George with colleagues from the Nepal Red Cross

Georgina Cooper, British Red Cross community engagement manager, recently visited our project in Nepal’s Kathmandu valley, where we’re helping people prepare for disasters. Here, she reports back:

My security briefing before going to Nepal – one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world – gave me plenty to think about on the plane: what to do in an earthquake, the dangers of traffic, and other hazards that may arise.

It was still fresh in my mind when I stepped off the plane and the Red Cross driver handed me a lanyard with emergency details and a whistle (in case I were to become stuck in rubble), which I dutifully slipped over my head.

Arriving at the hotel, I glanced around to see where I would ‘drop, cover and hold on’ should an earthquake strike, before going to sleep wondering how people live at this level of awareness.

It didn’t take long to dawn on me – they don’t.

Daily hazards

On my first morning, I went from finding the short walk to work fairly alarming – dodging various moped, bikes, cars and lorries heading straight at me – to a few days later not being bothered if a wing mirror brushed my bag as it passed. This was clearly me becoming lackadaisical about risks just in a matter of days.

So here is one of the biggest obstacles to the project; human nature is in the way.

With a £4 million grant from the UK’s Department for International Development, the Nepal Red Cross, with support from the British Red Cross, is working with communities in the Kathmandu valley to reach up to four million people and raise their awareness around preparing for
disasters.

The highly populated valley faces a significant risk of earthquake and is rated the worst in the world out of cities lying in similar seismic hazard zones in terms of the impact a quake would have on people living there. This is due to their vulnerability being exacerbated by poverty, unplanned urban growth, and sub-standard construction techniques.

Education and communication

Research suggests that when risks are known and the consequences of earthquakes are highlighted, education and communications programmes can reduce fatalism and myths and increase preparation. 

It’s early days for the project and I was there to work with local staff and volunteers to finalise a plan to ensure that we can reach as many people as possible with messages encouraging people to take action to reduce their vulnerability to the risks they face. This is essential as it is the communities themselves who are inevitably the first to respond to a disaster.

Staff and volunteers, who are based in the communities, will help raise awareness of hazards and increase the community’s ability to respond through training in: basic first aid; hazard warnings and evacuation protocols; and light search and rescue.

It won’t be an easy task to get messages through to people who live with heightened but unpredictable risk on a daily basis, people who have understandably become desensitised to the risk that looms. I just hope that an earthquake doesn’t strike before we have time to prepare people.

Read more about the Red Cross’ work in Nepal