Kunda Dixit, editor of the respected weekly Nepali Times, wasn’t at work on the afternoon of 25 April. It being a Saturday, he and some colleagues were enjoying a day away from work, hiking in the mountains that surround Kathmandu.
They were just descending a ridge when the ground began to shake. They watched in horror as clouds of dust rose from the city. “We hugged each other, some of us crying,” he says. Then, “we reached for our phones.”
Across Nepal, millions of people did precisely the same thing and, within minutes, sent messages across the world. It is now recognised as a primary instinct in a crisis: the need to reach out, to establish contact, to make a call. Are you OK? What just happened? What do we do now? Where can we get help?
Nepal is proving yet again just how important communication is to disaster survivors. Images of Nepalis charging their phones on the street, listening to the radio, sending an SMS even while lying injured: that this is an operational priority for the survivors of this quake is already clear.
Social media for good
Across the world, meanwhile, Nepal’s massive diaspora has turned to social media in an effort to track down loved ones and organise their own responses. Facebook groups have proliferated – one of them, Stay Strong Nepal, has more than 150,000 members.
“This is when you realise the importance of Twitter! When you are far away and you get the information needed!” tweeted Kathmandu resident Pallavi Dhakal who was in western Nepal when the quake hit.
She used the micro-blogging platform to track down friends, share emergency contact numbers and to thank Skype for allowing free calls for Nepalis. Others, especially outside urban areas, are turning to more traditional platforms like radios to find out where to get food, which hospitals are open, and how to deal with an aftershock.
Supplies in need: Tents, ready to eat food, water & blankets, basic medical supplies including sanitary pads, torch, tap buckets #NepalQuake
The need to communicate - and the idea that information is a form of assistance in its own right - is increasingly acknowledged as an urgent but under-supported aspect of disaster response. This point was stressed in the 2005 World Disaster Report produced by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which stated that information is as important as food, water and shelter as a form of aid.