On Saturday, Nepal was shaken by a massive earthquake that registered a 7.8 on the Richter scale, causing widespread destruction in areas of dense population, and preventing aid workers from reaching more isolated villages in the mountainous regions. As of Tuesday, at least 5,000 people were dead and at least 10,000 were injured. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless.
With any natural disaster, communication can often become a matter of life and death, and if phone lines are broken and cell towers crumble, relaying messages to the outside world and coordinating rescue efforts becomes that much more difficult. Add to that the fact that Nepal’s government is woefully unprepared to handle such a humanitarian crisis, and chaos reigns.
Still, some volunteers are trying to impose order on the chaos. After the quake, which shook cities in India as well as Nepal, volunteer ham radio operators from India traveled to the region to relay messages from areas whose communications infrastructure is broken or overloaded. Ham radio, also called amateur radio, is a means of sending and receiving messages over a specific radio frequency, and it is often used in disaster situations because it operates well off the grid; transceivers can be powered by generators and set up just about anywhere.
Amateur radio has taken a back seat with hobbyists in recent decades as other means of wireless communication have become cheaper and easier for people to use (you don’t need a special license from the FCC to operate a cell phone, although sometimes it seems like we’d be better for it if that were the rule). The decline in participation rates is unlikely to change substantially in the US, and the Times of India noted that awareness about ham radio is still low in India and nearby areas. Still, it has proven to be effective as a means of communication in Nepal in recent days.
Ars spoke to Jim Linton (whose call sign is VK3PC), the Chairman of the International Amateur Radio Union’s (IRAU) Region 3 Disaster Communications Committee, to get a sense of what kind of information ham radio operators are getting (Region 3 encompasses the vast Asia-Pacific area; Linton is based in Australia). Throughout the day, Linton received updates from Jayu Bhide (call sign VU2JAU), who is the National Coordinator for Disaster Communication for the Amateur Radio Society of India. Bhide was in frequent contact with people on the ground in the mountainous regions of Nepal that had been hit the hardest.
As of today, Bhide told Linton, rescue teams are still struggling to find missing people trapped in the ruins. In one case, a hotel housing four doctors was demolished during the quake. Only one of the doctors survived, and he stationed himself in a Red Cross facility across the street from the demolished hotel. “The flights from Kathmandu airport were delayed and people were stranded [in] several places,” Bhide added. “More than 17 Red Cross camps were set up.”
“The situation is still one of chaos,” Linton wrote to Ars this morning. “The Government of Nepal has asked all people to stay out of buildings due to them being unsafe.”
As of Tuesday morning, four amateur radio operators from India’s Gujarat region and four others from North Delhi have left to set up stations at critical places in Nepal. Three operators, including Bhide, said they are setting up High Frequency and Very High Frequency stations on the border between India and Nepal.
Amid the chaos, many Nepalese have struggled to get messages out to family members in other countries. The Los Angeles Times noted that the disaster has worsened the economic woes of an already poor country, which has long depended on foreign aid and remittances from family members working outside of Nepal. Bhide told Linton on Tuesday that much of his work had been to relay inquiries from family members abroad looking for news of their families. ”Many messages piled up to pass on to Nepal to find missing people,” Bhide reported.
”Many more HAMs were busy passing messages as well as forwarding them to relatives,” Linton wrote to Ars.
According to a January 2015 report from the Nepal Telecommunications Authority (PDF), only three percent of Nepal’s population relied on fixed telephony service like Public Switched Telephone Network (PTSN) or Wireless Local Loop (WLL) lines. By contrast, 86 percent of the population said they relied on mobile phone service to communicate. 39 percent of the population reported that they had Internet access. It is unclear how much of that communications infrastructure remains intact. Read more…