Nepal in dire need
Nepal needs the world’s help. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the picturesque but impoverished Himalayan nation last April 25 has so far left 6,200 people dead and more than 13,000 injured. The government says the death toll could reach as high as 10,000. Meanwhile, the damage to property and infrastructure would probably be incalculable, given the profusion of ancient heritage sites and cultural treasures that were reduced to or buried under rubble by the quake.
The Red Cross reported that in areas near the epicenter of the quake northeast of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, the devastation is so great that up to 90 percent of homes and buildings have been destroyed. “Six Red Cross assessment teams are reporting that some towns and villages in the worst-affected districts close to the epicenter have suffered almost total devastation,” the organization said in a statement. Added Jagan Chapagain, head of the Red Cross’ Asia Pacific division: “The hospital has collapsed, and people are digging through the rubble with their hands in the hope that they might find family members who are still alive.”
In remote areas outside of the Kathmandu Valley region, hundreds of thousands of people are said to be still out of reach due to inclement weather and massive landslides. Freelance photographer Adam Ferguson, writing for Time magazine, reported that while “the majority of Kathmandu is still standing, with only the buildings that weren’t constructed properly having fallen over,” the hardest hit are the Unesco sites and historical structures that were the star attractions of the tourism industry that was crucial to Nepal’s economy. Whole sections of the historic district of Bhaktapur, for instance, considered the best preserved ancient city in Nepal and hailed for its unique architecture of old temples in wood and stone, are now a collapsed heap of gravel and dust.
Still, as locals and foreign rescuers race against time and the elements to find survivors underneath the piles of concrete, tales of extraordinary survival continue to trickle in, lending hope that more people could be found alive. Five days after the earthquake, 15-year-old Pemba Tamang was pulled out of the ruins of a guesthouse in Kathmandu, quite miraculously only with minor injuries; he managed to stay alive, he said, by eating a jar of butter, even as he heard the fading screams of people all around him who were also pinned underneath. A woman in her 20s, buried under a collapsed six-story building, was similarly rescued by Israeli and Norwegian aid workers. Earlier, a 5-month-old baby was discovered unharmed and rescued from what was left of a house in Bhaktapur.
Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest nations, can use all the help it can get at this time. The Philippines, after the terrible calamity it endured with Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” is now offered a chance to give back to its Asian neighbor by paying forward the goodwill and generosity it received from the international community at its hour of direst need. Emergency teams from countries such as France, Norway and Israel are now in Nepal, helping local authorities coordinate search-and-rescue missions and care for the injured. The Philippine government may want to dispatch a team of disaster and social-aid workers, plus doctors and army personnel, to augment the international effort now underway to help Nepal care for its stricken citizens, and eventually get it back on its feet. Individuals and organizations may also make donations through the Red Cross and Unicef.
Having said that, we realize that Nepal’s grim experience should also prod the Philippine government to revisit its contingency plans, if any, should an earthquake of similar devastating proportions hit Manila or other densely populated cities. Scientists have long warned that Manila is long overdue for a temblor of significant magnitude, since the last big quake to hit the major fault that runs through the region was about 360 years ago. How ready are we for such a daunting eventuality? Estimates say a 7.2-earthquake would cause, at a minimum, some 300,000 casualties and destruction to 30,000 structures—still a prediction, but a horrific one.
A viable blueprint for how Manila and the rest of the Philippines can survive a Big One should be among President Aquino’s deliverables in his last year in office. As he saw with Yolanda, natural calamities can spell disaster not only for people and buildings, but also for a government caught unprepared.
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