On Saturday, 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, with the epicentre in Lanjung district, 80 km west of Kathmandu. There was extensive damage to buildings and avalanches occurred in the Everest region. Seventeen days later, a second earthquake with almost the same magnitude struck again on the border of Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk, about 76 km north-east of Kathmandu. There were more than 300 aftershocks greater than magnitude 4.0 over the period of
As of May 2015, the earthquakes caused more than 8,790 fatalities and 22,300 injuries. There were more female casualties than male and almost 25% of the total were children under the age of 10. Anecdotal remarks suggest that the coping mechanisms for women during the earthquake were to run inside the house as it is considered to be the safe domestic space and also to rescue children who were inside.
It is likely that the death toll would have been higher if the earthquake had occurred during a school day, as over 25,000 classrooms were destroyed and another 10,000 classrooms will require some form of repair. However, the earthquake occurred during a time when most people were working in the fields or outside their houses.
The city of Kathmandu was not severely impacted from the earthquakes. Had the earthquakes occurred closer to the capital, the death toll would likely have been 10 to 20 times higher, as Kathmandu is a densely populated area, full of aged buildings that are not designed to any earthquake building code standards.
The road to normalcy
I arrived in Kathmandu on 6 June 2015. On my way to the Plan International office, I was struck by the fact that, on the surface at least, activities in the city centre had resumed normalcy (Photo 1).
Although I could see rubble in the streets, cracks in the buildings and damage on the highway, people were back to their regular work, public transportation was operating normally, and children were back in schools.
During my first week in Kathmandu, I felt aftershocks and tremors in the buildings. I could see fear mixed up with exhaustion on the faces of my Nepali colleagues. The Plan International team had been working tirelessly for almost eight weeks, without a day off.
Most of my Nepali friends said that they were afraid to sleep at night, and would sleep in the living room – the room nearest to the exit, in the event that they needed to evacuate. Some were so fearful of the aftershocks that they preferred to sleep outside. I also noticed that the hotel staff who were on the evening shifts were sleeping on the ground floor or in the car park during the day for the same reason.
New building codes
On the surface, the city looked like it was getting back to life as it was before the earthquake, though now with a greater sense of fear. I cannot imagine when they will regain the feeling of safety in their homes and workplaces with aftershocks still occurring.
For most people, this was the biggest earthquake they had experienced in their lifetime. The last big earthquake was in 1934, over 80 years ago, and it killed more than 16,000 people.
After the earthquakes, the government issued a two-month moratorium on the construction of new buildings as they are currently amending the building codes. According to the ministry officials, the new code will be more rigorous and will be strictly enforced. Living with the fear of earthquakes should not be the new “normal” for earthquake survivors.
I hope the reconstruction effort will adhere to the promise of disaster risk reduction, providing a safer environment for survivors. Building earthquake-safe homes only costs an additional 5% to 10% than those built without the precautions.
However, for most affected people, this is a significant barrier as they are now living with very limited resources while trying to provide food, cater to their children’s needs and revive their livelihoods in addition to rebuilding their homes. It will therefore be a significant challenge for the government to enforce strict building codes and it remains to be seen how successful this initiative will be.
Lack of normalcy in rural areas
Going to the field was a different story compared to my experience in the city.
My first visit was to Bhaktapur, a neighbouring district of Kathmandu. Almost no buildings were intact. The streets were filled with damaged bricks and full of destruction (Photo 2). However, it was apparent that people had tried to clean the debris and salvage items from destroyed houses.
From Bhaktapur, we travelled to the rural part of Kathmandu, Makwanpur district, approximately a four-hour drive. It was a lovely drive with lush green paddy fields and forests. However, we could also see the destruction in the houses that we passed. Almost 90% of buildings were destroyed in some of the villages in Makwanpur. Most of the people were still living in makeshift tents that struggle to withstand heat during the day and cold during the night. The situation will become worse as the monsoon season has now arrived (July-September).
Monsoon, flash floods and landslides
The monsoon will increase the likelihood of flash floods triggered by extreme cloudbursts, or the failure of glacial lakes, artificial dams or naturally occurring dams created by landslides, debris, ice or snow.
These flash floods can cause more damage than regular floods, because they tend to move higher amounts of debris, thus causing greater damage to hydropower stations, roads, bridges, and buildings. Heavy rains will also trigger landslides that will endanger current survivor settlements and also make roads impassable.
Delivering relief is likely to become increasingly challenging as more landslides occur. During the two months since the earthquakes struck, aid agencies have distributed tarpaulin sheets for emergency shelters benefiting more than 688,000 households. However, food, water, and shelter are still top priorities for aid in the affected areas. All aid agencies are revamping their efforts to make sure that more than 2 million earthquake survivors are better protected.
Protecting the most vulnerable
Children, as one of the most vulnerable groups and the most affected by disasters, have distinct needs compared to adults. They are at risk of falling behind educationally if they do not go back to school, making them more prone to future risks. In the most affected districts, 60-80% of the classrooms are destroyed or heavily damaged (Photo 3).
Many people feared that the disaster will increase student drop-out rates and force children to find jobs.
Currently Plan International is building temporary classrooms in the most affected areas to make sure children can return as soon as possible. As of 15 July, Plan International has built more than 166 of these temporary learning centres, and supporting thousands of children resume their education.
Establishing temporary schools is becoming a race for Plan International (Photo 4), especially with the monsoon season rapidly approaching.
There are also high trafficking risks among child survivors. Every year, around 7,000 to 10,000 Nepalese girls – children between the ages of 9 and 16 – are taken against their will.
During my deployment, we received reports that four children (one girl and three boys) were taken from their villages and trafficked to Pokhara, a tourist destination in Nepal. Many people do not understand that the earthquake has exacerbated these risks as child traffickers take advantage of the post-disaster turmoil.
To reduce these risks and ensure children are better protected, Plan International is undertaking the following measures:
• setting up safe spaces for children to play and spend their day;
• increasing the awareness of parents and children regarding child trafficking, gender based violence, and child labour; and
• strengthening the community’s child protection system in the villages.
Protecting and educating children during emergencies
There are many isolated and hard-to-reach areas in the affected districts. For these areas, Plan International has established mobile outreach teams where a group of trained volunteers visit remote areas and conduct psychosocial activities with the children. In addition, the volunteers educate parents and community leaders on preventing violence and abuse against children, especially in the aftermath of emergencies.
Plan’s focuses on listening to children – referencing a joint consultation report conducted by Plan and partners with more than 1,800 children in 14 districts. Here we asked children about their concerns, priorities and opinions in the aftermath of the earthquake. Understanding the needs of children is context-specific, and must also come directly from the opinion and perspective of the child.
There exists limited research in the area of protection and education for children during emergencies, particularly in developing countries. Aid agencies face recurring barriers and challenges with limited resources. More evidence-based research and preparedness measures are needed as failing to establish protection and education in the early days following an emergency could mean threatening the lives of children.
Many of my colleagues share that when they are in the field, children ask them: “When will the next earthquake hit? How will we know when it comes?”, to which the staff and volunteers would respond: “It is not about whether or not another earthquake will come…that we cannot predict, but it is rather a question of how prepared we can be.”
Mr Avianto Amri is a PhD student at Risk Frontiers. He has recently completed a Master of Research degree with Risk Frontiers gaining a mark of 91%. His PhD is funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and will examine child centred risk reduction within Indonesia and Australia. Mr Amri is supervised by Dr Katharine Haynes and Dr Deanne Bird from Risk Frontiers and Prof Kevin Ronan from Central Queensland University.
All photos taken by Mr Avianto Amri