KATHMANDU: Nepal has put in place plenty of plans, strategies and mechanisms to deal with disasters in the last five years.
But, is Nepal now well-prepared to manage disasters?
The answer is a big NO. In the aftermath of the recent Sunkoshi landslide and other devastating floods, particularly in the plains of the midwestern region, it seems that Nepal´s disaster preparedness is almost non-existent.
Government officials often dub 2009 as a landmark year in the field of disaster risk management. On October 11 that year, the government approved a national strategy for disaster risk management, outlining top five priority areas.
In the years since 2009, several mechanisms, as envisioned by the national strategy, have been formed to manage disasters.
First of all, a consortium for disaster risk reduction was formed. The consortium, led by the home secretary, consists of development partners supporting Nepal´s disaster preparedness programs; and provides required financial and technical assistance.
Also, disaster response networks and search and rescue strategies have been prepared. The Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (MoFALD) has also formed disaster management committees in many districts and villages.
So, despite all this preparedness, why did the recent floods cause so much damage in the mid-western region?
According to the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC) of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), floods and landslides have killed 123 people, injured 67 people and left 126 people missing in several parts of the country since August 14.
In the same floods and landslides, 9,954 houses were completely damaged, 10,361 houses partially damaged, and 11,205 houses were inundated, and 20,245 families were displaced. Although the recent floods and landslides have hit as many as 25 districts, Surkhet, Dang and Bardiya are the worst affected ones.
Why did Nepal´s disaster management plans, programs, trategies and mechanisms fail to reduce the damages caused by the recent floods and landslides?
“Perhaps, our disaster preparedness is far from adequate,” says Ramesh Shrestha, an early warning system officer at Mercy Corps Nepal, an NGO working in disaster management sector.
Shrestha believes that there is no gap in disaster management policies and strategies but their implementation is far from satisfactory. “This is why disasters continue to cause so much destruction every year,” says Shrestha.
Ram Chandra Neupane, chairman of ECO-Nepal, another NGO working in disaster management sector, says, “In our plans, programs and strategies, we have focused on how to respond to disasters. But, we have failed to focus on how to mitigate risks of disasters.”
Neupane says mitigation is as important as responsiveness or even more so. “Unless mitigation is prioritized, response will always be insufficient,” says Neupane.
Constructing embankments along rivers is one of the most important aspects of mitigating the risk of floods. But, even flood-prone rivers are without embankments and flowing waywardly, killing people, damaging houses and displacing families every year.
This year, Babai River swelled up, changed its course and caused devastation in a vast area of fertile land – somewhere as far as five kilometers from the original water course. Although Babai is and was always a flood-prone river, the government has not built a strong embankment along its serpentine course so far.
Only a few months before the onset of monsoon, temporary embankments were built in some parts of Babai River, which were washed away by the flood. “Had there been a strong embankment along Babai River, damage would have been far less in Bardiya,” says Shrestha. “This is one area where our disaster management plans have failed.”
Even in terms of responsiveness, Nepal does not look well-prepared. As part of Nepal´s flood forecasting project, nearly two dozen flood measurement stations have been set up. But, the recent floods showed these stations are too few and far between. In Babai River, the flood washed away the entire early warning system.
In the flood-ravaged villages, the displaced people have no place to sleep, no warm clothes to wear. They have been given rice. But, without kitchen utensils and fuelwood, they are unable to cook their meals. According to the NEOC, the government has distributed more than Rs 1.6 million as relief money to the flood victims. But, that seems too little.
“The recent floods and landslides showed that we are yet not prepared to deal with big disasters,” says Mahesh Gautam, president of Nepal Red Cross Society, Bardiya. “We need to go a long way in disaster preparedness sector.”
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