Tuesday several strong aftershocks hit Nepal. One measured 7.3 on the Richter Scale. The new quakes come after a 7.8 earthquake on April 25, sixteen intervening seismic events measured above 5.0, and three days of significant rainfall. Tens of thousands are living without shelter or under tarpaulins.
(As I post this on Tuesday night a US Marine helicopter that was operating in Nepal is missing along with its crew of six and two Nepalese soldiers.)
The death toll from these earthquakes will almost certainly exceed 10,000. According to the Government of Nepal over 280,000 homes have been destroyed and nearly as many have been seriously damaged. The lack of shelter and sanitation pose an urgent threat to public health that will only increase as the monsoon season begins in the next two to three weeks.
The April 25 earthquake was centered northwest of Kathmandu. The epicenter of Tuesday’s earthquake was northeast of the capital. In each case, there has been especially significant destruction and disruption at higher elevations. Stone and masonry structures have collapsed. Landslides have covered entire villages.
The modern transportation network in Nepal is mostly contained in the more urban valleys, and has, so far, survived mostly intact. As you ascend into the Himalayas scattered settlements are often connected by very primitive roads or foot-paths. In many cases these networks have been seriously disrupted and are simply unknown to outsiders.
Most of the highland inhabitants are subsistence farmers. The Spring harvest of wheat and barley has been interrupted by these disasters. The rice crop needs to be planted in the next three weeks or so. Storage and seed stocks have been decimated. The government of Nepal — operating largely through the Nepal Food Corporation — has long provided subsidized access to supplementary foodstuffs through a diverse locally-driven distribution system. The NFC has continued to operate, but it’s current capacity and effectiveness are not clear.
In the immediate aftermath of the April 25 event there was significant hoarding of food. In the first week both private and public relief efforts delivered resources wherever possible. Some of the hardest hit areas were not accessible. Hoarding behavior continued and resulted in accessible areas accumulating a significant stock of food. Some estimate that many communities immediately west of the capital may have received up to six months normal supply in the ten days after the initial quake.
It is my impression that relief supplies were just beginning to systematically penetrate the most remote regions in the last five days or so.
India has been very forward leaning in providing resources. So has the United Nations, China, United States, United Kingdom, international NGOs, and multinational corporations. Writing in the Kathmandu Post Shujeev Shakya describes how Nepalese are responding as individuals:
It was really interesting to see volunteers purchase their own food and water, fill up their fuel tanks with their own money, and make zero overhead relief work possible… Most of the volunteerism was a spontaneous networking to get through to the supply chain, demand identification, and get zero overhead delivery right. The processes were transparent, as most of the demand and supply was broadcasted over social media, taking accountability and transparency to the next level.
As usual for a hard-hit like this, there does not seem to be a systemic shortage of supply (supply is more often a problem with slow-onset disasters, such as drought or ongoing extreme violence). There are, however, a whole host of very serious distribution problems.
Serving the immediate needs of survivors usually requires the intervention of significant and specialized logistics. This is especially the case where preexisting supply capacity — in the form of roads, warehouses, retail outlets, trucks, truckers, fuel, availability of cash and/or household inventory — has been destroyed.
But the bigger the event — bigger in terms of time, space, and population affected — the more necessary it becomes to quickly restore some semblance of pre-existing supply chains and/or allow complex-adaptive behavior to emerge (such as those described by Shujeev Shakya). We know how to feed the nodes. Connecting the nodes with those who urgently need the supplies in order to be fed is even more complicated.
A key issue is how the technical capacity of humanitarian (or commercial) logistics can be integrated with the social connections that are innate to communities and regularly operating supply chains. In many major disasters the biggest deficits are not related to supply capacity, but instead involve a lack of knowledge related to demand: who, where, what and — especially in Nepal — how to get there.
Based on observations in Haiti, Japan, and other post-disaster contexts, Professor Jose Holguin-Veras, Director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, describes this phenomenon as “a crisis of connectivity, not of supply.”
I also like how Shujeev Shakya, a businessman in Kathmandu, describes it as “networking to get through to the supply chain.” This is different than procurement and delivery of humanitarian logistics. The use of social media for “demand identification” — even in Nepal, even after a major earthquake — is, for me, both fabulous and a bit scary. How much worse it could have been if the telecommunications network had collapsed. (More on the social media aspect at Wired.)
None of this is meant as a critique of humanitarian logistics. But it is meant to suggest a potentially important complementary strategy of giving more attention to “networking to get through to the supply chain” both before and after a major disaster. Especially before. And networking not just as a social activity but a socio-technical activity.
This is not, by the way, just an issue for a poor country like Nepal. The triple disaster in Japan demonstrated many of the same lessons. It would be helpful for the US to learn these lessons before the New Madrid or San Andreas faults decide to take us to the school of hard knocks.
UPDATE: OCHA released a situation update late on May 13. It is available here.
A personal impression: I do not yet have sufficient evidence. But based on several media reports and official documentation, I perceive more and more priority is being given to the replacement shelter “pipeline”. This suggests sufficient food supplies are available (if not necessarily distributed to the most remote locations). This signals that some form of the preexisting food supply chain is being reestablished. The preexisting pipeline — different than supply chain or supply and demand network — for tarpaulins and other components of emergency shelter barely pre-existed at all. So this is a supply system that must be created from scratch… and with great difficulty. If any of these early observations have any accuracy, they suggest the potentially differentiated role — and sequencing — of humanitarian logistics in combination with supply chain resilience.