A week after storms caused by Cyclone Hudhud took the lives of about forty people in the central Himalayas, definitive information about the number of casualties and their nationalities, the number of people rescued, and the number of people missing is still not available, but three lessons from the tragedy are clear.
First, better information has to be available to locals living in, and tourists trekking through, the high mountains. The morning of the tragedy was overcast and, in places, light snow was falling. Conditions didn’t look dangerous: No one knew what lay in store.
That apparently includes the government’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. The cyclone and its huge bank of thick clouds covering much of the northern Indian sub-continent were clearly visible on weather maps that morning, but there was no alert issued.
Even if there had been an alert, there was no mechanism in place to distribute it effectively. Nepal needs a weather warning system like the one operated by NOAA in the United States, linked to radio and television stations and available through low-cost, special-purpose radios. While that is being implemented, a protocol is needed to alert police and army posts about severe weather warnings. The security services could then notify village officials who in turn could spread the news to lodge owners and trekkers passing through the area.
Second, Nepal needs to require that foreign trekkers have a licensed guide with them. It appears that most of the casualties along the popular Annapurna Circuit route were solo trekkers without guides. One survivor’s story says that trekkers who reached a high pass along the route couldn’t decide whether to go back or continue, and that they had difficulty finding the trail. A professional guide could have made all the difference to them.
And the third lesson is demonstrated by the confusion over the numbers of people affected. This has been a miserable failure on the part of the country’s disaster management systems. The Home Ministry has called off its search saying that there is no one left to rescue, but the trekking agencies’ professional association says that they still have missing-persons reports and are continuing to search. An inquiry commission needs to review this incident to identify the communications failures and recommend improvements.
This storm was a freak event, the sort of thing that might happen once in a decade. But Nepal faces other natural disasters routinely. Each year during the June to August monsoon season, hundreds of Nepalis die in floods and landslides. Last week’s incident gained much wider visibility though because about half of the casualties were foreigners. That may spur the government to action, and if that happens, Nepalis will be the main beneficiaries.