Nepali Times
"Doing nothing is not an option"

US Ambassador Scott DeLisi spoke to Nepali Times about the need for coordination among donors as well as with government so Nepal is prepared for the next big earthquake. Excerpts:


Nepali Times: You seem to be taking the threat of a major earthquake a lot more seriously than the Nepal government.
Scott DeLisi: If our goal here is to help Nepal move towards a stable, democratic and prosperous society, what is more destabilising to a nation than a catastrophic earthquake? You see what has happened in Haiti, and the floods in Pakistan set the development timeline back 20 years at least. Both in terms of our policy interests, and in terms of our investment in partnership with the government of approximately a quarter of a billion dollars over the next three years, we have to take steps to mitigate the impact of the earthquake to shorten the recovery time, to protect the investment.

What are the lessons from the Haiti earthquake a year ago?
The thing we learnt from Haiti is that preparedness can make a difference. But to take that commitment and turn it into practical action, that's a little tougher. How do you bring a new paradigm, a new approach to disaster preparedness? What we are trying to do is serve as a template to work in partnership with the government, the UN, and other international actors.

The preparation is important, the coordination is vital. Another
lesson is that earthquakes don't kill people, collapsing buildings do. You walk around town and see these new buildings going up and you think if only there was a committed effort to ensure that they are seismically sound. Another lesson from Haiti is communications. You have satellite phones, but do we have the numbers to call? How do you charge your phones?

What kind of response strategy have your drawn up?
The embassy has a three-fold approach: we look at our own internal preparedness, I have a responsibility to take care of my people and to make sure that they are around after the quake to help us. Then there is the response aspect which we have been looking at. But the weakest part has been to address preparedness, what we can do before the quake. When I got here I found that there was a lot of good thinking that had been done but there wasn't yet an action plan. There was just so much to be done that people went "ke garne", and some people were almost paralysed. Doing anything can help, doing nothing is not an option.

We now have a Disaster Risk Reduction Office within the embassy, we have built a partnership with the Pacific Command, they're our 911. They'll be the first responders to partner with the UN, we have a better dialogue with India which recognises that it is an important concern for them. We have got the logisticians from the Pacific Command to look at some of the unique challenges that Nepal presents. We are sharing all of this with the government: how long will this country be on its own just in terms of the inability to get in? How long are the roads going to be blocked? One of the big concerns is that there is only one airport with only one runway.

Haiti had the advantage of a port. What if Kathmandu's runway is not workable? The time to talk about that is now, not when you are into the disaster.

Is enough been done on public awareness?
Awareness has to be a year-round endeavour. There can't be a constant drumbeat everyday to scare people, it has to be a sustained commitment making this a priority for people. Disaster preparedness should be mainstreamed into everything we and the government are doing. You can have a disaster risk reduction strategy in your food security program, or your health programs, you can put this into your environmental awareness programs. We have to get the young social entrepreneurs fired up, and build a domestic constituency.

How scary is the aftermath scenario?
We have to ask the question: where are the people going to be after the earthquake? Some estimates put the number of homeless at 750,000 to a million. It's important that the aid go where the people are. What we found in Haiti was that people dispersed, you don't want to take the aid to a place from where the people have left. When every green spot in Kathmandu has been taken, you have to be thinking about land use planning.

Where are you going to put down the helicopters, where does the field hospital go …you start planning comprehensively and getting people to think collectively. I am overwhelmed at times. I could do this full time.

Do you think there is the political will here for preparedness?
There is clearly a growing awareness, the thinking is getting crystallised, but there is a lot that needs to be done. There are many people throughout the bureaucracy and government, in positions of responsibility who understand these issues who are trying to move things forward. The biggest challenge is at the seniormost level, with a new
government every year. You need that sustained political leadership and a realisation that this is a priority for our nation. When you talk to them people are absolutely committed, but at the moment they are distracted, they have the peace process, the constitution, the government formation, so that's a challenge.

Not if, but when, KUNDA DIXIT
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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)