The scale of the emergency facing Nepal in the aftermath of last weekend’s earthquake has finally begun to emerge as its government warned the final death toll could double to 10,000 and the United Nations said nearly 1.5 million people faced food shortages.
As helicopters shuttled across the disaster zone ferrying the injured from outlying areas to the overflowing hospitals in Kathmandu and other towns, the Prime Minister Sushil Koirala said his country was “on a war footing” as it struggled to cope with the effects of the quake.
Mr Koirala admitted the authorities were overwhelmed by the demands of a disaster which the UN said affected eight million people. As the number of confirmed deaths rose past 5,000, he said the final tally could reach 10,000 – exceeding the 8,000 killed in Nepal’s previous worst earthquake in 1934. Mr Koirala, who announced three days of national mourning, said: “The government is doing all it can for rescue and relief on a war footing. It is a very difficult hour for Nepal.”
With tens of thousands spending their fourth night sleeping outside and rain forecast for the next 10 days, the World Food Programme said 1.4 million Nepalese people would need emergency food aid for at least the next three months at a cost of $116m (£76m).
Amid growing disquiet among some Nepalis at what they see as a slow response from the authorities, the government ordered private hospitals to treat victims free of charge following reports that at least one clinic had refused entry to survivors who could not pay. Nepali civil servants have donated up to 15 days’ salary towards an national relief fund.
International aid has begun arriving in Kathmandu but its distribution is being slowed by capacity problems at the Nepalese capital’s small airport and the damage wreaked on roads and bridges by the quake. Two UK aid flights – an RAF C-17 carrying shelter kits and solar lanterns as well as a contingent British Army Gurkha engineers and a Boeing 767 chartered by the Department for International Development (Dfid) which left Britain on Sunday – are at staging posts in the region still waiting for clearance to land in Kathmandu.
DfID announced an additional £5m of aid for the relief operation, including forklift trucks to speed the unloading of aircraft. The extra funding, which will also provide an additional 30-strong medical team carrying eight tonnes of equipment, brings UK assistance to the emergency to £15m.
The authorities said there were at least 8,500 injured with the numbers in need of urgent medical assistance set to rise as rescuers finally begin to reach the remote communities closer to the epicentre of the tremor such as Gorkha district, some 100 miles to the north-west of Kathmandu. In at least one hospital it was reported that staff had resorted to cleaning wounds with whisky after running out of disinfectant. The Foreign Office said it was investigating reports that a British national had been killed in the quake. Elsewhere there were reports of up to 250 people missing in a landslide near the village of Ghodatabela, an area popular with foreign trekkers.
Women arriving in helicopters in Gorkha’s main town after being evacuated from villages up to 12 hours’ walk from the nearest road were crying in pain after spending three days without treatment for their injuries. Sita Karki winced as soldiers lifted her. She said: “When the earthquake hit, a wall fell on me and knocked me down. My legs are broken.”
Elsewhere, those without aid were caught in a struggle for survival while attempting to grieve for those who had perished. Three hours’ walk from Gorkha town, Sunthalia could be found sitting on the rubble of her home. For hours, she had worked alone to pull out the bodies of two of her three children – her 10-year-old daughter and her eight-year-old son. Somehow, her remaining child, a four-year-old boy, had survived. She said: “I could see my son’s fingers fluttering through the pile of stones. That’s how I could save him.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies