Counting the human cost of a natural disaster

Red Cross rescue workers in Kathmandu
Red Cross rescue workers in Kathmandu
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As the death toll mounts following the devastating earthquake and avalanches in Nepal, Chris Bond looks at the challenges facing rescuers and the impact of the disaster.

IT is nestled high up in the world’s rarefied canopy.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

Wedged against the sheer wall of the mighty Himalayas, Nepal is home to some of nature’s most stupefying creations. Eight out of 14 of the world’s highest peaks are located in the country including the most famous of them all – Mount Everest, the highest mountain on the planet.

Ever since Nepal first opened its borders to outsiders back in the 1950s, this tiny mountain nation has held an irresistible, almost mystical, allure for travellers. Generations of mountaineers, trekkers and adventurers have been drawn here eager to pit their wits against the towering peaks, or simply to marvel at the unparalleled landscape.

A nirvana for mountain lovers, this ancient and beguiling kingdom, known as the birthplace of Buddha, is seen as a spiritual haven by many.

But today Nepal is a country in shock following the devastating weekend earthquake which triggered a series of deadly avalanches and has now claimed at more than 5,000 lives with thousands more injured.

A major international aid effort is now underway and ore than 200 climbers have been rescued around Mount Everest, which was struck by deadly avalanches in the 7.8-magnitude quake.

Vast tent cities have sprung up in the country’s capital, Kathmandu, for those displaced or afraid to return to their homes as strong aftershocks continue to be felt.

Terrifying pictures and video footage have emerged showing the moment the avalanches struck and anxious relatives have been desperately trying to find out if their loved ones are safe.

Celebrated mountaineer Alan Hinkes, from Northallerton, in North Yorkshire, has led numerous trips up Everest over the years and speaking to The Yorkshire Post yesterday he said: “I’ve got friends out there and most of them are OK as far as I’m aware, and I’ve been sent an email from a Nepalese friend who’s OK, but it’s a grim situation.”

Hinkes has been to Katmandu more than 30 times and says the Everest base camp, which was hit by an avalanche, has always been regarded as a relatively safe area. “They’ve never had an avalanche over base camp like this before, because the only thing that could cause this is an earthquake shaking the mountain.”

He says the impact will have been devastating. “Rock, snow and ice gets blown up, it’s like being shelled, and the only thing you can do is try and dive into a hole or get behind a rock, and hope the rock is big enough.”

Then there’s the deluge of snow on top of this. “It’s not light, fluffy snow, it’s filled with rocks and chunks of ice the size of cars,” he says.

Although the rescue mission is well under way it is fraught with danger because of the altitude and terrain and is hampered by the fact that the route between base camp and camp one is blocked.

“It’s several days to the nearest airstrip. You can get a helicopter to base camp but they can’t go above 6,000 metres and base camp is at 5,400 metres, so they’re operating at the edge of their limits and can’t carry much,” says Hinkes.

It’s now a matter of urgently trying to reach those injured or stranded. “We’re talking about extreme altitudes and people who are trapped need to be brought down as soon as possible because the weather could get worse and there could be more avalanches, it’s a race against time to get everyone off the mountain.”

Hinkes knows how unpredictable and potentially lethal the mountains in Nepal can be and he was caught up in an earthquake himself in 1988. “I was in a hotel in Katmandu and the room started shaking but thankfully it didn’t collapse. But that was smaller earthquake than this one.”

He has been visiting Nepal for the past 30 years and understands its appeal to people. “It’s a beautiful country, you have the mountains and the foothills so it has a massive allure for trekkers and climbers. It has Everest, although K2 and Kangchenjunga are actually much harder, and the people there are lovely, they’re very welcoming but also very resilient.

“Whenever I go around giving talks and lectures I always recommend people to go there because it is a special place, so this really is a tragedy.”

But it’s one he feared might happen one day. “It’s shocking and horrible but it’s not a surprise. I’ve been dreading something like this happening. People have been aware this could happen and there was a conference just the week before to discuss it,” he says.

For an earthquake to strike one of the world’s poorest countries, and one that depends on tourism to boost its economy, is particularly cruel. “It shows just what Everest is like, it can be a dangerous place and my heart goes out to the people of Nepal and all those involved,” says Hinkes.

This isn’t the first time Nepal has been hit by a natural disaster like this. Professor Tim Wright, an earthquake expert at the University of Leeds, says the country runs along a key fault line between Asia and India. “We expect a large earthquake every 100 years or so in Nepal, with the last ones in 1934 and 1833, so this earthquake was not a surprise.”

Earthquakes can have devastating effects and to put it in context the one that occurred at the weekend released the same amount of energy as about 500 Hiroshima-sized nuclear blasts.

Despite modern buildings being better equipped to withstand earthquakes even some of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth are left helpless in the face of nature’s wrath.

Four years ago a devastating earthquake hit Japan, leaving more than 20,000 people dead or missing. The tremor generated a massive tsunami along the Japanese coast and triggered the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

One of the most devastating in living memory was the Boxing Day earthquake in 2004 which triggered sea surges around the Indian Ocean which left more than 230,000 people dead.

Dealing with the aftermath of these tragedies is a huge challenge. Kevin Tasker is one of the partners at the Centre for Crisis Psychology (CCP), a Skipton-based centre that provides psychological management of stress, crisis or trauma.

He says although they are unlikely to be sending a team out to Nepal, they will be involved with the recovery process for those Britons caught up in the weekend’s dreadful events.

“When they arrive back we will be at the airport with their next of kin offering psychological support.”

Tasker says rescuers not only have to contend with incredibly difficult terrain, but also the constant risk of further tremors and avalanches.

“Because of the intensity of the earthquake the infrastructure there is in a mess. I’ve been to Katmandu before on previous incidents and the road network isn’t brilliant so this will make it all the more difficult to get people to hospital.”

He says some of the survivors will have witnessed some harrowing scenes. “At Everest base camp they will have seen this terrible avalanche coming and would have literally been running for their lives. They will have seen friends getting buried alive and from a psychological perspective this will be really traumatic.”

For some people this will have been their first time in Nepal. “It will have been the trip of a lifetime. Some will be experienced climbers but for others it will have been their first time at Everest.

“They will have saved up and been looking forward to it and now we have the worst possible scenario where some won’t be coming back.”