Seven days have passed since snowstorms and avalanches caused by the tail-end of cyclone Hudhud hit Nepal’s Annapurna region. But there is still no accurate data of how many persons, both foreigners and Nepalis, lost their lives battling snow and cold more than 5,000 meters above sea level.
Depending on which source you talk to or which media platform you access the figure could be anywhere between 20 and 50, give or take a few. There is also no accurate data on how many are still missing, how many were injured, the total number of those rescued or the total number of bodies recovered.
The figures could be cold statistics for journalists or for common readers but they mean glimmer of hope or darkness of despair for families in Nepal and abroad who have family members travelling to the Annapurna region and haven’t heard from them for days.
Last week’s disaster comes six months after the tragedy near Everest Base Camp when 16 Nepali guides lost their lives in an avalanche on the Khumbu Ice Fall while trying to fix ropes and lay ladders for climbers attempting to scale Mount Everest during the spring season.
The incident was the biggest accident in climbing history of the world’s tallest peak and brought expeditions to a halt for the season. While such disasters can’t be prevented, it was expected that lessons would be learnt from it to help minimize casualties in future.
The latest tragedy and what followed in the next few days shows that much is still to be learnt and practiced if the human costs of such incidents which have the potential of hurting Nepal’s image as an adventure tourism destination are to be reduced considerably.
One important step would be to have better weather forecasting systems in place and conduct regular drills in vulnerable areas so that people can be alerted on time and evacuated to safer places. There were indications that Hudhud would affect Nepal too but the warnings were not taken seriously.
Inability to get in touch with stranded trekkers and guides due to non availability of mobile networks along certain stretches of the Annapurna trekking circuit was one reason why there was delay in response and lack of clarity on the scale of the disaster.
Initial reports suggest several of the casualties were of trekkers venturing out on their own without any local guides. The government could make it mandatory for trekkers to move in groups supervised by trained guides who are given better equipment to monitor weather.
Lack of resources like enough trained manpower, equipment and helicopters was one reason that hampered rescue efforts. The need to overhaul the system and make it work can’t be overemphasized.
Lastly, setting up of a centralized agency to tackle with such disasters and give correct information to media and families of those affected. During the latest tragedy conflicting and contradictory statements were being dished out by district officials, army, tourism ministry and trekking operators—making it impossible to get correct figures.
This list is not exhaustive and experts would be able to fill in and give better suggestions. But that needs to happen soon before what happened last week in Mustang, Manang, Myagdi and Dolpa is forgotten and everyone goes back to their slumbers till the next disaster occurs.