15-21 May 2015 #758

Learning to learn lessons

Lives and livelihoods lost can prod us to rebuild this nation
Anurag Acharya
A city of three million densely packed into haphazard dwellings in a Valley that used to be a former lake was always a recipe for disaster. The earthquakes were no surprise, what was surprising was the relatively low casualty rate.

One of the nightmare scenarios for Kathmandu was that transportation and communication would be hit and the capital would be cut off. That did not happen. Roads and the only international airport suffered minimum damage, electricity and phones were restored surprisingly swiftly.

However, the most encouraging sign was the sight of Nepal’s young population rushing to deliver emergency aid – filling a gaping gap left by the government. Despite strong aftershocks still shaking the Valley and adjoining districts, young Nepalis were volunteering to collect relief and transporting it to where they were needed the most, sometimes at their own cost. Imagine what the demographic dividend Nepal would reap if we could channel that pent-up energy and commitment to nation-building. At a time when a large swathe of country’s rural population is toiling in foreign lands, the spontaneous self-mobilisation of urban youth eased the pressure on state agencies. The government and the bureaucracy got a lot of flak for being late and disorganised with response.

However, the scale of the disaster was such that it would have challenged even well-governed states. Nepal’s security forces deserve a lot of praise for putting their lives on the line to save lives. The country has been fortunate to receive immediate help from governments around the world, which have sent in their disaster relief teams to aid search and rescue operations in the remote districts.

But the last three weeks have proven that Nepal needs to strengthen its capacity for disaster preparedness and response. After Tuesday’s 7.3 magnitude aftershock triggered fresh landslides and destruction in Dolakha, Sindhupalchok, Rasuwa we have had to suddenly revert back to search and rescue, while continuing delivery of relief supplies. It is important that both go in tandem as we race against time to provide shelters to millions of people before the rains and ahead of winter.

Most families in Kavre and Sindhupalchok have already started building temporary shelters for themselves from local material and salvaged timber and bricks. This is only stopgap and the government must start delivering on a foolproof mechanism for subsidising home rebuilding.

Populations in landslide prone areas must be identified, and relocated before the monsoon when slope failure is going to be a constant danger. For the district capitals and Kathmandu Valley the government must finally start strictly enforcing its 25-year-old building code.

Large sections of the population in the affected areas outside Kathmandu Valley are subsistence farmers, they need help with seeds for the paddy planting season, otherwise they will go hungry for the rest of the year. In many ways, the monsoon season will seriously test us again.

So far, the amount pledged by the donors for reconstruction may be encouraging, but the actual amount received in the PM’s relief fund is disappointing to say the least. Part of the fault is with the PMO which sent conflicting and confusing signals to potential donors already skeptical of the transparency in aid disbursement. The international community also has an opportunity to clean up its act, and not make the same mistakes it was severely criticised for in Haiti.

The inflow of aid money is making some political parties salivate, calling for revival of their discredited all-party mechanism at the local level which was a cartel to share the loot. Others are also demanding immediate local elections, while some want a national government.

In 2010, when a massive 8.8 magnitude quake hit Chile, only 525 people lost their lives and less than 9 percent of the affected population lost their homes. The same year, a 7.0 magnitude quake in Haiti killed over 100,000 people reducing the capital city to a rubble. Experts credit strict building codes and swift rescue for saving lives in Chile.  

So, an earthquake doesn’t kill people, lack of preparedness does.


Read also:

Another earthquake hits Nepal, Om Astha Rai

Rising from the rubble, Anurag Acharya

A more responsive state, David Seddon

Earning back the people’s trust, Tsering Dolker Gurung

With a little help, Stéphane Huët

Preparing to be prepared, Kunda Dixit

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