8-14 May 2015 #757

A more responsive state

Reconstruction will have to involve not just rebuilding homes but restructuring the state
David Seddon
It is still relatively soon in the sequence of rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction that generally follows any major natural disaster to draw any definitive lessons from the series of earthquakes and aftershocks that hit Nepal towards the end of April, but already a number of things have become clear.

Firstly, the level of death damage and destruction has been high, with some 7,000 dead at the present count and likely to be around 10,000 eventually. There will be double that at least badly injured, and many with long term disabilities, hundreds of thousands of homes, schools, health centres and other buildings destroyed, and several million people adversely affected.

The devastation, moreover, has covered a surprisingly extensive region - across most of the hill and mountain areas of central Nepal and beyond. This alone has posed an enormous challenge to the government agencies and non-government organisations supposedly charged with rescue and relief efforts.

Despite the fact that a major earthquake was long expected and there had been in recent years a growing concern on the part of both the foreign aid agencies and the government of Nepal regarding the need to ensure ‘disaster preparedness’, when the earthquake materialised, very few institutions were effectively prepared and in a position to provide within the first two days relief that should already have been stockpiled and services in readiness for such a large-scale disaster.

Disaster experts say that even in developed countries with generally well established procedures for disaster response, private citizens are told to expect little outside assistance for up to 72 hours. But the unprecedented floods and landslides of 2014 and the tardiness and inadequacy of the response to these at the time should have alerted those responsible to the need to prepare for all disaster contingencies, in all urban centres and throughout the hinterland of rural towns and villages in each of the 75 districts of Nepal for such extreme events, with a national and district strategic ‘disaster plan’ involving various alternative scenarios and procedures for an appropriate response guiding initial responses.

Certainly the earthquakes and after-shocks of the last week or so have constituted a physical event and a disaster on an unimagined scale, across a substantial part of the country - mainly but not exclusively in the central region of Nepal - and would under any circumstances have posed a major problem for the emergency services.

But the immediate response was, let it be acknowledged, inadequate. Lessons can and must be learned from this about the need to prepare at all levels and in all kinds of institutions, both private and public, both government and non-government, for contingencies of this kind, given the realities of Nepal’s geological dynamics, geographical location and mountainous terrain, and the realities of climate change.

Another lesson learned is that, contrary to the expectation of most development experts, the urban areas and modern buildings, particularly in the Kathmandu Valley, have not been the major casualties. It is the older historic structures in the cities and towns and the less well-built private and public structures in the rural areas that have suffered the most.

Furthermore, the main human casualties were not, as anticipated, in the Kathmandu Valley where, at the present time fewer than 2,000 deaths have occurred, but in the rural areas, notably in Sindhupalchok where some 5,000 deaths are recorded so far.

Not surprisingly, the initial coverage by the media was focused on Kathmandu and the death and destruction experienced there, but within a few days it became apparent, in large part as a result of the effectiveness of the new social media that the worst hit areas were generally out of town and in the remoter rural areas. It became apparent later that areas even in the Valley, including historic towns had been largely destroyed, yet being ignored or bypassed by commentators and relief agencies alike.

As reports of the scale of the disaster multiplied, the international response was dramatic, with specialist teams flying in from across the world and pledges of funds for relief and reconstruction being received from governments, NGOs and private citizens. Inside Nepal, it was local citizens and local groups, and then NGOs that led the response. The government of Nepal and bureaucratic structures were slower off the mark, although the army and the police were deployed almost immediately. The foreign agencies moved into action within a few days for the most part, although some were swifter than others to mobilise their resources. Many relied on personnel and material supplies being flown in from elsewhere.

Eventually, within a week, the relief effort was in full swing, although with a paucity of helicopters from the outset. A certain tardiness on the part of government in ensuring the free flow of relief supplies into and within the country meant the relief still failed to reach many devastated areas and desperately needy people.

There are many criticisms being voiced, particularly as regards the low profile of many politicians, political parties and their cadres and of the evident inability of the government and more generally the state to cope with the demands of this enormous disaster. It is widely felt that reconstruction will have to involve much more than merely rebuilding infrastructure, major task though that will be. It will necessarily involve not only the re-structuring of the state but a thorough reconsideration of social, economic and above all political priorities.

Given the failures of the government and to some extent the foreign aid agencies, the spontaneous mobilisation of ordinary Nepali people across the affected regions as well as the solidarity shown across the country between those not so adversely affected and those in need, any political change will need to recognise not only the needs of the people but also their ability to address their own needs and reintroduce those local democratic structures that have been lacking for more than a decade.

Read also:

A slow start, David Seddon

Sindhupalchok's sorrow, Bhrikuti Rai

Shaking things up, Editorial

As remote as Kathmandu

Monumental loss, Stéphane Huët

Preparing to be prepared, Kunda Dixit

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