Tag Archives: emergency preparedness

By air, by land and by Karma – transportation in Nepal’s Himalayas

 

 

The Canadian Twin Otter is the war horse of airplanes and an expert at treacherous routes through mountains and short take-offs and landings

The Canadian Twin Otter is the war horse of airplanes and an expert at treacherous routes through mountains and short take-offs and landings

I learned a new expression this week: Controlled Flight into Terrain or CFIT meant to describe a plane crash where a pilot unintentionally flies into the ground or a mountain. For anyone who flies around Nepal, this is a stark reminder of the risks. The day I read about CFIT on Twitter, a Nepal Airlines Canadian-built Twin Otter, the war horse of all planes, one of the few able to navigate Nepal’s uncompromising and unforgiving mountains and its short airstrips, crashed into a fog enshrouded mountain side, killing all 18 people on board. The flight bound for Jumla in the high Himalayas took off in dense fog and then asked to be rerouted before contact broke.

Traveling around Nepal is surreally beautiful but far from simple.

Winding road into Western Nepal with goats the only ones able to navigate the precipice © Donatella Lorch

Winding road into Western Nepal with goats the only ones able to navigate the precipice © Donatella Lorch

There are few paved roads and the dirt ones, mostly carved out of perpendicular mountain sides next to 1000 meter plunges are listed on maps as “fair weather” which means they are impassable for four or more months during the monsoons or by the frequent landslide. Many of the remote and desperately poor communities are only easily reachable by plane and on dirt airstrips that require STOL or short take offs and landings. But snow, fog and rain make navigating mountains treacherous so much so that airports, including Kathmandu’s, regularly close down for hours.

 

Paved roads in Nepal are few and far between. This is the only paved road into far Western Nepal. Here two UN vehicles navigate a narrow section © Donatella Lorch

Paved roads in Nepal are few and far between. This is the only paved road into far Western Nepal. Here two UN vehicles navigate a narrow section © Donatella Lorch

This is the land of the Twin Otter. Maybe this crash was an anomaly?. Kunda Dixit, a renowned journalist and flying aficionado burst my bubble. Sixteen of Nepal’s fleet of 25 Twin Otters have crashed. According to Dixit, Nepal Airlines has now lost 70 percent of its 12 Twin Otters to crashes and has only one still airworthy. Even more heart stopping, Dixit’s article in the Nepali Times pointed out that of all crashes since 1955, about 90 percent were due to CFIT.

The reasons are multifaceted. Cut throat competition in the airline business and thin profit margins coupled with political and local corruption has decimated safety nets. The government, struggling after a decade of a vicious Maoist revolt, has shown itself too weak to implement reform in that sector. Many of the smaller planes, such as the one that just crashed, are not provided with weather radar or de-icing. Flying has become a booming business and some pilots are careless and not as well trained as the veterans. Flight dispatchers should also be held responsible but the biggest pressure is on the pilots to fly regardless of bad weather and cash incentives are given for successful landings at destination. Last year a plane crashed at Jomson, when the captain refused to heed instructions not to land in a tail wind.

Late last year, the European Commission blacklisted all Nepali planes from European airspace. Some might think this move irrelevant since no Nepali airline flies that far. But more to the point, they advised Europeans not to fly in Nepal. We have also been advised not to fly on any plane except for Buddha Air which has my eight-year-old son teasing me at take-off that this may be the fastest way to get to Nirvana.

Nepal ---- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

Nepal —- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

So what are people to do, stick to the roads? Nepal has one of the highest accident rates in the world.  Despite a plethora of signs saying “Dead Slow”, “Sharp Bend,” “Push Horn” and “Accident Prone Area,” trucks, buses and taxi jeeps are overloaded, have non working signals, don’t use headlights and their drivers rarely slow down when they see you coming in the other direction on a road barely the width of a lane and a bit (with a precipice on one side).

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Truck windshields are an artistic collection of colored stickers, plastic multi-colored flowers, and religious paintings leaving two small slits through which to see the road. Breakdowns are marked by a few tree branches stuck in the back of the vehicle held immobile by a rock behind a wheel gathered from the nearby recent landslide.

Truck windshields are festooned with taped decorations and plastic flowers making driving more challenging © Donatella Lorch

Truck windshields are festooned with taped decorations and plastic flowers making driving more challenging © Donatella Lorch

After driving 1000 kms from Kathmandu to Western Nepal, I quickly learned to give up my American road etiquette. Asking “how far” provides useless information. The key is “how long does it take to get there.” The only paved road snaking uphill almost 2000 meters into remote districts of western Nepal is a 134km stretch or a six-hour drive.

A bus drives through a recently cleared landslide on the road to Dadeldhura, Western Nepal © Donatella Lorch

A bus drives through a recently cleared landslide on the road to Dadeldhura, Western Nepal © Donatella Lorch

It is marked by 18 roadside rock shrines, engraved with the date and location where a vehicle plunged into the abyss. It is so steep here, that the wreckage remains untouched.  Even the country’s vast population of stray dogs participates in making driving challenging. They curl up and sleep in the middle of the road and like everyone else on the road, they do not give way. In fact, they don’t even wake up.

Nepali stray dogs consider the road home. Why move? © Donatella Lorch

Nepali stray dogs consider the road home. Why move? © Donatella Lorch

My Nepali friends shrug their shoulders at the dangers. It all boils down to Karma, they say.  If it is your time, it is your time. I have yet to reach that zen acceptance.

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

I thought I’d alternate risk. I flew back to Kathmandu on Buddha Air.

In the heart of earthquake land, Kathmandu waits for the Big One

January 15th is the 80th anniversary of the 8.4 magnitude earthquake that destroyed Kathmandu in 1934. Within a minute, 17,000 people were dead in Nepal and Northern Bihar. In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, 80,000 buildings crumbled and 8,500 people died.

The 1934 Earthquake in Nepal destroyed 80,000 buildings in the capital Kathmandu

The 1934 Earthquake in Nepal destroyed 80,000 buildings in the capital Kathmandu

Though earthquakes are frequently felt in the capital city (two since August), earthquake history shows Kathmandu gets hit by a major quake every 75 years or so. In a recent email, the U.S. Embassy here in Nepal reemphasized the need for being prepared for the inevitable: “it is not a matter of if but of when,” I was reminded. We are definitely due. John, my husband, argues with my angst. “Earthquakes don’t observe anniversaries,” he reminded me this morning.  Followed by the line he used to convince me to move here six months ago: “Earthquakes aren’t like pregnancies. They don’t have due dates.”  We have learned some lessons in our half year in Nepal. I slept through the 5.0 magnitude earthquake in August and was shaken awake by John yelling “Earthquake!” We then walked out onto our balcony instead of doing what we were supposed to do: grab our son from his bed and get out of the house.

But today the anniversary reminds me of the cataclysmic possibilities.  Knowledge is power after all and to be terrified all one has to do is go surf Google. The Kathmandu valley sits on an ancient lake bed, a big bowl of jello that in earthquake language is called a liquefaction zone, an area that magnifies shock waves.  The mountains circling us volley the shock waves back into the valley magnifying the damage. In Kathmandu, earthquake talk is common. There are the worriers like myself and the ostriches, who prefer to keep their heads solidly in the sand.

Kathmandu sits in an ancient lakebed known in seismological terms as a liquefaction zone

Kathmandu sits in an ancient lakebed known in seismological terms as a liquefaction zone

Kathmandu is not the same city as in 1934. More than 2.4 million people now live in a densely urbanized valley where the population has grown by 500 percent in the past 50 years. Building codes are haphazardly enforced if at all. Buildings are built on the cheap with substandard bricks and concrete. The narrow streets are a spider web of black interlaced cables and electrical wires. When they crumble, the roads will be impassable except on foot. Lucas, my eight-year-old, has tagged buildings on the way to his school as those that will pancake and those that might stay standing. The former wins.

Houses are poorly constructed and building codes are not enforced.

Houses are poorly constructed and building codes are not enforced.

 

Webs of electrical wires on Kathmandu streets can be very dangerous during and after an earthquake

Webs of electrical wires on Kathmandu streets can be very dangerous during and after an earthquake

In a recent earthquake preparedness meeting, experts including OCHA, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that an 8.0 quake could displace 1.8 million, kill 100,000 and injure at least 300,000 people. Hospitals will be overwhelmed if not destroyed and clean water, food and medicine will be in short supply. Sounds bad? Now stop and think about how help will get into the valley. Experts believe that a large earthquake will make most if not all the impossibly narrow precipice-bordered roads into the valley (there aren’t that many to begin with) impassable and blocked by landslides and will seriously damage the airport. There are 19 bridges between our house and the airport. Looks like walking will be our main means of transportation anywhere.

The message from the UN and the embassies is straightforward: we have to survive with no outside help for at least two to three weeks. As a World Bank family, we fall under the UN security network. We have neighborhood wardens and every few months do practice drills. With phones and communications most likely unusable, we are on a radio system and do weekly radio check-ins. We store potable water, food and clothes in a safe area outside our house and have go-bags ready. My friends and I joke that they really should be called “stay bags” as no one is going anywhere outside the valley.

Lucas knows his earthquake drills from both school and home. Drop, Cover, Hold. We have identified the areas in our home which hopefully wont cave in. Lucas sleeps on the bottom level of a bunk bed (extra head protection). I make sure he has a flashlight under his pillow, water and a whistle. His clothes are piled on a bed corner at arm’s length (with an extra sweater in the present cold winter months) He has a whistle in his school bag too and he himself asked for a face mask. He reasons that this very dusty city will be choked in clouds of rubble dust. His school is well prepared too with food and water and parents have been assured that it will last several weeks for all the students. Lucas knows that it might take me more than a day to get to him.

We are at least a bit prepared. Many are not, especially many Nepalese who are fatalistic about earthquakes and see them as the hand of God (or Gods as there are millions of gods here). Years of covering war zones as a reporter has translated into my managing family earthquake logistics. I know that our best chance of survival begins with avoiding serious injury. Unfortunately, I can’t control that. It is the post quake panic and chaos that worries me a touch. Luckily, I live in a heavily agricultural suburb with a vast number of cows, buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. Not enough for 1.8 million homeless but it is a start.

We live in one of the last heavily agricultural city suburbs with plenty of goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. On a weekend walk I chatted with this lady and her baby goats

We live in one of the last heavily agricultural city suburbs with plenty of goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. On a weekend walk I chatted with this lady and her baby goats

The earthquake preps have had light moments too. When a US embassy warden asked me for the satellite coordinates of my house, I provided him with the ones given to me by the United Nations. He emailed me back a few days later rather confused: “You live on the Indian border?” he asked. “I thought you lived in Kathmandu?” It is good to laugh in the face of disaster sometimes.