In 2003, UC Davis graduate Suresh Ojha quit a well-paying job as a communications engineer to spend a year in his native Nepal. Working pro-bono to develop a curriculum at Tribhuvan National University in radio engineering, Ojha lived in the middle of a cramped, time-worn neighborhood in Kathmandu where generations of his family had been raised.
Upon his return to the United States — after installing a new teaching laboratory and assuring the success of his radio frequency curriculum — even back in his own bed, Ojha still had trouble falling asleep.
It has been 80 years since the last major earthquake struck Kathmandu and killed more than 8,000 Nepalis. Experts estimate an 8.0 magnitude earthquake should hit the region, which is nestled between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, every 75 years. In a city of more than 2 million residents, a similar earthquake today would claim close to 40,000 casualties, according to estimates by Nepal’s National Society of Earthquake Technology.
Though researchers can’t predict another impending disaster, Ojha believes the next big earthquake is long overdue, and it’s why he started the Radio Mala project last October.
“We’re trying to save lives by establishing this system of amateur radio systems beforehand,” Ojha said. “There wasn’t adequate information infrastructure in Haiti at the time of that devastating earthquake; cellular phone networks were overwhelmed. If we can develop this network now, maybe we can save lives that would otherwise be lost.”
With academics at Tribhuvan University, engineer friends he met in his master’s program at UCD and experts from across Silicon Valley, Ojha made plans to create a network of amateur radio stations that would stretch across most of Kathmandu.
Ojha says Radio Mala can be deployed in three steps. The team already has installed a long-range radio station on the top of Tribhuvan University. Engineers are in the middle of phase two — the purchase and establishment of a radio repeater. The team already has bought most of the equipment for phase two and are in the process of shipping the instruments to Kathmandu. The last step calls for the installation of a second repeater, which would connect with the first.
Now, the team is busy raising funds for a second repeater. To date, volunteers have done everything from selling T-shirts to hosting telethons, but have still only raised a quarter of what they need to finish their project. The volunteers still hope to complete Radio Mala by the end of 2014.
“We’re not trying to do anything new here,” Ojha said. “We’re simply replicating what’s already been carried out in Silicon Valley. We have the plan and the tools and the expertise, we just need greater support and more donations.”
Ojha, who serves as the chairman of disaster preparedness for the Computer Association of Nepal in the United States, will be in Nepal in the coming weeks to participate in a United States Pacific Command exercise. Representatives from 21 nations will gather in Kathmandu to decide how best to deploy their communication technologies to respond to a natural disaster.
While in Kathmandu, Ojha says he plans to meet with Nepali officials to spread the word about Radio Mala.