5-11 September 2014 #723

A flood of images

Yet another lesson in disaster preparedness that will probably go unheeded
Guna Raj Luitel
TOKYO – After seeing the aftermath of the Sindhupalchok and Bardiya floods, I flew to Japan where the country was reeling from the mudslide disaster in Hiroshima that killed 36 people. The Japanese media showed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the ground, commiserating with survivors and promising help. Even in Japan, despite its legendary preparedness, rescue and relief agencies were stretched to the limit.

If a country like Japan is challenged, one could expect Nepal’s own response to not be up to mark, especially when struck by a once-in-a-lifetime flood as hit western Nepal last month. But we never saw senior government officials, including Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, appearing to help.

One month after the Sindhupalchok landslide, only the bodies of 33 of the 156 missing have been found.  The Jure survivors are thanking the gods for having narrow escapes, but their ordeal is just beginning. While donated food and clothing is being heaped in godowns, what they really need is cash to resettle and rebuild homes. Soon, the victims will be forgotten, the attention of the media and government will stray elsewhere and all that will remain will be the selfies of people who were there for disaster tourism.

Ramesh Karki hadn’t been to the site for two weeks after the mountain killed both his parents and his sister-in-law. “What is there to see?” he told me as we walked together to where his home used to be. “There is nothing left.” Now, the 22-year-old is the head of his family.

The ground fell away beneath their feet, the mountain crashed on their home. The faces from the floods on the Bhote Kosi and Bardiya in the past month are etched in my mind as I negotiate the maze of stations of the Tokyo underground. Somehow, the images are devoid of emotion, they stare at me with shock and loss written in their eyes.

Smriti Khanal (pic above) is 17 and a Grade 10 student from Bagnaha VDC of Bardiya. She was collecting shattered bricks embedded in the silt from the spot where her home once stood. There is now a lake where her farm used to be. Family members saved themselves by clambering to higher ground, but their livestock didn’t stand a chance.

“We couldn’t save anything, money, citizenship papers are all gone,” Smriti said, “we had to run for our lives. Only a baby buffalo survived.”

Banke is where Prime Minister Sushil Koirala won his elections from. Deputy prime minister and Home Minister Bamdev Gautam comes from Bardiya and he is faulted with having forgotten his own district. “Our home minister saw us from the sky,” said one dejected Bardiya survivor.

There is much we have to learn from Japan about disaster preparedness, rescue and relief. But even a country like Japan struggled to do a proper job after the Kobe earthquake of 1992 which killed 6,000, and the Earthquake-Tsunami of 2011 with 16,000 fatalities. The Japanese start early with preparedness, and emergency training begins in elementary school, but even they were caught unawares.

Still, it was heartening this time in Nepal to see the outpouring of support from telecom companies, the private sector, and students. But this was a drop in the ocean, where is the government? The challenge is of delivery because the poor and vulnerable are always the last to receive aid.

Recently a diplomat in Kathmandu told me he wanted to extend support to the Nepal government for the flood and landslide-hit regions. He found the official ill prepared to answer questions about the ground situation, he didn’t have the specifics of what was needed in various parts of the country, and waffled about a response plan.

Since then, the government has appointed Information Minister Minendra Rijal to coordinate flood relief. But for most of the survivors, it is about three weeks too late.

Former editor of Annapurna Post, Guna Raj Luitel, starts his fortnightly column On The Road from this week. Rubeena Mahato is on extended leave.

Read also:

One month after the mountain fell, Kanak Mani Dixit

Disastrous management, Editorial

The poorest hit hardest by floods, Naresh Newar

Coping mechanisms, Ashutosh Tiwari

A flood of floods, Kunda Dixit

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