‘This year I did the Dashain puja in one corner of my relative’s home’

‘This year I did the Dashain puja in one corner of my relative’s home’

“This year I did the [Dashain] puja in one corner of my relative’s home. My home collapsed in the earthquake and my neighbour had to get me out of the rubble. In the last six months, I have had to move several times. The first night I slept under the open sky. The next day we collected plastic sheets lying around and made a small tent. Rescue teams then came in with different services and that’s when everyone started fighting for food and tents. Now, I live in this tent provided by one of the NGOs and this is what I have to call home.”

Photo: Namita Rao

‘Dashain used to have a different charm. It used to have happiness’

“Dashain used to have a different charm. It used to have happiness. But this year, we celebrated Dashain just for formality. Nepal faced a painful tragedy. More than 10,000 of our brothers and sisters died. Our mother was buried under the rubbles. We could do nothing for more than an hour. The continuous aftershocks were terrifying us. People were screaming, running here and there. We could not get help to rescue our mother. We didn’t think she would live through it, but Goddess Rama protected her even inside the rubble. When we pulled her out, she had blue marks all over her body. There were terrible injuries on her head and legs. They put 19 stitches in her head, fitted steel and nails in her thigh. She was in the hospital for 19 days. Now she can walk a little with the help of a stick. She is sad because she feels she is a burden. But it means a lot to us that she is still here and her health is improving every day.”

Photo: Mandira Dulal

‘This time I may not be at home for all the celebrations’

“I have celebrated this festival for 23 years now. It was always the same. We went to the temples, did the puja of the gods and goddesses, cooked food and spent time with the family. However, this time I may not be at home for all the celebrations because I have a project in Rasua. I am reestablishing the schools that have collapsed so I will be leaving whenever they call me. It has definitely been very different this year, not as joyful as before. In our prayers, we made it a point to thank God that the family is alive and we are not jobless.”

Photo: Namita Rao

‘If people don’t have a house, how will they enjoy the festival?’

“Dashain is not the same as it was before. Six months after the earthquake, there are so many people still living in 15-18 tents in my neighbourhood. If people don’t have a house, how will they enjoy the festival? They feel embarrassed to welcome their relatives into a tent that they share with three other families. On the first day of Dashain, I stood in the petrol line with my bike from 4 am to 11 pm for five litres of petrol. This is a testing time for us, but it has made me realise we need to be independent, take ownership, assess what we have, and make the most of the local resources.”

Photo: Namita Rao

‘Nepal has never undertaken something of this magnitude’

The reconstruction of Nepal following the earthquake is a mammoth task, and one of the government’s initial responses was the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), co-led by senior government policymaker Dr Swarnim Wagle. This document, produced over a matter of weeks and presented at the international donor conference on June 25, gave a detailed account of the damage to the various sectors of Nepal’s society, and action plans for the future, setting out how reconstruction, economic reform and planning for further disasters should take shape. One of its recommendations was for the establishment of a National Authority for Reconstruction to oversee the recovery. The NAR is yet to be formally adopted by parliament, and its CEO, Govind Raj Pokharel, was only appointed by then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala in mid-August. Dr Wagle, a member of the National Planning Commission, spoke with Patrick Ward about the PDNA, the problems of recovery, and the future challenges for Nepal.

How would you say the progress of the recovery is going since you published the Post Disaster Needs Assessment in June?

The National Planning Commission (NPC) was very active for the first two months. I don’t think the government of Nepal has ever undertaken something of this magnitude. It coordinated nearly 500 experts, almost 30 development partners, under the leadership of the government ministries. We organised all these experts in 23 groups and we managed to get something useful, something coherent, in the form of the PDNA in three to four weeks.

The big question we were asked was, even through a regular budget system, you’re not able to spend all your money. We probably spend only 80 per cent of the government department budget in a year. There are lots of hurdles, procurement bottlenecks. It’s a separate issue; we need to fix it over time. But the question we got was, if you are going to use the same machinery to do reconstruction, and you’re pumping in billions of additional dollars, how can you assure us money will actually be spent?

So we had to design an alternative system to assure our development partners that we’ll do things differently. So the design of the extraordinary mechanism, which took the form of the National Authority for Reconstruction, was also done by the NPC. So those were the things we were tasked to do and we delivered. Unfortunately, the NPC is basically an advisory board. We are not an executive or implementing body. After that, I admit that there has been a bit of a slowdown in momentum, because it essentially became a political decision. So we were a bit disappointed in the time it took for Prime Minister Koirala to make up his mind. But it is also a very fluid political situation. You can’t afford to alienate any political party. He could have just gone ahead and appointed a CEO, but that CEO would not be credible or strong if there wasn’t sufficient buy-in by other political parties. So I think he took his time to make sure whoever he appointed would also be supported by other political parties. That ended up taking a lot of time, and that affected at least the perception that the reconstruction hadn’t picked up.

The other hiccup has been the ordinance that created the NAR, which should have been converted into an act of parliament within 60 days. Because the country was so focused on the constitution, and given the problems in the Terai and Kailali [where protests and strikes for constitutional rights are on], I think it’s just slipped the calendar scheduling. The government did its part and everything was sent to the parliament. But I think somewhere in the calendar of the parliament itself it slipped, and so the 60-day window was missed.

So the international aid money still has not been transferred to the NAR because of this?

Well, that’s half true and half false. The pledging was about $4 bn. That was just a pledge. The pledges now need to be converted into concrete projects. [Some of the] donors are in the business of development in a professional manner, such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. They were very quick. They have converted their pledges to concrete projects already. The World Bank has a massive housing project that has already been signed by the Ministry of Finance. In the Ministry of Finance there’s a foreign aid coordination division, the International Economic Cooperation Coordination Department. The joint secretary is Mr Madhu Marasini. So he’s been talking with all sorts of donors over the last two, three months. World Bank has already been signed. ADB has a big project on education that has already been signed, I think. And they want to do more.

But it takes time. For the Chinese, for example, they’re in the diplomatic business, right? They’re not used to doing development. Even India, which was the largest contributor, they don’t do traditional development like the World Bank does. So they would need to get things going with the help of professionals, that they might bring or they might hire locally, to convert their commitments into concrete projects. That might take time, but that will happen in a sequenced manner.

But the fact that we’ll have a functioning NAR will definitely help. The final signing will happen at the Ministry of Finance, but on the substance—is housing a priority, or education a priority?—on those issues it would have helped the donors to be able to do a substantive dialogue with the Authority. The issue is, it’s not like the relief-rescue phase, where you just disperse the cash. You have to adapt a more thoughtful process, bring in all the institutional checks and balances, modes of accountability and transparency. This is going to be multi-year—up to five years—so it’s going to be big. But the process has begun, it’s not that because the Authority has not hit the ground running, everything is at a standstill. That’s not the case at all.

An earthquake damaged school in Harisiddhi

This school in Harisiddhi is still in use, but has serious structural damage, months after the quake. Future-proofing new buildings is a major part of plans for reconstruction. Photo: Patrick Ward

Another earthquake is expected sometime in the future. Are you confident that after these five years, or however long it takes, Nepal will be prepared for that?

Absolutely, that’s the core principle. The NPC has already come up with a reconstruction policy and from now on all the houses that will be rebuilt—hundreds of thousands of houses—will all have to be earthquake resistant. And not just earthquake resistant, we are already mindful of other hazards that Nepal is prone to. Landslides, you really can’t protect against unless you move the settlement itself, but fires and other hazards that Nepal is prone to. I think that those things will be taken care of in the new housing designs that will be endorsed and supported by the Authority.

The last disaster of this magnitude was 80 years ago. You can see that even between April 25th and May 12th, the two big earthquakes, I think the government was much better prepared after May 12th in terms of communicating with the public and getting the news out. April 25th did come as a shock. People knew the earthquake was coming, but unless you know the particular date—what the Americans call “actionable intelligence”—there was no actionable intelligence. The Americans knew some kind of terrorist attack would happen of the kind that happened on 9/11, but if you didn’t know it was going to happen on 9/11 there was very little you could do.

But I think Nepal has been jolted. We lived through it, we felt the minute-long vibrations, which was terrifying. So I think there is definitely going to be better preparation, but things that need to be done institutionally—a disaster management authority, the earthquake preparedness—that needs to be internalised in school curricular. The drills that you need to do, the large amount of training that we need to do, for the police and the army, right now it’s happening in piecemeal and much smaller scale. But now we have to take on this challenge in a more routinised, institutionalised manner, and I think that awakening is there now.

Several of the aid agencies we have spoken to have said that while the government and authorities here did offer facilitation and assistance to their work, they had some obstacles with the bureaucracy involved, and with the need to pay taxes and import duties on relief supplies coming into Nepal. What do you know about that?

There was an issue during the relief and rescue phase, in the first few months. There were some issues over whether some consignments were eligible for duty waivers. The first thing to note is that it would have been very difficult for the government to just say, OK, free for all then, just come in. So it was necessary to put in place certain guidelines. That’s what the Ministry of Finance did.

“You don’t show up in a sovereign country and expect a red carpet treatment and say ‘no questions asked’”

Problems were exaggerated as well I think, because there’s a 2007 convention on humanitarian assistance. If NGOs, the big ones, whose whole existence is to do humanitarian work, charity work, if they had registered their name within this framework, those guys would not have been affected at all. So they could have brought in whatever relief material they could, duty free. For others, there was a guideline put in place to declare, what have you brought? Where do you intend to go with it? The basic questions. You don’t show up in a sovereign country and expect a red carpet treatment and say ‘no questions asked’.

Even when certain basic guidelines were put in place there was a lot of abuse. We saw people were already importing commercial merchandise as humanitarian goods—big companies—and in Nepal the revenue need is very high. So for six weeks, seven weeks, it was completely relaxed. All you had to do was declare and then schedule things through. But the kind of requests we were getting from other development partners to make all the relief works free of taxes, that wouldn’t have been tenable to the system for a long time.  It’s easy to be sentimentally driven—oh, it’s a humanitarian crisis!—but those guys aren’t the custodians of the nation’s treasury.

You mention in the PDNA the need for economic reforms—what do you mean by that, and is there the political will to undertake them?

There’s political support, of course. There’s second generation reform we need to do. In the early-1990s the big opening-up happened, but now we need to do more on the regulatory front. So we have given sufficient space to the market. An efficient well-functioning market economy also needs supervision and regulation of the government, and we’ve been lacking on that. A lot of perversions in the system, car tailing and syndicates, I think those things have to be taken care of in the next phase of reforms, but this has to be supported by a stable political regime.

The other thing on the economic front is really when we’re looking at reconstruction. There are five concrete building blocks. First is, of course, to rebuild private houses, community assets. Second is to focus on the infrastructure, physical and social infrastructure. The third is we need a distinct agenda for our heritage sites and heritage settlements, because people perceive reconstruction as just rebuilding physical things. So the first three are somehow physical, getting things back up, but we don’t want to ignore the social and economic agenda. It’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently and to use reconstruction as a source of capital formation that will pave the way for future growth, not just urban areas. If you look at the ethno-geography of the crisis, certain communities have been hit particularly badly. If you look at the geography, this is often almost the Himalayan belt. It’s not immediately accessible. You have to walk, it’s a difficult terrain. I think the issue of vulnerability and livelihoods, getting livelihoods going, is very important. We need a distinct programme on that, so I hope the Authority will bring programmes of that nature as well. So it’s not just physical reconstruction.

The fifth one we’re looking at is really economic revival. We want rural centres. So issues of integrated settlements, clustering, not just in isolation but one rural cluster interconnected with another rural cluster. They can become rural centres of growth. Right now, we write off the rural areas. We say they can’t be dynamic sources of economic growth, it’s just paddy production or wheat production, agricultural. But I think there’s enough, if we envision it right, to really plan these things. These rural centres, once the resettlement happens, once the clustering happens, and once the planning of the provisioning of the amenities happen around those integrated, more efficient settlements, I think they really can become semi-urban areas as a source of growth themselves.

But to support that at the national level, the second generation reforms have to be pursued, and the work on that is going on. There are almost 40 pieces of legislation at different stages of maturity. Some are already in the parliament, some policies have already been cleared by the cabinet, but in a democracy it’s a lot of back and forth. NPC has to give some consent, the Ministry of Law has to look at the legal implications, the Ministry of Finance has to look at the financial implications. So there are lots of things flying in the air but at different stages. If we were a less democratic country, we could just announce these things in a second, second generation reforms, big bang, here are the things that will come into operation tomorrow. But that’s not the luxury we have. This is the proper way to do it, to make sure all the perspectives are incorporated.

This is partly related to reconstruction. But even without the crisis, without the disaster, this is something we should be doing anyway. We were delayed by the decade-long conflict and now we are finally back on track with a new constitution in place, I hope. People can finally focus on the economic agenda and support that higher ambition of putting Nepal on a higher trajectory of growth. You need to undergird that with the second generation reforms. It’s overdue now.

‘This is the first time I am sharing these details with anyone besides my mother and sister’

“We have been living in a temporary shelter after the earthquake and it happened there. The man came in when I was finishing my homework. My mother and sister were working in the fields. I would have gone with them, but I had a gash on my hand from the last time I went to cut grass. He asked where my mother was. When I told him, he started inching towards me, enquiring about my arm. He put his hands on my chest and then tried to shove his hands up my skirt. He asked me which class I studied in as he did that. When I pushed him away and ran out, he wanted to know where someone as little as me got so much strength. We lost our house in the earthquake. Now this is my home, where I am supposed to be secure. It’s difficult for me to go to school. This is the first time I am sharing the details of what happened with anyone besides my mother and sister, but I know some people know about this in school. Facing them is almost as bad as the incident itself. Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if my father was alive, or we hadn’t lost our home.”

Photo: Ritu Panchal

‘They used to say, “Give me medicine to kill myself. Don’t give me medicine to heal.” It’s better now’

“It was very disheartening in the beginning when I came here. People who had nobody left in their families would be the most depressed. They used to say, ‘Give me medicine to kill myself. Don’t give me medicine to heal. There is no point.’ It’s better these days. There’s been a lot of progress in most cases. Most people’s physical injuries have been healed. I feel better as well.”

Photo: Ashma Gautam

‘It is not just me in this situation. The whole of Nepal is facing the same tragedy’

“This is where my house stood. I built it myself. I got married here. My seven children grew up here. My parents took their last breath here. So when I walk around it now, it is like I am walking around a piece of my destroyed heart. After the earthquake, we spent some days in a tent provided by the Red Cross, some days in a hut, and some in a buffalo shed. Now we live a very congested life, renting a small room. But I still use the courtyard of my house for the bathroom and for water. My sons and I want to build a new house. We have about Rs 300,000, but that is not enough. I don’t expect any compensation money from the government, but if the government can provide us loans, it would make our lives easy. My sons are ready to take on the loans. But it is not just me in this situation. The whole of Nepal is facing the same tragedy.”

Photo: Mandira Dulal

In Sindhupalchok, It’s Like The Earthquake Struck Yesterday

THE ROAD THROUGH Sindhupalchok is now clear of rubble, but only just. It takes careful navigation to get past the sections ravaged by recent landslides, where, weakened by the earthquake and exposed to the near-daily onslaught of the ongoing monsoon, the mountain face along the 144-km Araniko highway from Kathmandu to the border town of Kodari continues to pose a constant danger.

Yet one cannot but admire the beauty of the Panchkal valley as it unfolds. The highway, weary with traffic when we left Kathmandu, had melted into stunning scenery—rolling hills and red-rocked mountains decorated with lush greenery spread out before me in waves, alongside tributaries of the river Indrawati. It was like something out of a picture book, an everyday natural beauty, raw and rugged, that you don’t get to see often.

Much of the international media’s post-earthquake reporting was focused on the capital and on Everest, places best known and most regularly frequented by foreign visitors. They suffered hugely, and while there was widespread devastation to both lives and property in the two places, the concentration of destruction was little compared to elsewhere in the country. Sindhupalchok is the worst-affected district. Of the estimated 8,702 earthquake deaths across Nepal, 3,440 were in Sindhupalchok, the highest number in any district. This is nearly three times more than in Kathmandu, whichwith a death toll of 1,222bore the second biggest brunt of the disaster. The number acquires more significance when you factor in that while Kathmandu has a population of around 1 million, Sindhupalchok has roughly 300,000. In other words, this rural district lost more than 1 per cent of its population in the quake. Along with this, an estimated 90 per cent of houses were damaged or destroyed.

The scale of this disaster became more visible once we travelled some 50 km from Kathmandu. Our destination was Bahrabise, one of the worst-hit places in the district, some 22 km before the Tibetan border. As our sturdy Scorpio crossed the Indrawati, I could see a spate of damaged buildings along the way. Much of the route was still stained with the orange-red dust of previously cleared landslides, with the occasional outcropping of mud and rocks jutting out ominously on to the pot-holed road.

As we approached Lamosanghu, small shops began to spring up by the roadside. All around lay huge piles of debris. Houses, some with whole sides damaged beyond repair, stood by. The road was blocked by a large digger, tipping smashed masonry into a truck and villagers worked to clear debris in the pounding midday sun. Dust from the rubble hung heavily in the air. There were people washing themselves from a hose pipe, scrubbing their clothes against rocks in the gutter. To see the storeys-high piles of bricks, cement and twisted metal, it was difficult to believe that work had gone on for a long time. It looked like the earthquake occurred yesterday, not four months ago.

Eliza Khatri, a staff nurse in Lamosanghu

Eliza Khatri, a staff nurse at the Langosanghu Health Camp, attended to many earthquake victims. Some were so traumatised that they wanted to die, rather than heal. Photo: Ashma Gautam

When we spoke to the villagers, it became clear the panic of the initial days have subsided. In its place was a stoicism borne of necessity, which had transformed into diligent hard work, to clear the rubble, to rebuild their lives. The physical and mental injuries were also beginning to heal. “It was very disheartening in the beginning,” said Eliza Khatri, the staff nurse at the Lamosanghu Health Camp, who has been here for the past two months. “People who had nobody left in their families would be the most depressed… It’s better these days. There’s been a lot of progress in most cases.”

The earthquake is only the most recent disaster for the inhabitants of this hilly area. One of my colleagues would later report that a villager she met had seen her home destroyed four times in recent years, the first three times by landslides, and now by the earthquake. Destruction and reconstruction were, for many, a painfully regular feature of life. Another woman, Sushma Shrestha, said, “I am worried about the future. I’m worried about landslides and where to go from here and how to build my house again.”

It is understood in these parts that it probably won’t be long before the next devastating act of nature occurs. And you could see the reason behind that sentiment in the landscape: as we left Lamosanghu and continued along the highway to Bahrabise, the main road suddenly became rough terrain, uneven and curving through large piles of large, white rocks. To our right ran the Sunkoski River, which flows from Tibet. In the mud banks to its left, only slightly higher than river level, stood a house. But only the top floor was visible, the lower floor—or floors—were now metres below the mud. Next to it stood a lone electricity pylon. I initially thought that this too had been a product of the earthquake, but I was wrong. It had happened last August, when the side of the mountain towering over us broke free and deposited 5.5 million cubic metres of rock and earth across the road and into the river, cutting off more than 5 km of the highway, and, for a time, the river itself. The landslide caused 156 deaths and the amassed water created a large lake, and caused floods as far away as northern India. It took more than a month for the army to clear the blocked river. Nature had not been kind to the people of Sindhupalchok, even before the earthquake.

The main road in Bahrabise, Sindhupalchowk, four months after the earthquake. Piles of rubble and building materials line the road.

There is a semblance of normalcy on the main road of Bahrabise. But look closely and you see there is barely a structure here that is undamaged. Photo: Patrick Ward

BAHRABISE was in a similar state as Lamosanghu. Shops were open. There were places you could grab a bite to eat. But this was against the backdrop of piles of rubble, which still blocked many entrances. Most buildings bore the scars of the earthquake. Several had bricks protruding from damaged fronts, while others had partially collapsed under their own weight and stayed propped up precariously by wooden supports. Villagers were clearing rubble, fitting gates to driveways, and standing on top of dangerous half-demolished buildings, knocking away brickwork into the street below by hand.

As I watched, a large bus arrived, and people disembarked carrying large bags of rice and other essentials. The vital highway—the only route through the area to Tibet, some 20 km north—was now clear, but for a long time it hadn’t been. Villagers described how, after the earthquake, the road was lost to sight entirely; how clearing it had been a priority, for the blockade had cut off the area from the rest of the country.

Many of the villagers still lived in temporary shelters. Through the gaps between the buildings and the foliage behind, I could make out a hill dotted with multicoloured tents. We walked towards it, crossing a pile of rubble, then up a steep pathway, till a field opened up. There were dozens of tents there. Dogs and goats trotted around freely by the camp. In the background stood steep, majestic green hills.

In front of the camp stood a large, white UNICEF medical tent. Next to that, a small shelter converted into a shop, selling sweets, cigarettes, and strips of paan. A few metres behind, a young woman, Rachana, used her tent as a tailoring business. “The earthquake damaged my shop, so now I run it from the shelter,” she said. “But here I don’t get as many customers as I did previously.” 

When she first moved to her tent after the quake, Rachana said she cried everyday for almost a month. “We have no proper ceiling, no proper floor, no furniture here,” she said, as she measured and chalked fabric. “It’s hard to sleep because of the cold floor and the noise of bugs.”

Among the inhabitants, there was frustration at the government for not being proactive in tackling reconstruction programmes. There was also some bitterness, particularly as some villagers felt the government had directed its attention first to saving foreigners from the disaster. Raju, a young man standing near the makeshift shop, lost his friend in the earthquake when a falling rock struck his head. “It isn’t right that foreigners were saved first,” he said. “We live here, so we deserved help.”

But there was also a sense among the inhabitants that they had to be proactive if they were to get by. Their shops and businesses had collapsed, along with their housing. The small businesses growing out of the camp were their attempt to address that.

A house still buried under rubble, four months after the Nepal earthquake in Bahrabise, Sindhupalchok. There were many similar sights en route to this village, and the task that faces these villagers is more than daunting. Photo: Unnat Sapkota

The villagers of Bahrabise need to first clear piles of rubble before they can rebuild their houses. There were similar sights along the road from Kathmandu to this village. Photo: Unnat Sapkota

Though not initially apparent, the trauma people had gone through broke out every now and again. One woman spoke of how she had been trapped in her collapsed house, with debris pinning her down by the arm. She kept holding her arm, and repeating how it hurt. Others were simply grateful that their initial fears of losing family members had proved unfounded. Rachana, the seamstress, described her feeling when she found her husband was alive, “It was like the miracle of my life.”

As the villagers worked stoically with whatever tools they had to clear rubble and rebuild, the sheer scale of the task ahead seemed more than daunting. Without houses, hospitals, schools and other vital instruments of a civil society, there was a level of despair in their bravery. And with a cold winter coming, as well as the ever-present danger of landslides, not to mention earthquakes, there is every possibility that without adequate attention, the situation in Sindhupalchok could get worse still.

The sun was still hot when we left Bahrabise. People were clearing debris, carrying away sacks filled with rubble on their backs. Our return ride to Kathmandu was long, and we sat for much of the time in silence. As the sun set against a purple sky over the green hills, I could see mounds of rubble punctuating the view around us. The mounds were once houses. Each had a story, each had inhabitants. Many of the inhabitants will now be living in shelters. Many others will never see a sunset again.

Additional reporting: Enika Rai, Unnat Sapkota, Preeti Karna, Ashma Gautam and Bidhur Dhakal.

‘All our hazards have become disasters because of mismanagement’

Crisis situations invariably bring up questions about how they are communicated to the world, and often what is highlighted is the lack of preparedness in this area. Scholars highlight several challenges that are common to crises: among them, issues of accuracy from amidst the ‘fog’ of a calamitous event, an overemphasis on death and destruction to create more dramatic narratives, and at times even deliberate misinformation.

In the wake of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal, the way information was shared, particularly in the media, has come under criticism. For one, lack of accurate communication, in a post-earthquake situation such as that exists in the Himalayan country, could mean that relief is unevenly distributed. A challenge specific to Nepal was that community radio stations, on which a significant proportion of the population rely on for news, were hit badly, with 61 stations seeing their premises damaged.

It is not surprising then that disaster management and crisis communication have acquired a new importance in Nepal in the last four months, particularly in light of the country’s continued vulnerability to earthquake. In this interview, Patrick Ward speaks to Dr Sudhamshu Dahal, Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication at the Kathmandu University, who is working to ensure that Nepal is better prepared in terms of strategic communications. Dr Dahal now strives to stimulate governmental and academic discussions in Nepal so as to create a model for crisis communication. Edited excerpts from a conversation in which he speaks of the need for a national crisis communication strategy, the necessity of crisis journalism training for the media, and how the aftermath of the earthquake is being normalised:

What is the current state of developing a model for crisis communications in Nepal? How are the ideas being developed after the earthquake?

Largely crisis communication comes under the corporate branch of communication studies, as part of PR and the field of advertising. They will be the experts, but they look at crisis communication for companies, within the corporate. I am trying to take crisis communications out of the corporate sector and to relate it to natural and man-made crises. Those ideas of having a uniform platform for information sharing might work well in time of natural disasters like earthquakes.

Could you elaborate on your thoughts on what is needed?

I was involved in a study that assessed the status of media and journalists in eight of the worst-affected districts in Nepal, and one of the compelling recommendations that came out of it was that journalists should be given training in how to report during such crises. The media here had some training during the Maoist movement—on how to to do conflict reporting, on peace journalism, things like that. But they don’t know how to report on disasters, do crisis reporting. These journalists said that during the time of the insurgency you can have some level of expectation: Maoists are coming from this side, government forces are coming from that side, and here could be my safe line, where I can put myself safely and do my reporting. But with earthquakes you cannot predict like that. This unpredictability can put you in danger.

“These problems are exacerbated because of parachute journalists. The foreign media are coming and reporting and you feel pressure to do something on par, if not more, than the foreign journalists.”

The other point, which is quite pressing, was what to report. You see everywhere everything falling, and you see the human casualties, you see the property damage and sometimes you see mass casualties. Your relatives may have died. What is the news at that time? There is also pressure from the family and the demands from your news organisation. The news organisation asks you to report more, do more, and your family will be very concerned that you want to go out. You are also concerned for your family because your home has been destroyed and you have nowhere to stay. You might be staying in a temporary shelter. How do you move around and report with all that?

These problems are exacerbated because of parachute journalists. The foreign media are coming and reporting and you feel pressure to do something on par, if not more, than the foreign journalists. The final pressure boils down to the journalists in the field, local stringers, maybe local reporters. So how do you do journalism within all this? That’s one area where they would like to have some kind of training.

How are the ideas on crisis communication being received?

There is a larger understanding now that we need to have a coordinated effort. The only fear would be how to balance information control and the freedom of expression that you need to exercise as a journalist. Media organisations are now thinking of making a kind of backpack for the journalists, with a torch, a radio, etc. What I am telling these people is, what you are doing is a novel thing, it’s a good thing—but you also need to give some training. More than the equipment, journalists want some discussions. Most journalists are asking for indigenous experts to tell them how to do crisis journalism. They are not expecting foreign journalists to come and give training, because the foreigner may not understand the situation here. What has happened elsewhere cannot be replicated here. They already had a good exposure during the Maoist insurgency, a lot of training happened. All those trainings did not help when the earthquake struck. Maybe this is the time we developed our own training and have our own indigenous knowledge in place.

Worked continue to rebuild temples in Patan. Much of the world's media focused on the damaged and destroyed cultural heritage sites after the earthquake, giving a sense of blanket devastation across Nepal.

Reconstruction continues in Kathmandu’s Patan area. There was much focus on damaged and destroyed cultural heritage sites, giving a sense of blanket devastation across Nepal. Photo: Patrick Ward

How effective was the Nepali media’s response to the earthquake?

Nepal had just come out of a 10-year armed conflict, and journalists came out of that knowing political crisis reporting. But the need was different here, because as the popular saying goes, ‘Earthquakes don’t kill, but bad infrastructures do’. This is exactly what happened to the media. For most of the radio stations, they had to put off their transmissions because they were in very bad buildings. For many media in Kathmandu, as well as in the severely affected districts, equipment were damaged. And there had been big personal losses as well—when you have a personal loss, that will also affect your work.

Psychologically these journalists, the camera crews were prepared to deal with all sorts of emergencies, but the physical infrastructure was very weak. One good example was Radio Nepal. It’s a government-run radio service, a national broadcaster which reaches almost all the places in Nepal, and they were doing a fantastic job of reporting during the earthquake. They even reported at the time when it was still shaking, because they had very good infrastructure. Radio Nepal’s buildings and other communication infrastructures are largely supported by the government of Japan, who constructed very good, earthquake-resistant studios for them.

But the private media were kind of crippled. The big media houses, who had their own buildings, crumbled. For example, the Kantipur Group, which runs newspapers, television, radio—their building was destroyed. They shifted to a temporary place. Their offices have been demolished, and now they are constructing a new one. That was the status of the so-called most popular private media. The most popular private media would also mean the most rich media in Nepal—so you can imagine the status of the small radio stations which might have rented a few rooms in a flat. So most of them stopped. They were also unsure about the information that they were supposed to disseminate, because they didn’t have the resources on their own to report the reality from the ground.

Many people seemed to be following social media for the latest information, often rumours. Has this caused problems?

Rumours were the biggest worry. The information you get at the time of crisis could be termed as life-saving, because based on that information you decide which could be life-affecting. So rumours did play a major role in creating panic among the people, because the very day the earthquake first came on 25 April, for almost 72 hours we were feeling small and big jolts. So people who were gathered at one place dared not move out. The rumours got multiplied through the internet because access to it was pretty good. I saw the very first picture of the massive destruction when the Dharahara tower collapsed in Sundhara—I saw that first picture within the first two hours of the impact. The rumours also went that fast among the people.

The main rumour was that the next big one is coming, be prepared. There were also international rumours; we got this information from this scientist in the US or UK or elsewhere in Europe and they are saying, yes, brace yourself for the big one. Some of this information was true, but the way they were interpreted, they became rumours and people got panicked. In fact, a few people were using a hand mic and announcing that the next one is coming in two hours, so get yourself prepared, come out from the house. Later on we found out they were burglars who wanted to evacuate people, and they were finally arrested by the police. The worrisome part is we don’t have a central mechanism to counter these rumours. The government mechanism still does not put emphasis on using communication to do so.

What role has the international media played in the aftermath of the earthquake? Many have criticised the behaviour of the Indian media, especially.

There’s been a problem with the Indian media, which I’ll come to later, but there’s also been a problem with the international media because at the time of crisis, it does parachute journalism. You just parachute a journalist to a site. Many of them may have come for the first time to Nepal. They might have quickly googled Nepal and seen images on the internet. They were already reporting destruction of cultural heritage and densely populated areas, so the images they were sending back home for broadcast over international media gave the impression that everything’s been destroyed in Nepal. It was a disaster, almost 10,000 people died. But if you see the geographical area of the earthquake, the effect is not spread. It is concentrated in one area, and obviously many people have died and lots of buildings have been damaged. But it was not that severe as a polio outbreak or SARS. Each individual was affected, but not everyone was affected in the same way.

So far as the Indian media are concerned, they grew out of political reporting. So they only know about political reporting. If you look into the Indian media, you will see breaking news never stops. They used that same training here. We expected them to empathise more than the rest who came to report. Rather than that, they were digging sensational news out in this disaster. That was the biggest problem, and it shows that they are not trained at all in crisis reporting.

“We might not have expected the same if it was CNN or BBC or any other international media, but it was Indian media. So the expectation was very, very high.”

The Indian media was embedded within the Indian army rescue teams. Embedding journalists doesn’t work in disaster reporting. The Indian army was the first foreign help that arrived in Nepal. They arrived within six hours of the earthquake, and they were also embedding the Indian media. So some of the media personnel were the very first to reach affected sites. We might not have expected the same if it was CNN or BBC or any other international media, but it was Indian media. So people felt that rather than coming and asking lots of questions, they should have brought some medicine or relief supplies. When you analyse the Indian reporting on Nepal, you have to look at it from the social, cultural, and political relations between these two countries. So the expectation was very, very high. But the way they reported was very bad and they were not following any of the ethical guidelines. Very interestingly, they were condemned more by their own media critics at home than in Nepal.

Buildings are stabilised with supports following the Nepal Earthquake along this street in Kathmandu.

Weakened buildings have been temporarily stabilised and businesses now continue below. Despite concern about potential damage from aftershocks, there is also a sense of normalisation. Photo: Pushkala Aripaka

It’s a near daily occurrence to feel aftershocks from the earthquake, even four months later. Are they becoming normalised?

This is where we need to talk about culturally sensitive communication. Many times, when you have global indicators of safety and wellbeing, if you take those indicators and try to fit them into another part of the world, it may not work. We are getting so many aftershocks that either you have to run out all the time or you have to live with it. We have no other options.

The Seismological Centre of the Government of Nepal released data to commemorate three months of 25 April. During the first month following the earthquake, we had 1,300 aftershocks bigger than 2 magnitude each day. That came down to 100 by three months. They only report earthquakes of magnitude 4-plus to the people. Some of the aftershocks which were less than 4 were badly felt in Kathmandu itself. One, magnitude 3.3 which had an epicentre in Kathmandu, jolted us very bad. We thought it was big, big, big, and then when they released the data it was 3.3, not even 4. So it was against their policy to announce that result.

Even in the well-informed scientific authority of the government, they are finding it difficult to know how to report. They say we will put a 4 magnitude as a bar, below that we won’t report because it won’t give people any shock. But we felt the aftershocks that are less than that, so how do you really go about that?

“This earthquake could be a reference point for having a better disaster management policy, and communication could be a central element in all our disaster planning.”

It’s not been normalised in the sense that we have forgotten it or we are getting absentminded in preparing ourselves for the time of real danger. But maybe we are trying to learn to differentiate between the hazard and the disaster. We don’t have the terminology for hazard in Nepali. All our hazards have become disasters because of mismanagement. This is what happened in Haiti as well, it is what happened in India. But this didn’t happen in Japan when a month back there was an earthquake of nearly 8 magnitude. They were so prepared that the videos coming from YouTube showed that people were just standing still when they had been walking, and they were waiting some time for it to pass, and then they just carried on with their routine work. If that happens here, we would not do that. Life will have its own forwards and backwards and stills and leapfrogging, so maybe we are just thinking, if we worry too much, we cannot live. This possibility has been talked about for many years. But we never realised what it could do until it happened. Now that the disaster has happened, we actually realise we are in a high seismic zone, and that we have to be alert, and maybe try to find some kind of resilience.

So do you think this latest earthquake will lead to better preparation for the future?

Each individual in Nepal now want to make earthquake resistance a priority. I’ve seen some of my neighbours retrofitting their houses so that their houses stay safe. But this is a resource-constrained country. The government should have a policy where we can feel comfortable and confident and adapt our buildings for earthquake and other natural hazards. So this earthquake could be a reference point where we think of having a better disaster management policy, and communication could be a central element in all our disaster planning.

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