Radio stations in Nepal, critical sources of emergency information, are ill-prepared to withstand or operate in the event of an earthquake, experts warn.
"If there is an earthquake now, radio broadcasters would be vulnerable given that they are stationed in earthquake-vulnerable buildings,” Man Thapa, programme manager of the UN Development Programme’s comprehensive disaster risk management programme, told IRIN.
According to the Association of the Community Radio Broadcasters Nepal (ACORAB), there are 350 radio stations across the Himalayan nation, with 36 in the capital Kathmandu alone, a city located in one of the most seismically active zones in the world.
The majority in buildings are not earthquake resistant. Although there have been no specific studies on radio stations’ structural vulnerabilities, most experts agree that the situation is fragile.
With over 44 percent of the population illiterate, according to government’s Nepali Living Standards Survey (2010-2011), radio remains the most powerful information medium for the majority of Nepal’s 29 million inhabitants.
“The role of radio becomes crucial because during an earthquake, people want information first more than anything, and they look to the radio as the best means of communication,” said Ganesh Kumar Jimee, programe manager of disaster preparedness and response for the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), a local NGO.
Over 90 percent of the population owns a radio set and tunes into the radio stations across the country, according to a 2012 study (not available online) by Ujyaalo 90 Network.
Ujyaalo has the largest community radio network, with an audience of half million in the capital and 15 million across the country. It’s also the only radio station located in an earthquake-resistant building, and it is planning a series of earthquake preparedness trainings for its reporters.
“Very few radio stations will perhaps withstand an earthquake of a large scale. We are worried about them as most don’t even have back-up plans in case of damage to their own infrastructure,” Ujyaalo head Gopal Guragain noted.
There is urgent need for contingency planning, such as finding alternatives locations to immediately operate radio broadcasts in case of damages to the main station, he explained.
|Training for journalists in a post-earthquake environment is needed|
“Although our building may not be 100 percent earthquake-proof, our back-up plan helps us to immediately revive our broadcast in case of serious damage.”
In the event of a major earthquake, plans are now in place to use their basement and ground floor, where a back-up transmitter and antennae have been installed and a diesel-powered generator is on standby.
Other broadcasters have yet to implement such planning, according to ACORAB.
“There are lots of possibilities, but nothing has been initiated by most radio stations, especially on how to keep their equipment secure and [how to ensure] the safety of their own reporters,” said ACORAB executive director Rabindra Bhattarai.
While much needs to be done, Bhattarai concedes most stations don’t have the resources to implement any changes.
Moreover, journalists have yet to be properly trained in how to report in a post-earthquake environment.
Following a magnitude 6.9 earthquake that struck northeastern India, Nepal and Tibet in September 2011, fear mongering was a major problem. Rumours quickly spread that the quake was simply a prelude to a much larger seismic event like the one predicted for the country’s densely populated Kathmandu Valley
In Kathmandu, 270km west of the quake's epicentre, buildings were evacuated and traffic came to a standstill.
“At the time, broadcasters could have played a very important role in calming people with a radio message that this was only a rumour spread across social networking websites and through SMS,” he said, describing the incident as a major wake-up call for radio stations to be better prepared.
NSET hopes that radio stations will start their own preparedness and contingency plans and that they will work together to develop their own standard operating procedures about messages to be delivered in pre- and post-earthquake situations.
Currently, a total of 20 radio stations are broadcasting public service announcements 10 times a day, with support from NSET, about earthquake safety tips and preparedness.
“If the system doesn’t survive, how will radio broadcasters serve the community during an earthquake disaster? This is something they have to think about very seriously,” Pitamber Aryal, director of the Nepal Red Cross Society disaster department said.
According to the NRCS, an earthquake measuring 7 to 8 on the Richter scale in Nepal’s Kandmandu Valley could kill up to 50,000 people, injure 100,000 and destroy 60 percent of buildings, leaving 900,000 homeless.