OPINION: Lesson for disaster preparedness

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Disaster Risk Management and renegotiations with India a must to mitigate future flood disasters

This year’s disaster, stemming from landslides in the hills and floods in the plains has been the most severe in several years, but it is not a new phenomenon.

It is definitely easier to predict monsoon patterns every year from meteorological data.  But why did we not benefit from meteorological technology this summer? Is this current disaster entirely due to nature, or is it the result of human complacence?

Laying blame

Where did we fail? Who is responsible for this disaster? Where does technology fail in this regard? There is no single answer.

The people are indirectly responsible for many factors that result in disaster, such as deforestation, construction of roads and canals and the arbitrary extraction of sand and stones.

They are also directly responsible for many factors such as the selection of inappropriate sites and spurious materials for construction of housing, and disregard for technical advice and expertise.

Are there unseen causes of such disasters? Is Nepal alone responsible, or are there foreign fingerprints on this as well?

The main responsibility lies with the government, but there is a smaller role for external factors that have to be analysed. China borders Nepal in the north, but India borders Nepal in the east, west and south.

There is relatively little contact in the north, owing to the great natural physical wall. However, the large border with India obviously leaves numerous openings for friction, including two aspects related to flooding in the plains during monsoon.

The first of the two aspects is the upper hand India has in controlling the flood gates at some river barrages in Nepal. Nepal cannot open the sluice gates until India allows it, and this permission arrived too late this year.

The other aspect, and the major cause of this disaster, is the construction of embankments by India along our southern border, thus blocking the southward flow of water from our border.

All our villages in the southern border are inundated, causing havoc to crops and houses. Nature has placed Nepal to the north of India with the watershed towards the south. All our rivers flow north-south into India.

Naturally the rain water too flows from north to south. India constructed the border embankment to block the flow of such rain fed water towards the south. Nepal has had to bear huge relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation responsibilities on account of India’s arbitrary construction of the border embankment.

There have been several lapses in Nepal’s own handling of disaster risk management, however. No sustainable plan has been formulated regarding disaster management.

Our infrastructure development causes inundation by blocking the flow of water because no proper provisions have been made for water drainage through culverts or Hume pipes. Sustainable embankments have not been constructed along river banks.

Human settlements have been allowed in inundation prone areas. Neither is there a proper warning system, nor is there a sustainable relief capability. This always leads to an ad-hoc relief operation once disaster occurs.

We also lack trained manpower in disaster management in the civil service, and in the security agencies. Of course, the security personnel are deployed once the disaster has taken place, but special training is needed to provide appropriate skills to cope with the severity of the disaster.

Boats, big dozers, cranes, and other rough weather equipment for relief should have been purchased by the government and put on stand-by. Perhaps volunteer reserves with proper training should be in place. NGOs too should be incorporated into the governmental mechanism to cope with disaster.

Setting priorities

Three factors must be prioritised in times of natural disaster. The first factor is rescue. In the present disaster, people had the courage and ingenuity to survive, clutching to tree branches for hours.

Our brave security personnel rescued as many people as possible, considering the facilities at hand. But this is not enough, and must be improved for meeting future disasters.

When the people have been rescued, they need shelter immediately. When the entire area is inundated with water, finding shelter is not easy. Camping in tent-like-structures on high ground is the only option.

But finding adequate supply of tents becomes a big issue. Adequate tents should be kept in stock. Rescued people also do not have spare clothing. So, there should be a stock of useable clothes in different sizes for all affected.

The third factor is food. It is near impossible to secure food from inundated homes and warehouses. Adequate food stock must be kept within reachable distance.

Associated with nutrition is the issue of health. An adequate amount of medicines and a corps of health workers to be deployed at the shortest notice should always be ready. This must be a part of a national disaster management plan.

Though the government did act on the recent disaster, it wasn’t nearly enough. It could have been better managed with timely pre-planning. There is a disaster management mechanism in the Home Ministry, but other related sectors should be incorporated into this mechanism, changing the structure of organisation if necessary.

Last but not least, the government should make provisions with India to drain excess water through their border embankment in times of dire necessity. Shedding any inhibitions it has to approach India on crucial matters, our government must articulate this crucial issue.

Urgent high level diplomatic negotiation is absolutely necessary. Our Parliament and political parties must speak out. Several fatalities of the present disaster are the result of the embankment. We must prevent anything like this in the future.

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