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Nepal: The clock is ticking for search and rescue teams

28 Apr 2015


Credit: UNDP Nepal
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Hundreds of people are still missing four days after the earthquake, and in the search for survivors, every minute counts.

Hundreds of people are still missing four days after a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, leaving search and rescue teams desperately searching for survivors who may be buried amid the rubble in the capital city of Kathmandu or trapped in hard-to- access remote mountain villages.

An estimated 8.1 million people – more than a quarter of the Nepal’s population – have been affected by the earthquake, the largest to hit the small South Asian country since 1934.

Hope for remaining survivors is starting to fade as the death toll soars past 4,300 people.

Search and rescue teams

While search and rescue teams attempt to reach more remote areas, many of which remain cut off due to road blockages and network failures, it is feared that people are still trapped inside houses collapsed in densely populated areas in and around Kathmandu.

Despite at least 37 urban search and rescue teams on the ground – consisting of more than 545 people and some three dozen specialized search and rescue dogs – coordinated by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), time is running out as the search for survivors continues.

Search and rescue teams are highly-trained military personnel with specialized skills and equipment to assist during major disasters, deployed equipped with supplies like torches, axes, rope, search cameras, body bags, stretchers and tents. They need to be swift to assess where they are most likely to find survivors inside collapsed buildings, looking in stairwells or in areas under large concrete beams where people may have survived.

In a hopeful bid to find more survivors, rescue workers are using specialist sound equipment to detect noise, concrete cutting equipment and chainsaws to cut through wreckage and heavy machinery to shift rubble. Individuals have been known to survive for days, if they have access to water, though water scarcity is one of the many growing humanitarian needs facing Nepal in the aftermath of the earthquake.

To help distribute life-saving supplies, a UN Humanitarian Air Service operation is being activated by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to access remote areas cut off completely or hard to reach overland.

Humanitarian needs

While search and rescue operations are underway, growing humanitarian needs include food, water and medication. People continue to sleep outdoors – for fear of falling debris from aftershocks – in damp and cold conditions, making them vulnerable to respiratory infections.

More than 1.4 million people require food assistance, including 750,000 people who live near the epicentre. Children under five, living in camp settings and in affected districts, as well as pregnant and lactating mothers need supplementary food to prevent malnutrition.

Additionally, medical tents, surgical equipment and medicines for managing injuries are still needed as well as post trauma and rehabilitation care for spinal cord injury patients.

There is also a need for transit camps and rehabilitation care particularly for those released from health facilities in need of post-treatment assistance and have no one to care for them.

Severe damage to infrastructure including water and sanitation is of concern and increases the possibility of waterborne disease outbreaks. The full extent of humanitarian needs will become clearer in the coming days.

UN response

A 23-person UN Disaster Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) team is being deployed in Kathmandu. It has set up a Reception and Departure Centre at the airport to avoid congestion and ease the flow of relief.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is coordinating arrivals, dispatch and allocation of medical teams to affected areas and has deployed eight emergency health kits containing essential medicine, disposables and instruments to cover the health needs of 80,000 people for the next three months.

WFP is mounting an emergency operation with food trucks rolling into the district of Gorkha, one of the worst-hit areas. The agency plans to provide food for 1.4 million people over the next three months and rice distributions are expected to begin on Wednesday. Eighty metric tonnes of emergency items, including tents, blankets, health kits and telecommunications equipment, have already been dispatched.

UNHCR is bringing in relief supplies such as plastic sheets and solar lamps to 30,000 quake survivors and UNICEF is distributing of emergency hygiene kits in collaboration with the Nepal Red Cross.

On Monday, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos released $15 million through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to enable humanitarian aid organizations to rapidly scale up operations and provide immediate assistance to people in desperate need.

A Flash Appeal covering an initial three months is being developed and is expected to be launched on Wednesday.