Lack of intentional and research-driven disaster preparedness is a serious dilemma in Nepal

By Raju Chauhan, Program Coordinator

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post

My recent field trip to the Doti district of Far Western Nepal was interrupted by a wave of panic unfurling on my social media newsfeed. A Times of India article with the headline, ‘Study predicts 8.5 magnitude earthquake in Himalaya’ was sporadically being shared, accompanied with messages of concern and consternation. Having only just examined textbook examples of vulnerable infrastructure, especially in private housing areas in the far west, I could not fathom the damage that an 8.5 magnitude earthquake would cause if it struck western Nepal.

Almost four years after the heart tremoring incident that took the lives of nearly 9,000 people, the government continues to make snail-inch progress in its painstaking reconstruction process. According to the Nepal Reconstruction Authority, 45 percent of the private housing, 55 percent of the school buildings, 54 percent of the medical facilities, 27 percent of the archaeological and cultural heritage, and 3 percent of rural roads have been reconstructed in the last three years. This progress lags behind its target set for 2020, by which all reconstruction and restoration work is supposed to be completed. Beyond the data, restoration progress of Rani Pokhari speaks very well to how dismissive, apathetic and unaccountable our authorities are.

It was initially thought that the Gorkha earthquake would be a lesson and an opportunity for Nepal to leapfrog from the reactive ‘rescue and relief’ approach of disaster risk management to a proactive ‘plan and prepare’ approach. But the current trend of reconstruction and the government’s attitude towards disaster risk management doesn’t reflect any shift in the paradigm.

Three years after the disaster, we are still drowning in an endless stream of questions. Did we really improve our infrastructure during the reconstruction process? When are we going to start thinking beyond the earthquake, flood, and landslides and beyond eastern and central Nepal? The simple and straight answer to these questions is: we are neither ‘building back better’ nor ‘rising again’—as taglines peddled by international donors have suggested. Three years later, we are still focused on post-disaster recovery and have yet to learn that risk mitigation and management should be our priority. Research is another important missing component in Nepal’s reconstruction process.

The approach of bringing flood and landslide into national discourse only with the onset of the monsoon season and taking concern about air pollution only once the dry season commences are not productive steps that can be lauded. If these conversations take place well in advance, disaster risk can be mitigated, absorbed and responded to effectively. In a country where communities have to accept disaster as a routinised aspect of their lives, pre-disaster preparedness and the enhancement of post-disaster coping mechanisms should work in tandem.

While positive steps have been made—such as the flood early warning system in Terai, glacier lake outburst flood risk reduction in high mountain areas, and the promulgation of the proactive Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act to replace a 35 year-old reactive Natural Calamity and Relief Act—more action is needed. However, more action for disaster risk reduction is required.

At the heart of this quandary is the need for research. Lack of data to understand the underlying risks have always been a challenge for disaster risk reduction and management in Nepal. Research and resource allocations should be done to generate accurate and consistent data and knowledge of risks. While early warning systems should not be confined to flood hazards, already established early warning systems can be made more effective by increasing awareness about the risks posed to vulnerable communities and increasing their response capacities. Effective and timely communication of the potential risks, preparedness measures, and warning information are important for disaster risk mitigation and preparedness. Land use planning, risk assessment, and risk mitigation should be prioritised instead of solely concentrating resources on ‘response and recovery’ programmes. Multi-hazards preparedness approach should be adopted to enhance the nation’s resiliency to disaster.

Within three years of the 7.9 magntiude earthquake that struck Wenchuan, China in 2008, total reconstruction was completed and steps to ensure that the region was more resilient were tirelessly carried out. In Haiti, even eight years after the massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake of 2010, people continue to suffer. In Nepal, the enactment of the decentralised Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act by the government in 2017 brought some hope that the disaster risk management would be taken forward.

But whether the disaster risk reduction and management approach in Nepal takes the path of China or Haiti will largely depend upon the resource, capacity, priority, accountability, trust and coordination of the institutions envisioned by the act at all tiers of the government. If the act is simply sitting idle and solely existing on paper and in rhetoric, the Nepali public will continue to succumb to fears over potential future disasters.