April 28, 2015, BY Heather Johns

Bucknell University Professor Eric Martin, management

The powerful earthquake suffered by Nepal has plunged the region into immediate chaos and need. First responders are working to help the Nepalese people clear out from the rubble, but Bucknell University Professor Eric Martinmanagement, warns of the far-reaching effects that can follow a disaster of this magnitude.

Martin's research focuses on inter-organizational partnering during crises across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Much of his work is focused on efforts to improve the delivery of international development and humanitarian assistance. 

In this edition of Bucknell Answers, Martin explains what the Nepalese — and the responders who are working to help them — will face in the coming months and years, and how the rest of the world can help.

Q: What have we learned from the previous catastrophic events that may inform how the global community responds to this disaster?

A: The No. 1 problem immediately following a disaster like this is unity of command. We saw that in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and in every major disaster before and since. The problem is, of course, that every disaster, no matter how well planned for, is a surprise at the moment, and the typical command structures are often affected by the actual disaster, limiting their ability to function and take control. The best situation is for the overall command to be local, but that is not always possible post-disaster.

Nepal is a poor country with average GDP at about $1,000 per person, making it difficult to administer effective institutions and governments under the best of times. In cases like these, outside assistance agencies tend to take control. While that is often welcomed in the acute response phase, it can create dependence and undermine local power over time.

That is always a problem, and it is easy to spot it and comment on it from afar. It's important to recognize that everyone working in Nepal right now, local and international, is trying to do their best. And given the immediate needs, it is hard to think too far down the road, though we all must.

Q: How is the quake in Nepal similar to the 2010 quake in Haiti?

A:  At first glance, it seems very similar. For example, in both cases, much of the devastation was caused by collapsing walls and buildings. Typically those that collapse are the heaviest and least flexible, and thus do the most damage when they fall — heavy, thick, stone walls.

Like Haiti's many poorly constructed structures, in Nepal, the absence of rebar and other joint reinforcement mechanisms allowed brittle construction materials to collapse.

We can expect tent cities for a very long time as people in Nepal work to rebuild. Again, as we saw in Haiti, that will lead to public health concerns as tent cities overload temporary infrastructure. I worry the death toll will continue to rise in the days ahead, especially as responders reach rural areas. It will plateau, but then it could increase again due to the outbreak of disease.

Of course, that pattern, ending with disease, is indeed the preventable part of this disaster, and those organizations on the ground know this, so the better ones will be addressing the near- and long-term problems almost simultaneously.

Q: Nepal is highly dependent on tourism, such as expeditions to Mt. Everest. How long might it take for Nepal to recover?

A: There are very practical concerns involved with disaster of this scale. Until there are ample rooms and food to house and feed those in need in-country, it is difficult to even consider burdening them as a visitor, despite the revenue it provides.

We also must prepare for the new normal. When we use the word "recover," we imply we want to return to a previous state. In many ways that will not be possible. But there will be some areas, with the support of the  international community, in which Nepal can build back better, an often heard phrase as the difficult long-term rebuilding sets in.

Q: Many preserved buildings have been destroyed — like those in Bhaktapur, Nepal's best preserved ancient city. What cultural impact might the earthquake have?

A: This is, of course, tragic. But many of those will likely be rebuilt. I understand it may not be the same, but strong culture spurs action in restoring and rebuilding important cultural artifacts. Oftentimes, those important landmarks are rebuilt before more mundane but necessary buildings. For example, years ago, in Bosnia, efforts to rebuild the famous Mostar bridge helped different ethnic groups find common ground in working together toward change and recovery long before much of the rest of the city did the same.

Q: In the aftermath, landslides, avalanches and collapsing buildings are wreaking havoc. What is the biggest danger threatening the Nepalese people in the coming months and years, and how can people help?

A: First, food and water. In the very short-term, public health officials will likely be concerned about cholera, diarrhea, etc. These are always concerns where makeshift tent cities arise. The infrastructure for waste and water is done in haste — out of necessity, of course — and then heavy use over an extended time exceeds the capacity of any temporary system.

Regarding help, the first thing we can all do is donate online. Generally I advocate small local charities with deep connections, but that is not the right tactic today. If you are willing to donate $20 or $50, the best thing is to send to a large disaster specialist organization with experience. They have the systems and the supply chains necessary to provide assistance in a calculated and prioritized fashion.

Sending any types of goods is typically not recommended. It only makes the task of securing priority goods more difficult. 

Bucknell Answers

"Bucknell Answers" is a series in which Bucknellians share their insights on issues that raise important questions. If you have a topic you'd like to see covered, email answers@bucknell.edu.

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