Revisiting April, 2015: Discussing ‘disaster management’ with Dr. Jyoti Koirala

Nepal’s geology, topography and tropical location means the country can face natural hazards at any time, and simultaneously cause loss of life, property, or livelihoods. Frequent forest fires, monsoonal rains, and level of seismic activity that could cause an earthquake at any time means we need to be prepared always. Nepal is ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world for natural disasters; the geographical terrain adding further difficulties in preparedness, response & recovery and reconstruction.

On Saturday, April 25th, 2015 at 11:56 am, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the Federal Republic of Nepal. Its epicentre was determined at Barpark, Gorkha District, approximately 76 KM northwest of Kathmandu. More than 400 aftershocks above magnitude 4.0 were experienced within the next two to three months. Of those four were greater than 6 including a 6.8 magnitude on the 17th day.  This is the worst earthquake hitting Nepal in about 80 year and strong enough to be felt in certain parts of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. Approximately 9,000 people lost their lives and more than 22,000 were injured. Government of Nepal estimated that the lives of one third of the population i.e. approximately 8 million people was directly impacted by the earthquake. 31 Districts were affected and Nepal Government declared 14 as the most “crisis hit” for the purposes of prioritizing the rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations.

Four years have passed since the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Our reporter, Sandip Rai interviewed Dr. Jyoti Koirala, PhD in Disaster Management to gather some insights into the earthquake, and Nepal in general. Dr. Koirala has been researching preparedness, response, recovery, and reconstruction since the last three years, and shared the following findings.

What are the roles and responsibilities of the government and development partners, INGOs and NGOs in Management of Disaster?

Roles and responsibilities of government in relation to humanitarian aid are fourfold. Based on the level of disaster, government is responsible for doing each and every activity towards saving its people. Government’s role in disaster management is to provide a central and coordinated plan of action to address overall damage caused by the event as well as the immediate needs of the affected and displaced people. The activities relate to preparedness, response, recovery, and reconstruction process.

Similarly development partners, INGOs and NGOs also play an important role in preparedness, response and recovery phases of disaster management. Their roles are not only strengthening pre-disaster preparedness and mitigation through capacity building, public awareness campaigns, mock exercises, workshops and conferences but they also play a significant role in providing humanitarian assistance to disaster affected people in most of the severe disasters. They have also played a significant role in the reconstruction phase after the 2015 Earthquake.

In the last few years some issues were raised in Nepal pertaining to controlling of INGOs and their activities. Prior approvals before sending reports to headquarters, not allowing to engage in projects that influence the drafting of laws and policies in Nepal, approval of budgets and programs from the ministry, ban in spreading of religion, etc are a few measures, however their enforcement is weak.

Do you think we have enough laws, regulations and policies for disaster management in Nepal?

Different countries have their own national strategy and framework for disaster risk management. Nepal does so too. Considering the importance of disaster risk reduction, the Constitution of Nepal has clearly stated disaster management functions to be operated in three levels of government structure that includes Central, Regional, and District Levels. In order to mitigate the risk of natural disaster, the constitution has focused on making advance warnings, preparedness, rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

Overall there is a well-developed policy framework and legislative framework for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction policy. Disaster Management Policies in Nepal are amongst the best which follows the worldwide recognized framework; however there are weaknesses in institutional structure and coordinating mechanism for better implementation. This is due to challenges in the implementation in Nepal owing to various reasons. The government has already registered the comprehensive disaster management bill in the parliament and this is the good sign that contributes to Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in Nepal by establishing new and broad representative disaster management institutions at national, regional and local levels.

I also did a recent study on this and collected the feedback from the experts working in this field. Majority of respondents agreed that Nepal has good disaster management policies and legislative framework but it is not strong enough to make progress in reducing the impact of disasters at the community level.

What is your opinion about the functioning of Disaster Management Mechanism in Nepal?

When we talk about the mechanism, it has to be analysed in three aspects – ‘preparedness, response, recovery & reconstruction’. Considering the 2015 earthquake, the three mechanisms were not functioning properly.  Due to this, the community people felt the role and responsibilities of government and non-governmental organizations for disaster management at the local level. Although there is a well-developed policy framework and legislative framework for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction policy in Nepal, the mechanism is not functioning properly.

What was the overall preparedness, response and recovery functions of Nepal Government during the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake?

Preparedness means that the whole community and the government is aware and prepared for any disaster that may occur in future. The recent study shows that there is a medium level of preparedness at local communities to mitigate natural disasters when the rating scale of very high, high, medium, low and very low been asked. Similarly, the respondents agreed that the government has not given top priority in the reduction of risks at community level.

Response includes the activities taken in anticipation of, during, and immediately after an event to minimize its effects of disaster. Disaster response activities are undertaken during disaster operations. Majority of the respondents agree that the response activities were more effective and immediate due to involvement of community people after the 2015 Earthquake. There is high importance of timely, adequately resourced and coordinated approach to disaster response for Nepal. The timely, coordinated approach requires the clear definition of roles and responsibilities of those involved in response activities and their understanding of the functions that contribute to those activities. The government should not fully depend on Development Partners, INGOs, NGOs for this too.

Similarly, majority of 2015 Earthquake displaced people are unhappy with the reconstruction process of the Government and Non-Governmental Organizations. Majority of respondents think that government was not able to adopt the fair and transparent system in reconstruction process. The respondents also denied receiving the housing aid from the government and NGO for building the houses while some of the respondents have received it. Many people have been left out in the list during the earthquake victim identification process.  Similarly the respondents think that the reconstruction process for damaged schools, temple and other public infrastructure is gearing towards the construction process. The disturbed water, sanitation and public health related process are already back to regular service in many places.

Do you mean to say that government has failed in management of disaster after the 2015 Earthquake?

Yes, exactly what I mean to say. Don’t go for the big things, just go for the small basic things that government couldn’t do on time. Government couldn’t immediate make available tarpaulin for shelter to the earthquake affected people although huge number of tarpaulin arrived in Nepal immediately. Although there was tax free in import of tarpaulin, businessmen were able to gain huge profits at the time. Even the government couldn’t manage the flow of logistics to affected districts although it received a huge support from international bodies. It took almost one year to make appoint a CEO for National Reconstruction Authority. The reconstruction work remained disrupted and this is simply the non-delivery of commitments made by Nepal Government on time.

Although the Central Bank and Nepal government tried to control inflation, we were dealing with double digit inflation within the first 8 months. The government failed to protect many earthquake affected people from monsoon rains and the winter cold. More than 8 people have reported died in Sindhupalchowk and other districts of Nepal due to lack of response.  Government and non-government organizations couldn’t establish the Business Recovery Centre to re-start small businesses at the community level. Although government planned to migrate the people from earthquake prone area to new places however this has not happened in full effect. Mental Health and psychosocial issues and problems were quite common among the earthquake displaced people however government have no recovery centres for them and even no such plans as well.

Government couldn’t manage the warehouses properly. All the rice grains and food received from international bodies for earthquake affected people were destroyed by rats and moisture. Government failed to identify the real earthquake victims. There were many fake victims who receive government support, whereas the real victims remain deprived. The soft loan of 2 percent that was planned to be given to earthquake displaced people is still not functioning smoothly and it took years and years just to get the finalization.

There are many such examples that highlight the failure of the government in management of earthquake after 2015. This clearly shows that government has failed in many aspects.

Do you have any suggestions and recommendations to Government or those institutions who are working in the field of disaster?

Although disaster management has received considerable attention in the last four years, it requires comprehensive, interlinking, provide clarity of action and quick decision enhancing for all those involved in Disaster Management arrangements. Despite of research, governmental and non-governmental investments, the occurrence of disasters has been increasing every year in Nepal. Special attention needs to be given on this from responsible bodies. We also need to know that Earthquake displaced people are marginalized geographically around the world because they live in hazardous places due to informal settlements. During 2015 Earthquake, less attention was given to the members of minority groups. Special consideration need to be given on this too.

The involvement of the private business sectors in management of disaster is almost nil, some level of effort been done from FNCCI and CNI however the focus needs to be given for revival of small businesses too.

The government of Nepal should heavily focus on preparedness and response for disaster management in Nepal to minimize the future impacts and losses on human life so that it helps to minimize the impact on economy too.

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