Deeply personal

I have no wish to add to the commentary on the disaster in Nepal caused by a major earthquake yesterday, and followed by numerous aftershocks and at least two other significant quakes of well over 6 magnitude on the Richter Scale.

There is a wealth of information, distressing and tragic images and news updates as casualty figures rise. It is an overwhelming tragedy and the coming days critical as a picture emerges of the extent of the situation, including the remoter areas nearer the epicentre. Information is aplenty and I do not plan to add to it.

My words are about how deeply personal this tragedy is, and that is for me at a distance, physically removed from the situation. However, I am strongly connected having lived in Nepal for approaching six years. Nepal, and especially Kathmandu hold a very precious place in my heart. I am struggling to process this.

This earthquake is not unexpected. We have long known that a major earthquake is due, or even overdue. Nepal sits on a highly seismic line, which give us the spectacular Himalayas as a result of the tectonic plates shifting through history. We have long feared an earthquake of this scale but we have always hoped that it would not happen.

When I first arrived in Kathmandu in July 2000, fresh off an overnight flight from Scotland, to take up a new job in a country I had never been to, I was spellbound by the city. But even in my first few days, I started hearing about “the earthquake”. I quickly learned that Nepal is highly vulnerable, and that Kathmandu particularly was in a highly precarious position. The population density, fragility of many buildings and concentrated construction on top of a ground which used to be the floor of a lake and now prone to liquefaction all being factors which would intensify the impact of an earthquake. I soon became very aware of earthquake risk, but did not know what to do in the event of a tremor. I did not have to wait long before I was pushed into action. The deep Gujurat earthquake in January 2001 caused swaying of buildings and dizziness in beings even as far as Nepal. Not long after, in July we had a rattling 5.9 earthquake while I was lying in my bed dozing off one Monday night. As the shaking intensified, I realised I had no clue what to do and I was lying there thinking”what-do-I-do-I-need-to-shelter-in-a-doorway-or-is-it-under-the-bed-or-should-I-run-outside?” when I realised that the shaking had stopped. Nothing had been damaged, but there were shouts of “bhuichalo” (earthquake in Nepali) outside, dogs were frantic, people gathering outside and I settled on my rooftop balcony feeling safer on top of a building than in it, and unwilling go to back to bed in case a bigger one came.

That night there was no further seismic action, nor was there much sleep. My paralysis when the earthquake started galvanised me to learn more and without doubt prepared me for future earthquake experiences, and in particular the 2004 quake which caused the massive tsunami. We were in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands on that day and returned to Kathmandu a few days later, with an intensified dread of the anticipated “big one” which we knew was already overdue.

There have been a number of deadly quakes in Nepal in recent decades, but the last massive one was in 1934 measuring 8.4. Seismology experts have calculated that a quake above 7 on the Richter scale is likely every 60 – 80 years. Hence the sense that a “big one” was overdue or imminent. Returning from a major earthquake, into a vulnerable area caused incredible stress. This was not an irrational fear, but a very real likelihood. We just had no idea when it might happen. We developed a plan of action for when such an earthquake came including a rendez vous point and communication back up. One particular friend and I worked through which supplies to hold, and which necessities to stock and a plan of action.  When she visited me in Yangon, she told me how that had now become a plan which she had jointly developed with a small number of friends in Kathmandu. They would join forces, each with different supplies if needed.

We left Nepal in November 2005, and a major reason was the vulnerability to earthquake. We had moved house to a safer place, but still felt that the risk was high and when the opportunity arose for work in Mongolia this was welcome. But I am still highly aware, and have written of earthquakes and mentioned more than once, that one of the reasons we are so taken with our home here is because it is small and likely to be safer in the event of a quake.

I was in a car heading home yesterday lunchtime, when hubby phoned and broke the news of the earthquake. As soon as I got home, I spent most of my time checking up online, seeking news of family and friends in the affected area. Having lived there for so long, and with family across the whole affected region, it was an overwhelming task trying to seek reassurance about so many people. There were so many updates from friends, family and former colleagues all over the world, desperately looking for information and sharing any updates they found. Thank heavens for social media. Although phone lines were mostly down, internet was more functional and soon messages came through from those who were safe and knew of others on Twitter and Facebook. In no time, #nepal and #earthquake were trending on Twitter. This morning we continued to receive news that loved ones are mostly unhurt. After the initial relief, we realise that many are homeless. Most spent the night outside, either under tents or on the roadside either because homes are destroyed or unsafe, or due to fear because of the aftershocks.

A great deal has been done in terms of preparedness in recent years, but the geography of the Kathmandu valley and population density are fundamental features which intensify the impact of the earthquake.  Hospital patients are being treated outside as there is no more space inside. Water and food will urgently become limited. One piece of welcome information was that although Kathmandu airport was closed to regular traffic, it was still able to function and late last night the first relief supplies arrived from India. The national and international communities have mobilised and a humanitarian effort underway with emergency coordination mechanisms already activated. A State of Emergency has been declared.

However, we still do not know the scale of the situation. The coming days are indeed critical, particularly given the strength and number of aftershocks on the weakened and fragile structures. Gradually we are learning more, and each new piece of information cuts deeper.

While I am protected from the immediacy of this catastrophe being at a distance, I cannot say that I am not affected.  This post is a personal, selfish catharsis from an individual trying to process and deal with the scale of this disaster. It is deeply personal.

We are holding the people of this Himalayan region close in our hearts at this time and holding out hope for a rapid, effective response reaching and treating casualties quickly and for a strong recovery.


Brought by the rains

Apparently the cyclone (Mahasen) which is bearing down on the Bangladesh/Myanmar coast has weakened to Tropical Storm status.  Which has to be better news than cyclone status.  Marginally.  It does not mean however, that the highly vulnerable communities which are in its path, under the wide system spread across the region, and which be affected by the storm surge, winds and flooding, will not be impacted.  They almost certainly will be. The frantic preparations will for sure make a difference, but the vulnerability in these areas is enormous.

storm clouds over YangonThe fact that the storm kept changing its mind about exactly where it was headed, has kept us on tenterhooks refreshing the storm tracking maps and checking predictions constantly.  It seems to have changed tack again and is passing a good bit further north of us than originally predicted.  There are some pretty angry skies here though, whether the outer tendrils of Mahasen, or just coincidental monsoonal tantrums gathering.  Whatever it is, it is bringing dramatic bursts of rain, thunder, lightning and winds.

I was woken in the night by one such dramatic rainstorm.  The rains were pounding, the winds rushing and in the midst of it was the bullfrog.  He was seemingly confused, as he was giving out his loud “bring the rains” call, which is very different from his “wallowing in the rains” call.  Dawn saw a sky strewn with wispy clouds, and great clumps of chunky grey cloud against an incongruous bright blue sky.

The rains however, had brought an abundant flowering of the Padauk tree, even more  profuse than that of last week.  As soon as I left home, I saw women with Padauk in their hair, bikes and cars with a bloom and an influx of sellers among the traffic.  There must have been a huge overnight Padauk harvest.

Woman with Padauk flowers in her hair

Woman with Padauk flowers in her hair

Padauk seller

Padauk seller at the traffic lights

As I reached the bottom of my lane, however, the most special moment of the day happened.  The woman in one of the tiny wooden shops called out to me, asking me to wait a moment.  She reached over, holding out a small branch of the Padauk for me.  It was still covered in raindrops and giving out its characteristic sweet scent.  I gave some of the blossoms to colleagues, who put it in their hair.  Many other of the women already had blossoms pinned onto their hair.  The remaining blossoms sat on my desk, their scent and colours reminding me of how little is needed to bring a smile.  Despite the nervousness of the approaching cyclone towards the northern shores, there was an unexpected and welcome lightness somehow brought to the day.

April May 2013 598

By the end of the working day, the flowers were already wilting and news of Mahasen making landfall filtering through.  It seems from early reports that the system is continuing to weaken but we know that it will be devastating for too many.

As the rains sweep in they bring transformation – some welcome and some most definitely not.