State of emergency
29 March 2017
An inside account of the Nepali state’s emergency response to the April earthquake.
(This is an essay from our July 2015 print quarterly, ‘Disaster Politics’. See more from the issue here.)
On 25 April 2015, Baburam Bhandari, an undersecretary at the Home Ministry, had just sat down to read a daily newspaper at his apartment in Kathmandu when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake rippled through Nepal. He, his wife and two children left their home in the Shankhamul neighbourhood and waited on the street, joining dozens of terrified survivors. Until a month before, Bhandari had been chief district officer of Mustang, the frontier district bordering Tibet, where an avalanche on the popular Annapurna circuit in 2014 had left dozens of trekkers dead. In Kathmandu, he had been deputed to the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC), a section under the Home Ministry, tasked with communicating and coordinating rescue operations after natural disasters.
As the head of the NEOC, Bhandari is required to reach the office at the earliest in the aftermath of a natural disaster. It was Saturday, the official weekend holiday in Nepal, and his driver had gone home. As he walked past frightened people, Bhandari found a parked car bearing a white government number plate. At least one of his problems was solved, he thought. But the car’s driver was both scared and reluctant.
Bhandari eventually persuaded the driver and they drove through the streets, now crowded with people. A handful of security officers guarded Singha Durbar, the administrative headquarters that sprawls over a huge swathe of land in the centre of the Kathmandu Valley, housing almost all the government ministries and many state institutions. When Bhandari arrived at the NEOC half an hour after the quake struck at 11:56 am, he found the office at the northern edge of Singha Durbar almost deserted. Since it was Saturday, only four security personnel among the office’s 13 staffers were on duty in the white one-storey, red-roofed prefabricated building constructed in 2010 with funding from the United Nations Development Program.
After the quake struck, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, joint secretary and spokesman for the Home Ministry, looked down from the hillock of Dhapasi in Kathmandu’s northern outskirts. The iconic nine-storey Dharahara tower was no longer visible. A cloud of dust had risen, obscuring the view of the city. Dhakal got dressed, grabbed the car keys and headed straight for his office. An aftershock hit as he drove along the Ring Road, which was already in disarray. Some people warned him not to go further, but he continued driving through roads littered with bricks and debris. Dhakal took a detour, negotiating the road by the Taxpayer’s Service Office in Maharajgunj, where, he would later find out, four government officials had been buried to death. “The streets were so crowded and it seemed as if everyone in Kathmandu was out of their homes,” he said.
When Dhakal joined Bhandari an hour later, they were the only senior government officials to have arrived at the Home Ministry. Bam Dev Gautam, the country’s home minister and deputy prime minister, was still not in. A veteran politician of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), Gautam was also the acting prime minister as Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had left for Jakarta to participate in an Afro-Asian summit to commemorate the Bangdung Summit of 1955. Since phone calls were not connecting, Dhakal could not reach him. Dhakal had also sent a text message to the government’s chief secretary and all the ministerial secretaries to attend an emergency meeting at NEOC.
In April 2011, the Home Ministry had published ‘Disaster Preparedness and Response Planning’, a 43-page guidebook, which was a revised version of a similar report from 2008. This was the first time the Nepal government had made systematic preparations for tackling natural disasters, including earthquakes. In 2008, the Kosi River had flooded parts of eastern Nepal and Bihar, prompting authorities to prepare guidelines on how to respond to natural disasters. The updated document was designed to assist government officials and humanitarian organisations on disaster preparedness and response planning. The guideline was to be effective until 2015.
The Home Ministry, which oversees the country’s internal security, was identified as the central agency for disaster management. The Disaster Management Section was instituted to work under the supervision of the ministry’s Planning and Special Service Division. The NEOC, Baburam Bhandari said, handled the response to a natural disaster at ‘Level 1’ – a shorthand for emergency levels that the NEOC can handle by itself. “Our main job is to collect the information and facilitate its exchange among agencies,” he said. Once they had the information, the NEOC officials would pass it along so the relief could reach those who were most in need.
The NEOC is a well-furnished office, with satellite phones, radio sets and land phones. There are also emergency operation centres under chief district officers in 46 of the 75 districts in the country. The satellite phones and the walkie-talkies at the Centre can communicate with the Nepal Police Headquarters in Kathmandu, as well as district police offices across the country. According to the National Disaster Response Framework that lays out the functions and responsibilities of the state agencies, the NEOC acts as the secretariat to the Central Natural Disaster Relief Committee (CNDRC), which remains at the top of the chain of command. All the local and foreign teams and agencies that arrived to carry out rescue and relief operations would come under the NEOC.
As the news of death and destruction began to pour in, Bhandari’s senior Rameshwar Dangal, the joint secretary who headed the Disaster Management Section, took over. Soon, they had to scale up the operations to Level 4. “We realised that the operation was massive and so the command had to come under the home minister,” Bhandari said.
Even within the capital, lack of tools to dig through the rubble prompted the chief district officer of Kathmandu to issue calls to provide agricultural tools to the police for the rescue operation.
When the earthquake struck, Home Minister Gautam had just taken a shower and was about to change clothes at his residence at the ministers’ quarters in Pulchowk, about a 15-minute drive from Singha Durbar. Once the initial tremors ended, Gautam and his family emerged into the courtyard. Gautam and his personal assistant, Sanjay Bhandari, tried making calls to find out about the deaths and damages; but they couldn’t make any calls as the phone networks were down. The minister asked his personal security officer to give him information that came through his walkie-talkie. It was through the walkie-talkie that they eventually managed to get hold of the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force.
As Gautam began to receive more information, it became clear that people manning the emergency services had reacted to the crisis by running away from their workplace. En route to Singha Durbar, Gautam noticed planes circling in the sky for an extended period. Upon enquiry, it was revealed that the air traffic controllers at the Tribhuvan International Airport had left the tower, leaving the flights in limbo. His convoy of three vehicles and 17 security guards finally arrived at the NEOC, and at around 1:30 PM, he chaired a CNDRC meeting – the first emergency meeting following the earthquake. Most ministers and secretaries, including those of the health, physical planning, information and communication ministries, were in attendance.
Sketchy reports of deaths and damages were trickling in, but the state was grappling for accurate information. “We received information on the huge damage in the central region, but the details were hard to come by,” said Bhandari. About 45 minutes after the earthquake, Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat tweeted: “IT is terrible experience. strong tremor one after other continuing. NEWS of damage. death n destruction from various parts.” Another 45 minutes later, he posted a photo of the collapsed facade of Singha Durbar, commenting that even the mighty Rana-era building had not remained unscathed. People with internet access on their mobile phones were able to post on social media, but a vast majority who were in open spaces and lacked that facility were left incommunicado. Angry comments came from Nepalis living abroad. One commented: “You should be doing press brief rather than uploading pics in Twitter dear minister.”
At around 2 pm, another meeting, held at the two-storey earthquake-resistant building of the ministry’s Government Information Documentation Centre, decided to call for international assistance for search-and-rescue operations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was instructed to make the necessary requests to the foreign missions in Kathmandu. The state’s three security forces – Nepal Army, Nepal Police and Armed Police Force – were mobilised. The National Seismological Centre had already confirmed Barpak, a heavily-populated hamlet in Gorkha district, as the epicentre. Naturally, the state turned its attention to Gorkha district, imagining it to have suffered the maximum loss. It turned out later that more than 3500 people were killed in the worst-hit Sindhupalchowk district while Gorkha’s fatalities stood at 449.
By the time the meetings ended, it was already 4 pm. Gautam, Mahat and the other Deputy Prime Minister and Local Development Minister Prakash Man Singh hopped on a private helicopter for an aerial assessment of the damage to Kathmandu Valley. At 4:51 pm that day, Mahat tweeted: “Massive damage/demolition of old structures, temples, archeological sites and human settlements. About 300 dead, more reports coming.” That evening, he posted a series of grainy photographs on Twitter, apparently taken from the helicopter, which showed damages to heritage sites and homes in Kathmandu Valley.
Gautam and his colleagues were following in the footsteps of their predecessors, who prioritised such trips over crucial rescue efforts though resources such as choppers were scarce. Four crucial hours were spent on meetings, while lives could have been saved, if the central government had adequate contingency plans in place – plans that would minimise lengthy deliberations and enable immediate search-and-rescue operations.
On the ground, security personnel had already swung into action. Uttam Kumar Karki, head of Kathmandu Police Metropolitan Range, reached the destroyed Dharahara tower at around 1 pm. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He heard cries of pain and saw that citizens had plunged into the search with their bare hands. Karki’s force of around two dozen policemen were digging through the rubble with shovels. “People were trying to remove debris that weighed tonnes. Dust from the collapse of the tower was yet to settle,” he recalled. Volunteers were carrying the wounded to the nearby Bir Hospital, Nepal’s oldest, which was fortunately still standing. “We had deployed our forces to the disaster sites with whatever tools – shovel, spades, ropes – they could lay their hands on,” he said.
Karki’s office at Hanuman Dhoka, close to Kathmandu Durbar Square, couldn’t withstand the earthquake. An annexe of the dilapidated, 100-year-old building collapsed, killing one of the 2500 policemen under his command. Around 100 inmates of the jail in the building were moved to Mahendra Police Club in Kathmandu. Karki’s office operated from the streets of Hanuman Dhoka for a week, and moved to the premises of National Trading Limited, a state-run public trading house, where it had set up a makeshift office with tents donated by the United Nations.
Immediately after the quake, the Nepal Police hotline was left unattended, but once it resumed operation, there was an avalanche of distress calls. “We barely managed to respond to ten percent of the total calls,” Karki recounted. “Our personnel are on the streets at all times, so we became the first responders to the disaster. We neither had resources nor safety equipment to respond to such a huge disaster, but we had to be on the frontline.”
The earthquake triggered landslides in many areas, severely damaging already tenuous road links.
The police, engaged in the cities of Kathmandu Valley, were able to reach the people in outlying villages only two days after the quake. Further out, at the epicenter in Gorkha, and later Dolakha, help reached even later. Local police stations had only about ten officers per station, which proved insufficient for search and rescue. Even within the capital, lack of tools to dig through the rubble prompted the chief district officer of Kathmandu to issue calls to provide agricultural tools to the police for the rescue operation. All that the 67,000-strong police force had was half a dozen drilling machines and dozens of sniffer dogs. The police borrowed – at times, forcibly – excavators and bulldozers from private operators.
In comparison, the Nepal Army was better equipped. It also had the most useful resource during a natural disaster: helicopters. Nepal Army’s fleet of a dozen choppers of which only half were functional and most still bearing scars from the country’s decade-long Maoist insurgency, came in handy. Among these, only two Mi-17s, the multipurpose Russian behemoths, proved instrumental in evacuating wounded survivors. Given the lack of state resources, the government sought help from private helicopter operators. For the first few days, the half dozen private choppers were busy airlifting climbers from the Everest Base Camp, which had seen an avalanche (triggered by the earthquake) that killed 20.
The afternoon of the earthquake, Gaurav Shumsher Rana, the chief of Nepal Army, was scheduled to leave for Pakistan on an official visit. The army headquarters was geared towards organising his departure. The trip was cancelled and the army brass gathered on the parade ground in the premises of the headquarters damaged by the quake, and began to work under tents. The quake severely damaged the army’s infrastructure including ammunition depots, barracks and armouries. Its transportation was hamstrung after several military vehicles were damaged by the quake.
By the time the government installed mechanisms to carry out rescue and relief operation, it was already dark. That evening, a cabinet meeting had decided to form the Multinational Military Coordination Centre (MNMCC) under the Nepal Army to manage rescue and relief teams from foreign forces that had already begun to arrive. However, only Nepal army choppers were used for rescue on the first day – 50 wounded survivors were airlifted from the hardest hit districts in central Nepal.
The next day, the sky was overcast and the visibility poor, slowing down crucial lifesaving helicopter sorties. The Nepal Army and India’s National Disaster Response Force conducted an aerial assessment of regions hardest hit by the quake. The first 72 hours are considered crucial in rescuing people trapped inside their homes. The earthquake had triggered landslides in many areas, severely damaging already tenuous road links. Even as the foreign teams consisting of search-and-rescue, medical and engineering units kept landing in Kathmandu, the key was to locate the areas hardest hit and identify their immediate needs. Dhakal of NEOC said the UN provided 30 satellite phones to the ministry in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but they proved of little use because they could only be used for receiving calls. Toll free numbers set up by the ministry, however, proved useful.
The Nepal Army identified airlifting survivors as their top priority for choppers. “We prioritised saving lives above everything else. We provided information to the NEOC and it was home ministry officials who decided where to send the missions,” said Jagadish Chandra Pokharel, the Nepal Army spokesman. “When they left Kathmandu, the choppers carried relief materials and airlifted the wounded to hospitals.” Distribution of relief material was left for the District Natural Calamity Rescue Committee, he said.
Immediately after the quake, the Nepal Police hotline was left unattended, but once it resumed operation, there was an avalanche of distress calls. “We barely managed to respond to ten percent of the total calls,” Karki recounted.
That the Nepal Army was better placed than civilian agencies to respond to the earthquake was not surprising. The army’s Directorate of National Security and Development has its own Disaster Management Division with two battalions under the Directorate. “We have a huge human resource trained on disaster management and disaster preparedness. This helped us better coordinate the rescue and relief operation,” Pokharel said. Over the years, the United States Pacific Command has supported Nepal’s army to prepare a disaster response plan, according to Pokharel. “We were very much prepared and almost immediately began our response.”
A semblance of order in government operations began to take shape a day after the earthquake. Prime Minister Koirala arrived at noon and held a cabinet meeting at the NEOC. The building with a conference room, a meeting hall, several rooms and a lodge, now became a hub for the coordination of the rescue and recovery efforts. The Nepal Army set up an Airport Coordination Centre to receive the international search and rescue teams (a total of 4521 foreign military personnel with 1415 from India, 942 from China and 286 from the US) and to accompany them to the sites.
Eleven ‘clusters’ were created to oversee the provision of essential services such as shelter and food, among others. The concerned ministries were to coordinate with the UN agencies. Across Kathmandu, people had camped outside, prompting fears of an outbreak of epidemics. Security personnel distributed water from tankers and food to the displaced people, the majority of them camping in 83 open spaces which were pre-designated two years earlier as part of disaster preparedness.
While the NEOC functioned as a de facto operation centre in the quake’s aftermath, lack of a unified mechanism was strongly felt by the Home Ministry officials. “We coordinated well, but there were shortcomings. We have three mechanisms” – at the airport, at the NEOC and at the army headquarters – “to look after the rescue and relief operation. It would have worked really well if we just had a centralised mechanism at the NEOC,” said Dhakal, the Home Ministry spokesman. The officials at the NEOC gathered data on the need for rescue and relief from 560 villages of 14 districts most affected by the quake. “After collating the data, we prepared a plan and sent it to the army headquarters, which in turn, instructed its mechanism at the airport,” Dhakal said.
Nepal’s biggest natural disaster in more than 80 years (the last major earthquake in Nepal occurred in 1934, the fabled nabbe saalko bhuichalo or ‘the 1990 [Bikram Samvat] earthquake’) also tested the already tenuous civil-military relations. Nepal’s military affairs came under the Defence Ministry, but the Natural Calamity Relief Act of 1982 gave leadership role to the Home Ministry. For some of the top officials from the ministry, it was the first time they were dealing with the national army. In interviews, the Home Ministry officials pointed out that they called the shots, but often their calls to top army brass requesting sorties (often under pressure from politicians) bordered on pleading.
One afternoon in early June, I negotiated a security barricade at the cargo section of Tribhuvan International Airport. As I drove my motorbike, I passed through lorries and cargo trucks. The drivers sat idly, waiting for their turn. I arrived at a padlocked iron gate jointly manned by private security guards and the Nepal Army soldiers. Behind the gate lay the Humanitarian Staging Area. Just a month before the earthquake, Home Minister Gautam had inaugurated the Area next door to the cargo section. Constructed with aid from the United Kingdom, the Area has the capacity to store relief material to serve 50,000 people for a month.
Beyond procedural weaknesses, there was a serious dearth of accurate data: the ministry didn’t know how much human resource it possessed for search, rescue and relief operations and what kind of international assistance Nepal required.
I had come to meet Sagar Mani Parajuli, a joint secretary at the Home Ministry, who was part of a five-member committee formed to manage relief materials sent from abroad. Aside from Parajuli, the members included a joint secretary from the Foreign Ministry, a brigadier general from the army, the deputy director general of Department of Custom and the head of immigration at the airport. On 26 April, cargo planes carrying tonnes of relief materials kept landing at the airport, most of them with supplies for the Nepal Red Cross Society. “The materials kept piling up and we faced the challenges of handing it to the Red Cross,” Parajuli recalled.
As Parajuli and his colleague struggled to deliver relief materials to the worst-hit districts, they were initially cheered by the arrival of a fleet of army choppers from India. “But we were disappointed because the pilots refused to fly even if the sky was a bit cloudy or the area was hilly [which it had to be],” said Parajuli. “The Indian crew members seem to have experience of flying only in the plains and were wary of flying over the mountains.” More likely, the complications came from the Indian pilots’ unfamiliarity with Nepal’s hilly terrain, rather than their inexperience with mountain flights.
The arrival of US Marine Osprey aircraft wasn’t helpful either. “We learned that the Osprey carried only 300 kilograms above 7,000 feet, but our hills are 11,000 feet high,” he said. “The worst-hit areas were high up in the mountains, damaged by the landslides, where helicopters would have difficulty landing. So the excessive amount of relief materials worried us because we could not deliver them to the survivors.” The committee decided to ship the relief materials by cargo trucks. According to Parajuli, some items, such as canned food, labeled as goat meat – from Indonesia and worth NPR 4 million (USD 40,000) – was found to contain beef, prompting the officials to restrict its distribution.
The goodwill Nepal has garnered in certain international quarters – particularly due to the expansion of the tourism industry since the 1950s – meant that there was an overwhelming desire to help. However, fear of smuggling and money laundering made the government overly controlling. For example, Nepal’s Central Bank came out with a harshly worded circular demanding that all monetary assistance to the country be sent to the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund. Possibly millions of dollars in contributions were lost, before the circular was reluctantly rescinded.
Likewise, there was widespread confusion about the taxation of relief materials. Despite waiving import tax, the government struggled to provide tarpaulins and tents to the homeless survivors. As the demand for tarpaulins grew, the Home Ministry managed to collect a stock of 22,000 tarpaulins and tents including donations from the Nepal Army, the UNHCR and Nepal Red Cross Society. A major consignment of 100,000 tarpaulins arrived in Kathmandu from West Bengal about two weeks later.
The day I met Parajuli, the government began to impose customs duties and taxes on relief materials, discouraging international donors. Parajuli was fielding calls from donors who thought that the exemption was still valid. A few days earlier, a cargo of shoes, clothes, masks, tents, blankets had arrived in a chartered plane from Thailand. Sitting inside a box-like room made of tin, Parajuli spoke to a local representative of a Thai Buddhist monk, who wanted the tonnes of relief to reach people of Dharmasthali on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
As these items were being loaded onto a delivery truck, Parajuli gave me a tour of the warehouses. Among the six warehouses in the staging area, the committee was tasked with managing three, which has a stock of 5000 small and 384 large tents from China. The committee had decided that much of what was stocked there – tents, tarpaulins, blankets – were increasingly of lower priority for the survivors of earthquake. He said that the remaining materials would be delivered to warehouses in five development regions across the country to be stocked for another natural disaster, adding that it could be used during the monsoon season when heavy rains trigger landslides and floods across the country.
“On the one hand, we couldn’t convey to donors what we needed. On the other hand, donors sent everything our way because they thought that Kathmandu was in ruins and the quake had caused massive humanitarian crisis,” Parajuli said pointing to the mineral water bottles and canned food that were gathering dust. “Before the earthquake, I even didn’t know the difference between a tent and tarpaulin,” he said.
A month after the earthquake, the Home Ministry presented a report reviewing the search, rescue and relief operations. While the 45-page report titled ‘Gorkha Earthquake: A Preliminary Report on One Month of Search, Rescue and Relief’ gives the government the credit for maintaining law and order in the wake of the earthquake and claims that the authorities stopped epidemics from spreading, it does exhibit some capacity for introspection. In a section titled ‘Areas for Reform and Learning’, the report notes that due to the lack of clarity on the standard operating procedure, there was confusion when it came to implementing the policies that were already in the books. Beyond procedural weaknesses, there was a serious dearth of accurate data: the ministry didn’t know how much human resource it possessed for search, rescue and relief operations and what kind of international assistance Nepal required. “Because of this, we could not mobilise the foreign teams effectively,” the report admits.
Did the Nepali state learn lessons from the inadequacies in response to the earthquake? Can one expect better preparedness in the future? The report, in its candid conclusion, offers some answers. “We should not be complacent in coming days if there’s a big natural calamity just because we were able to manage the devastating earthquake to some extent. The damage from another big earthquake can be beyond our imagination and unmanageable.” The report concludes, “We should learn the lessons from the above scenarios and put in place preparedness and response accordingly. The Home Ministry should coordinate the operations and all ministries should lead the work in concerned sectors.” But for those who have survived the earthquake yet suffered incalculable loss – for whom this might be too little too late – the report’s casual conclusion might offer little respite.
~ Deepak Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He has written for TIME magazine and the Caravan.