reached remote affected villages in the region. The government has decided to accept help from all those who are willing to contribute to the noble cause. At the outset, it looks like the problem will not be a paucity of relief material but quickly getting them to all the places they are needed. Another big challenge in the coming weeks and months will be to ensure safe and sanitary shelters for all the displaced families and forestall the outbreaks of communicable diseases.