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Emergency planning in Kathmandu gave Alan Craft new optimism for his post back home ...
Emergency planning in Kathmandu gave Alan Craft new optimism for his post back home

In late September, I was sitting in the offices of the municipality of Lalitpur, in Kathmandu, surrounded by a sea of expectant faces waiting for me to say something incisive as chair of the first meeting of the newly formed Lalitpur district emergency planning committee. This was unfamiliar territory for an environmental health manager from a district council in the UK .

A week previously I had flown into Kathmandu - one of the most earthquake-prone areas of the world - as part of a detachment from the British Army Civil Affairs Group on a two-week camp. The group is made up of territorial army and regular soldiers and specialises in civil/military co-operation and contingency planning for emergencies.

I was in Nepal in my army role as a major commanding a small team looking at emergency planning for earthquakes. Our mission was to set up emergency relief stores and locate, survey and plan sites for displaced people to be temporarily housed, fed and given medical assistance should a devastating earthquake occur.

Funded by the Department for International Development at a cost of £45,000, the stores contain tools such as shovels, picks, ladders, lanterns and ropes, as well as first-aid kits, to help local people deal with disaster first hand.

It soon became clear that auditing the arrangements for long-term management of the stores would be the simple part of the task. Nepali time is very fluid. Appointments times are 'plus or minus' one hour. Attendees at our meetings seemed to multiply at will, with long rambling irrelevant questions thrown in for good measure. I found the skills I honed chairing council meetings came to the fore and the process was kept on track.

No national or local elections have been held since Nepal's King decided to dissolve Parliament in 2001, bringing into question the legitimacy of some of those attending.

Eventually the project was completed and the stores formally handed over to the appropriate authorities. The ceremony appeared on Nepali national television as well as in all the Nepali and English newspapers.

So what did I gain from the experience, and, importantly, what did my employer get out of releasing me for two weeks?

I came back with a real sense of having done some good. The enthusiasm of the people, coupled with their conviction that something as simple as a few spades, picks, wheelbarrows and other stores would save lives in the event of an earthquake, was infectious. There is nothing quite like that feeling to recharge the batteries.

Engaging communities in the UK is notoriously difficult. In Nepal, it was refreshing to see communities who genuinely want to help themselves, considering how to raise funds to buy more stores and spread them out across the Kathmandu Valley. It was also rewarding to use both my professional and managerial skills in a very different environment. Working with interpreters on a one-to-one basis and in meetings was challenging to say the least.

From an employer's perspective, Basingstoke & Deane DC is very supportive of my activity as a member of the reserve forces, recognising the benefits it brings in terms of training - especially management - experience in different environments and with other cultures. In fact, my bosses have asked me to undertake a training session for staff on this exercise, as part of the council's corporate training programme.

Kathmandu's last earthquake was in 1934 and they occur approximately every 68 years, so watch this space.

Alan Craft

Environmental health manager, Basingstoke & Deane DC and major, Civil Affairs Group, Territorial Army

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