Global response to disaster must be long-term

Most of those who perished in Nepal’s earthquake died as a result of poverty, writes Conor O’Loughlin

Conor O’Loughlin

A priest’s ordination was what saved the village of Okhaldhunga in Eastern Nepal. When the earthquake struck, the people of that village had gathered to celebrate an ordination ceremony. According to Santosh Kumar Magar, a 29-year-old teacher, the ceremony is what saved their lives.

“It was almost 11 o’clock when the earthquake came,” he recalled. “I came out of the room, and saw houses falling down around me. Some of the animals died. The people were saved because all the villagers were gathered for the ordination.”

He struggles to put into words the impact of the earthquake.

“It was a terrible experience,” he says. “I have never had an experience like that in my life. It was the first time. I cannot explain it.”

Like Santosh, most Nepalese people are still struggling to come to terms with the terrible tragedy that struck the country on Saturday, April 25. The numbers are enormous: eight million affected and 1.5 million in need of urgent assistance.

Thankfully, Caritas, the network of global Catholic humanitarian agencies, have a strong presence in Nepal. Caritas Nepal has been established for 25 years and has a nationwide network of volunteers that enabled them to respond to this crisis immediately.

The entire Caritas network has rowed in behind their efforts. It is heartening to see the global Church respond as one to deliver vital aid to people whose lives have been torn apart by the events of April 25.

The joint Caritas response is focused on delivering aid to 75,000 people in one of the worst affected areas. The main priorities are shelter, water and sanitation.

The strength of the Caritas response is that it is both global and local. Caritas agencies, including Trócaire, provide both financial and personnel resources to the efforts, but ultimately this is a relief effort owned by the local people.

Scale

The scale of this crisis is enormous and the problems here will not be fixed over the coming days, weeks or even months. Long after the cameras are gone and the world’s attention has moved on, Caritas Nepal will be working for long-term improvements in people’s lives here.

That long-term approach is much needed. One of the most tragic aspects of this disaster that hits you when you spend time in Kathmandu is the realisation that the poorer neighbourhoods suffered most.

Much of the death and destruction was localised in these poorer districts, where low quality and over-crowded buildings were not able to withstand the earthquake. The people here died simply because they were too poor to protect themselves.

Nepal is the most recent illustration of the reality that poorly constructed buildings are the single biggest killer in the event of an earthquake. This is why earthquakes in developed countries rarely result in mass casualties, whereas earthquakes in countries such as Nepal result in thousands upon thousands of people lying under rubble.

When an earthquake strikes, the poorer you are the less chance you have of survival.

The earthquake was the catalyst for the destruction in Nepal but most of those who perished in last Saturday’s earthquake died as a result of poverty.

The outpouring of international assistance for the people of Nepal has been heart-warming. People here tell me they are deeply touched at how the world has rallied to their cause.

While our immediate focus must be on providing shelter and assistance to those left homeless, we must also plan for the long-term. We know Nepal will suffer further earthquakes – planning how to protect people against those future shocks should start today.

We must help to not only rebuild Nepal but to build it back better.

Like many cities around the world, Kathmandu was left vulnerable to a disaster of this scale due to growing urbanisation and poor building regulations.

Instead of offering shelter from the danger, homes in the poorer neighbourhoods of Kathmandu collapsed.

It is a tragic irony that so many struggling people were killed by the very houses they worked so hard to be able to live in.

The world is standing with Nepal as it attempts to come to terms with what has happened. The legacy of this appalling disaster should be an international effort to ensure the people of Nepal do not have to sift through rubble for their loved ones again.

 

Conor O’Loughlin is Humanitarian Coordinator for Trócaire. To support Trócaire’s relief efforts in Nepal visit trocaire.org or phone 1850 408 408 (RoI) or 0800 912 1200 (NI).