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OPINION: Earthquake in Nepal: insights on disaster preparedness

Mihir Bhatt, CDKN’s Senior Country Advisor for India and Director of the All India Disaster Management Institute (AIDMI), reviews what the disaster response to the recent earthquakes in Nepal can tell us about preparing for climate-related disasters.

Nepal was struck by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25, 2015. According to the National Emergency Operation Center, the death toll stands at 7,250 and the number of people injured is 14,222. The earthquake is considered Nepal’s worst since a 1934 tremor that killed nearly 17,000 people across both India and Nepal; the UN estimates that over 8 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance – that is approximately a quarter of the country’s population. Apart from Nepal, tremors were felt in parts of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Pakistan.

The international response has been swift but the extent of the disaster has overwhelmed a small country such as Nepal, which is amongst the world’s poorest and least developed countries in the world. Countries such as the US, UK and Australia have pledged $10 million, $7.6 million and $3.9 million respectively; Nepal will also receive $15 million support from the United Nations, which is trying to coordinate international efforts to maximise aid effectiveness. Officials with Western governments and aid organisations have reported that relief supplies are stuck at airports and warehouses because of bureaucratic interference that insist on standard customs inspections and other procedures, even in an emergency such as this.

The National Building Code of Nepal, enforced since 1994, remained largely ignored. Municipalities which are responsible for issuing building permits in Nepal have not done enough to incorporate the building code into their permit processes: according to Ramraj Narasimhan, a Disaster Risk Reduction expert with UNDP, ‘…initial assessments seem to indicate that a majority of buildings that were destroyed were either built prior to the formulation and implementation of the safe building code, or did not adhere to it.’ A vast majority of structures in Nepal, up to 80%, are owner built and constructed by masons who have not been formally trained.

According to the US Geological Survey, the economic losses could be as high as $10bn, while the cost of rebuilding is $5bn, which is equivalent to 20% of Nepal’s GDP. Thus, the economic losses in Nepal could have a major negative impact on its GDP without effective and efficient use of international support and assistance. With unemployment at over 40%, agriculture supports more than 70% of the population and contributes more than a third to Nepal’s GDP; remittances contribute between 22% and 25% percent of GDP and tourism 8.6% of the economy.

Many feel that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Never before has an earthquake opened up so many cracks on so much ground as the recent earthquake in the Himalayas.

The first crack is in our perception of disasters in South Asia. We have assumed that disasters are confined to national boundaries. Floods, earthquakes, droughts, and cyclones are trans-boundary phenomena that require the joint efforts of neighbouring nations if they are to respond effectively. The Koshi River floods between Nepal and India should have taught us that lesson. Yet regional approaches to risk reduction, including South-South cooperation, remain weak across South Asia. The international aid community and national governments from South Asia, as well as their associations such as SAARC or platforms such as the Asian Ministerial Conference, should have been better prepared to handle trans-boundary responses to disasters such as this.

A recent paper raises many relevant questions about role of SAARC; it developed a Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management and Disaster Prevention in 2005 and established a number of SAARC centers, including the SAARC Centre for Disaster Management and Preparedness (SDMC). The paper notes that ‘SAARC DMC, on its own merits, has never been considered a particularly effective institution… any cautious hopes about what it could achieve seem to have been replaced by a widespread cynicism about its ostensibly non-existent influence’. It further states that not a single DRM government official interviewed was able to comment on any SDMC activities that had provided critical support to their national capacity building effort; neither were international stakeholders able to describe much of what the Center does to support national capacities. What is required is a critical review of the whole disaster management arrangement within the SAARC region and not just the structure and working arrengments of SDMC.

The second crack is in our understanding of the magnitude of loss and damage. The scientific community has already warned about a series of more extreme geological events such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis to come; causal factor is seen by a growing body of scientists as further proof that climate change can affect the underlying structure of the Earth. This earthquake is only a small glimpse into the future of the kind of damage and loss such events can cause across a wide swathe of towns and villages in Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh and Pakistan. Our response to the Nepal earthquake therefore cannot just be about addressing the current loss and damage, but towards preparing and preventing future loss and damage.

The third crack reveals our indecision towards the modes of recovery. The Gujarat model of recovery is widely considered as one of the best such examples in South Asia. If that is so, how rapidly will India be able to use it in the borderlands of Nepal? Will it be to Nepal’s advantage? China has a faster and more accurate track record of both response and recovery; will that be a more attractive model for Nepal to follow? Nepal is a strategic ally of both India and China. China being the biggest foreign investor as of 2014 and India being much closer linguistically and culturally. The two countries are likely to play a critical role in Nepal’s recovery as Nepal’s 6,000 rivers will be important to meet energy needs of both in the coming years.

The fourth crack throws light on the issue of financiar exclusion, which not only inhibits development and economic growth, but also recovery. South Asian governments and financial institutions have done little to bring banking and financial services to its vulnerable citizens. Transporting food and water play an essential role in recovery but that role too is limited. Access to money to rebuild livelihoods has a far greater potential to build financial capacities. It is too early to suggest who is planning what to bring advantages of well-established micro-finance systems to the victims of Nepal. However, it is clear that micro-finance has to be linked with both physical reconstruction as well as livelihoods promotion and risk transfer approaches.

Nepal is faced with a dilemma. One is to rebuild, develop, and push economic growth along our current path. The second is to rebuild and develop with “clean”, “green” and sustainable technology that shows awareness of climate change and will help mitigate impacts of major trans-border disasters such as earthquake and floods. The second option seems more promising, but is it the direction policy makers have the courage to follow?

There have been no elections at the district, village or municipal level for nearly 20 years, and the committees in charge of local councils are not organised enough to deal with the difficult task of coordinating emergency assistance. A review and overhaul of local district disaster management plans across the country, but especially of earthquake hotspots, is long overdue. A third party review of the plans of key districts is overdue. Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) has a method called The Stocktaking for National Adaptation Planning (SNAP) that can combine disaster preparedness and climate risk aversion in development plans.

Looking ahead, there are several measures that can be taken, and insisted on by the state and by citizens, towards disaster preparedness.

First, there is an obvious and urgent need to conduct safety audits of schools, hospitals and to lay down safe building practices for all new schools and hospitals.

Second: mock drills matter. This is not the last earthquake. Regular, monitored, and systematic mock drills across small town and villages in the region need to be conducted at the earliest possible time. This will enable us to detect weaknesses and gaps in the system.

Third, business and industry must become more involved in building a safer and more sustainable Nepal. Agriculture, transport, and urban development are some key areas where new, people-friendly and environment-friendly practices are needed – a challenge that the business community can take up.

I witnessed the aftermath of Japan’s Kobe earthquake a year after it took place in 1995 and was invited a few months ago to review its recovery efforts. What a remarkable recovery Kobe and the surrounding area has made in the last 20 years! A robust and sustainable recovery is possible only if we are able to look beyond the immediate loss and damage, and turn disaster into an opportunity for sustainable development.

Nepal has a unique opportunity for building back better lives and livelihoods, including public infrastructure and essential services. Reconstruction and recovery in Nepal is also an opportunity for the international aid community to put the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in practice and ensure its success. Last but not least, recovery and development in Nepal has to be smart, climate compatible – and sustainable.


Image credit Nirmal Adhikari/Flickr

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