The first two weeks are crucial
I was enjoying a leisure and business trip in Taiwan after mid-term exams for my doctorate course when I heard the news late last month. After finishing my business in Taiwan, I decided to head to the country’s landmark Taroko National Park gorge over the weekend.
After a nice breakfast, out of habit I turned the TV to CNN news. I was preparing myself for my trip when a breaking news headline caught my eye: “Mega-scale Earthquake in Nepal.”
I was dumbfounded. A few days ago, conversations with international aid experts had been centered on the possibility of an intense earthquake in Nepal. Geophysicists and other experts had warned that the Himalayan nation was vulnerable to deadly earthquakes based on the region’s seismic cycle and urbanization. The government and international society had been repeatedly warned to get ready for a potentially deadly disaster.
A couple of weeks before the earthquake, an international conference took place in Kathmandu concerning earthquake preparedness. The capital, which boasts a heavy population and is crowded with a labyrinth of large buildings and a gas and electricity infrastructure, could be devastated if hit, officials said.
I could not watch the news any longer because of my train schedule. But in my hotel room and on the train, my eyes were glued to the news feed on my smartphone. I could not stay away from the news even on my way to the gorge and on the trail. My mind was away in Nepal even though I was in Taiwan. I did not even consider my phone bill despite the enormous amount of Internet data I had used.
And my mind did not leave Nepal even after I returned to Korea. I wanted to fly there immediately if I could. But I know from my experience as an international rescue and aid worker, I cannot run to the crisis zone just because I am willing - just as a firefighter cannot run to every fire. Nepal has a special place in my heart as a hiker and because I served there for an extensive period as an aid worker.
The geography of Jumla in the northwestern district of Nepal, where I was stationed, is similar to the region at the earthquake’s epicenter. Getting to such a mountainous area is excruciatingly difficult. It takes three to four days to reach developed roads and you must walk half a day to get to the next village. Aid activities to remote areas are only possible by air. It would not be easy to exactly assess the damage or conduct rescue and relief work under such circumstances.
The monstrous earthquake killed nearly 8,000 people and injured nearly double that. About 600,000 homes were wrecked and over 6.6 million people have been displaced. But because the toll in remote areas has not been accurately assessed, it could be much greater. One foreign media outlet reported that about 200 bodies were found trapped in rubble in remote mountain areas 10 days after the earthquake. Similar reports could follow. With the rainy season arriving, there is also concern over an epidemic outbreak.
The immediate goal of emergency relief work is to search and save human lives, lessen their suffering and discomfort and help them recover and return to everyday life. Another objective is to help victims maintain their dignity and pride. Food, daily necessities, water, medical supplies and shelter, are therefore essential, as well as various protections and assistance. Search and rescue is crucial during the first two weeks after a disaster. International organizations are doing what they can, but rescue and aid has been slow because most roads have been damaged and the airport in Kathmandu is too small to host so many large rescue carriers. Emergency aid and repair are estimated to cost at least $2 billion.
The Korean government and charity organizations have been fast to offer help and many people donated money and supplies. Others are praying for the people in Nepal. These actions are natural as members of the global community. We worry and want to help the Nepalese people because another member of the global community is in crisis. But as a friend, we must always remember one thing: It is the government, community and the people of the disaster-stricken area that should be leading the relief and restoration work.
All donating countries, the United Nations, the Red Cross, non-profit organizations, the army, the media, companies, foundations and individual aid workers are second hands. We call this humanitarian assistance.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, May 9, Page 29
*The author is a relief worker.
by Han Bi-ya