Nepal hasn’t had time to learn from the first earthquake but NGOs can prepare for future

Double disaster for Nepal. Narendra Shrestha/EPA

Some countries experience far more disasters than others. This can offer them an opportunity to learn from previous events in order to help prepare for the next one and, hopefully, reduce the scale of devastation and death. The learning process is often slow and yet there are instances when the lessons learned from one disaster can be readily applied to another in a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately, this may not be the case for Nepal, which has been struck by a powerful earthquake for the second time in three weeks. The latest earthquake, this time occurring with a magnitude of 7.3, has added 65 deaths and nearly 2,000 injuries (at the time of writing) to the list of more than 8,000 people who died during the 5.6-times larger quake of April 25.

To have two large disasters occur in the same place in such a short space of time is relatively rare. This means there are limited opportunities for governments or aid organisation to learn how to deal with double events. The last time Nepal experienced an earthquake that killed more than 5,000 individuals was in 1934.

At the same time, Nepal’s latest earthquake comes so soon after the previous one that the country may not have sufficient space to transfer any lessons it has learned. This applies to both the Nepalese governments and aid organisations in the field, which are already dealing with a disaster on scale rarely seen.

Learning curve

Disaster relief operations in countries with poor policies of disaster preparedness, such as Nepal, are characterised by steep learning curves. When a second disaster strikes, there is an opportunity to improve on disaster management as long as there is time to learn.

This seems to have been the case for Turkey when an earthquake killed approximately 17,000 people in August of 1999 and poor relief operations almost cost the country’s newly elected prime minister his job. When a second tremor hit the same region in November of that year, the Turkish government won praise for its organisation of relief efforts.

Unfortunately, Nepal’s situation today more closely resembles that of Mexico during September 1985, when a powerful 8.0 tremor hit Mexico City, killing approximately 10,000 people. The main quake was followed by an aftershock of magnitude 7.5 that destroyed additional buildings. Search-and-rescue operations, as well as aid distribution, had to be organized by private individuals, students and neighbours in the absence of government-led relief operations.

Starting again, again. Mast Irham/EPA

In the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake on April 25, numerous obstacles delayed the provision of aid. To begin with, there were problems over coordination. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play a crucial role in providing disaster aid but governments occasionally block these operations. During this emergency, the Nepalese government has been criticised for blocking aid to remote areas and thwarting the work of NGOs. But NGOs have also been criticised for not reaching some remote areas in need of aid.

Unfortunately, we do not know whether NGOs would have reached these areas if they had had the full cooperation of the Nepalese government, which already has a poor political record. The distribution of aid has also been hampered by poor weather conditions and overwhelmed airports.

However, by May 6, the UN reported that government and humanitarian partners had reached all affected districts. The UN also recently reported that 330 humanitarian agencies are implanting 2,200 humanitarian activities and that 10% of the US $423 million appeal for aid has already been funded. The question is will this flow of aid carry over to the new event of May 12 or will it be hampered by it?

What next?

The answer to this question will become more evident in the coming hours. NGOs will be able to use their experience and presence in the field to to continue providing aid in the face of bad weather and poor infrastructure. This may be crucial since most (usually) government-sponsored international rescue teams sent in after the first quake had left the country by the time of the second.

In addition, since the government of Nepal has lost some credibility, NGOs will be able to use Nepal’s place on top of the news agenda across the planet to secure more funds for the flash appeal for aid.

As in Mexico 1985, Nepal does not have enough time to transfer lessons from one earthquake to the next. Yet NGOs will play a role in collecting, consolidating, sharing, and applying the lessons from 2015 to future disasters.

This may also have very positive political consequences: many of the individuals that organised rescue efforts in Mexico in 1985 joined forces with opposition parties that contributed to the eventual democratisation of the country.