1 - 7 August 2014 #718

Coping mechanisms

Nepal is exposed to all kinds of risks, but doesn’t have the structures in place to deal with them
Ashutosh Tiwari
Last Saturday, a landslide 500m across fell down on the Bhote Kosi River, burying houses and blocking the river upstream from Lamosangu. This created a lake, five km long which submerged houses, a section of the Araniko Highway, farms and bazar.

As of this writing, rescue work is going on, with 33 bodies found so far, and about 150 still missing.  Few can predict where and when disasters of various intensities and frequencies strike. Still, since man-made and natural disasters are common occurrences in Nepal, could we have taken general actions that might have helped minimise risks to lives and property?

Accountable local governance: We have not had local government elections since 1997. In the absence of periodically elected and locally responsive leaders, a representative of the central government heads local councils, which are patchworks made up of various squabbling local politicians. Left to fend for themselves by national parties, these local politicians compete with one another to find ways to divert the funds coming to their villages and districts to themselves.

Over time, this practice has evolved into a risky form of local governance: For a fee, unelected local politicians can give you permissions to rent bulldozers to flatten sections of the hills, to mine sand from the rivers and to extract water from the ground to sell commercially, to construct hotels near the river banks, to let settlements grow into a bajar, and to look the other way when it comes to enforcing building codes. So, when disasters strike, no one can really be held locally accountable for having let the risks dangerously multiply on the side of people and property.

Spread of insurance markets: Forty-six years after the establishment of Rastriya Beema Sansthan, insurance markets, hobbled by regulations that hinder their spread, still serve a small sliver of the urban rich. They leave out the majority of Nepalis who are poor, vulnerable and in desperate need of insurance products that help them cope with the effects of disasters.

To be sure, private insurance providers will not go looking for the poor. But given that we will continue facing natural disasters, finding ways to help the impoverished cope with such risks through appropriate insurance products – micro-insurance, community insurance, insurance schemes in which the government tops up the community contributions, etc -- is where the government’s leadership is most needed. Examples of how to bring the poor and the vulnerable into appropriate insurance schemes could be adapted from other countries. Else, in coming times, the cost of emergency response and reconstructive relief will only go higher for the poor and the state.     

Nepal Risk Board: Though the Indian Prime Minister’s speech to the Constituent Assembly emphasised the opportunity side, Nepal can be perceived as a country with all sorts of risks: labour unrest makes large-scale manufacturing challenging, political uncertainties erode investors’ confidence, a persistent lack of public services such as water, electricity and health care drive urban professionals to live and work outside of the country, a lack of jobs makes young villagers go to the Gulf, and natural disasters routinely upend lives, property and businesses.

To be sure, we cannot avoid all these risks. What we can do is craft our responses to them through the formation of a Nepal Risk Board, tasked to co-ordinate the government’s efforts to prepare for and cope with the effects of risks, while educating the public about their nature. Risks are part of our lives. But setting up institutions – local government, appropriate insurance products and a risk board – are some of the ways that help better cope with the effects next time a whole mountain falls down on a river.

Read also:

Calculated risk, Editorial

A flood of floods, Kunda Dixit

Man made disasters, Editorial

A decade of democratic deficit, Anurag Acharya

“An untouched market for insurance”

Assurance of insurance, Paavan Mathema

Mitigating disaster, Thelma Mejia


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