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Nepal to boost search-and-rescue capabilities

Recently trained in light search and rescue by the Nepal Red Cross Society, a group of students at the Panchakanya Secondary School in Nepal’s Bhaktapur District, smile to the camera
(David Swanson/IRIN)

Experts have long predicted widespread devastation and death should a large earthquake hit Nepal, a country with vulnerable infrastructure and ill-equipped urban search-and-rescue teams. In an effort to prepare for such an event, officials have created a strategy to boost emergency responders’ skills.

Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, the densely populated capital metropolitan area, has a history of major earthquakes every 70 to 80 years. The last big quake was in 1934. And though the country has building codes for each of its 99 municipalities, enforcement is scant.

The National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), a local NGO, estimates 85 percent of buildings in Kathmandu Valley could collapse in an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 Mw or greater on the moment magnitude scale, claiming 85,000 lives.

Another 15,000 people could be saved, but only if there is an equipped, well-trained urban search and rescue team (USAR) in place, said Ramesh Guragain, NSET’s deputy director.

Training, equipment needed

The country currently has only light teams, which can search at the surface of collapsed structures, and a more limited number of medium teams, which can go into fallen buildings to save trapped persons. Heavy teams carry out the most difficult and complex search-and-rescue operations, using search dogs and other tools. The classifications are set by the UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), which provides guidance for the preparation and deployment of search-and-rescue teams internationally.

The largest search-and-rescue deployment thus far worldwide was in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake, when 60 teams were deployed. Should a similarly sized magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake – or stronger - strike Nepal, the country does not even have oxygen masks to enable responders to search for survivors in a fire or collapsed buildings, said disaster management expert Moira Reddick, coordinator of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, based in Kathmandu.

The consortium - which includes aid groups, financial institutions and the government - is working to boost emergency responders’ ability to perform search and rescue in Nepal.

The only USAR training local responders have received thus far is the Programme for Enhancement of Emergency Response (PEER), conducted by the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre. The training focused on emergency medical response and rescuing survivors from fallen buildings. Among the trained are 300 Nepalis from the army, police forces, Red Cross and local NGOs.
While this training prepared them for light and medium search and rescue, it is not enough, say NSET officials.

“Even when we have [had] good training, we still need a team on standby, prepositioned with proper equipment and logistics,” said Guragain, NSET’s deputy director.

According to INSARAG, an equipped medium-level USAR is crucial within the first 32 hours of the disaster, when a trapped person’s chances of survival are greatest. That team needs to have enough staff to cover 24-hour shifts for one week.
“Unless we have a team on standby here, there [will] be more tragedy and destruction, and we will lose the little chance we have to save lives,” said Pitamber Aryal, disaster management director of Nepal Red Cross Society.

Finalizing strategy

Relying on international teams is the last resort, said Reddick, who used to work with the UK government, fielding and fulfilling search-and-rescue requests following earthquakes around the world.

"The first 72 hours is the frame of reference we use for search and rescue. It is very unlikely after 72 hours that anyone will be found alive and rescued from buildings," she warned.

Getting international teams into the Kathmandu Valley in the first 72 hours of a large earthquake will be “extremely” difficult due to the time required to draft a political agreement to bring in the teams, Reddick added.

“We know the situation is really fragile, and we intend to be better prepared,” Pradip Koirala, joint secretary of Ministry of Home Affairs, told IRIN. He said the government is working on boosting coordination efforts on emergency preparedness and has finalized an urban search-and rescue-strategy.

The strategy, developed in coordination with the UN, is in line with INSARAG’s guidelines, was endorsed by the high-level Central Natural Disaster Committee on 5 April and is now under review by the newly formed government.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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