Disastrous disaster management!

A woman stands in front of her house damaged in a rainstorm in Bara district, 125 kilometers (75 miles) south of Kathmandu, Nepal, Monday, April 1, 2019. Rescuers struggled Monday to reach villages in southern Nepal cut off by a powerful rainstorm that killed at least 28 people and injured hundreds more. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Few words of condolences, insufficient and haphazardly distributed relief, and a lot of unfulfilled promises of compensation and recovery: this has always been the norm for disaster response in our country. Talks of missed opportunities and possible avenues for the future among the government and the experts flood the media immediately after a disaster only for them to be forgotten in a not so distant future.  The families of the victims, however, have to live with the pain of losing their loved ones forever.

If we look at our approach toward disaster management, it would not be wrong to say that we have always reacted and responded to disasters as if there was nothing we could do and we were just supposed to submit to it. None of the major disasters has impelled our political and techno-administrative fraternity to urgently develop a robust mechanism for long-term disaster management. Be it the 2008 Koshi Floods, the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, the recurrent floods in Tarai or the most recent tragedy caused by the unprecedented windstorm in Bara-Parsa, the “lessons learnt” have translated to non-existent preparations for similar future events. And it does not look like changing any time soon which has only served to fuel the increasing doubt in the minds of the public toward the direction of the current hierarchy on various critical issues–disaster management being one of them.  With its action incommensurate with the rhetoric of prosperity and happiness being put forward, it is important to realize that the mismanagement of resources is what is hurting us more than the lack of resources itself.

We say “disasters are acts of nature, damages result from the acts of man.”Disasters are not in our control but our preparations and response to them can greatly dictate the extent of the damages we suffer. Preliminary field studies have highlighted the inefficacy of our existing relief distribution system as can be seen from the state of the afflicted who still struggle to get their hands on basic relief materials even a week after the tragedy in Bara-Parsa. The reports have also indicated the existing influence of the so-called upper-class on the entrusted officials. Despite a lot of concerns being raised over the existing one-door policy/mechanism, the situation has not changed.

One would assume from the number of visits of the affected area by the high-profile leaders of the country, including the prime minister, ministers from the center and the province along with the opposition leaders, that the situation there would not be as dire. But the reality suggests that these visits might have been nothing more than a popularity contest as the pitiable situation, especially of the children, the old and the pregnant women fail to improve. Proper coordination among the governments at the central, provincial and local levels in post-disaster management situation clearly seems to be lacking.

Lack of government priority

As per the disaster database of the country, more than 12,000 people have fallen victims to disasters in the past decade.  And if we exclude the 2015 earthquake, climate-related disasters account for nearly 80% of these fatalities, as per the Ministry of Home Affairs data. Furthermore, on top of the disruption of necessary services, economic loss of about as much as Rs 7 trillion have been incurred in the last 45 years  (Himalkhabar, 2075-12-8).  While the government has shown promise by prioritizing several infrastructural projects related to hydropower, irrigation and transportation among others and championing them as projects of national pride, it has entirely overlooked the means necessary for safeguarding the lives of people. This is a complete antithesis to what the government is trying to achieve through sustainable development as shown by its neglect toward improving the weather forecasting mechanism of the country – it is high time we had a radar-based forecasting system.  We are already more than late in coming to terms with the scientific evidence of the ever-increasing threat of climate-related extreme events. And by not preparing consolidated plans to tackle this threat, we are continuously exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk. It is not that our officials and experts are unaware of these facts but accountability and responsiveness are what is lacking upon them. After all, it is the poor people who have to suffer, not them.

Institutional aspect

The Disaster Risk Reduction Management (DRRM) Act was promulgated in 2074, replacing the three-decade-old Natural Calamities Relief Act with the objective of shifting from the response-centered disaster management approach toward a more comprehensive disaster risk reduction which focuses on various dimensions of disaster management aligned with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The DRRM Act has envisioned to set up a dedicated body, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority as well as define the roles of provincial and local governments. However, nearly two years after its enactment, the formation of the authority is still in limbo. Failure to timely implement the policies can lead to further tragedies. For example, recent studies suggest that the 1943 West Bengal famine in India which caused an estimated death of about 3 million resulted not from a drought disaster as is widely thought but from the British government’s policy failures (PTI, 2019-03-20).

Management of disasters constitutes a cycle of processes. Our plans and actions should be along these processes. Prevention, mitigation, response and recovery: all of these aspects need to be equally taken care of. Currently, our focus is much on the mitigation aspect which constitutes the structural measures against disasters. For example, constructing embankments is prioritized over flood forecasting and early warning systems. Preventive measures which include non-structural measures like reliable early warning system, improved forecasting, evacuation mechanism and temporary shelters, etc. should complement the structural measures for effective disaster management.

Although there are separate departments assigned with these sectoral mandates, it seems they were unable to figure out in time exactly who was commissioned with the task of response and relief after the Bara-Parsa disaster. This shows that the inclusion of local communities and authorities in the process of disaster management with awareness and capacity building can be a vital step toward reducing the disaster risk because after all, it is the locals who are affected the most. Furthermore, incorporating the local or community-based engineering into the mainstream disaster risk management framework is also a necessary step for improving resilience against disasters.

Technical Challenges

Data is a vital source of information crucial for future planning and decision-making processes. There is no arguing that our data management system is meager at best. Unless strong and reliable database is available, disaster management is extremely difficult. All three levels of the government thus should be connected within an integrated database system which includes data related to demography, socio-economy and agriculture among others. With reliable data, the damage can be characterized better which will give a clear idea of how the response and recovery processes should be planned.

Importance of research activities cannot be undermined in the current scenario. For an emerging nation like us, applied research having a direct impact on the society should be promoted, especially in the universities and academic institutions. However, it is of utmost importance that this research culture be transferred to the governmental organizations as well, as they are the implementing agencies.

One of the major issues we have is the government’s inability to retain skilled technical youths in the country. Young professionals who gain advanced skills and technical knowledge through abroad study/ training in most cases settle there for the obvious prospect of a better future. Consequently, institutional capacity weakens. And whatever number of youths remain, their ideas are seldom heard. In a recent interview, an official from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology mentioned that even if the radar-based forecasting system were to be installed immediately, there were not enough skilled human resources to operate it. Therefore, it is high time the policy makers revisited their perspective on managing the technical human resources of the country.

Furthermore, the technical personnel are meant to solve real-world problems. But our governmental procedures are such that technical personnel are required to spend more time in overcoming administrative works rather than focusing on the main issues. When the technical personnel are entangled in such administrative procedures, their efficiency is bound to suffer.

Final words

If the power holders and the decision makers still refuse to learn from the situation in Bara-Parsa and fail to take decisive action, the idea of ‘prosperous Nepal and Happy Nepalis’ is sure to be limited as mere rhetoric. Having said that, it couldn’t be a better time for the high-level government officials to act pro-actively and come up with short, mid and long-term visions in their respective sectors and convince decision makers to revisit plans and policies that are impeding the progress. Let us all act sincerely and sensitively to build back better.

Finally, with the regular monsoon only a couple of months away and observing the unpredictable global climate pattern this year, we can’t afford any delay in preparing against the floods. Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, heavy rainfall induced flooding in west Japan and Iran, early flooding in Midwest USA, etc. are a few recent cases which we can take lessons from. The best time to prepare for a deluge is when it is still dry goes a saying. Let us all also put our sincerest efforts in minimizing the damage this monsoon.

(The authors are students of Civil and Earth Resources Engineering at Kyoto University, Japan.)



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