By Dr Bharat Raj Poudel, Brisbane
19 August 2017
Every monsoon, flood and landslides ravage human lives and properties in Nepal. Triggered by torrential rain, flood and landslides have recently claimed hundreds of lives in the Himalayan nation. Properties and arable land worth billions of rupees have been destroyed rendering tens of thousands of people homeless. All this happened to a country which had not yet fully recovered from the devastation caused by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April 2015.
Nepalese people, both at home and abroad, have been venting their anger on social media because Government of Nepal appeared confused as flood inundated villages after villages in the lowland. Eastern and southern districts were hit hard by the deluge. People were scathing on the government as response and recovery were too slow to reach the victims.
Nepal has not changed its style of response over the years. Frequent weather forecasting or early warning system are possible but sophisticated modern day technologies are not (or were not) utilised by the government. The loss is increasing every year also due to the construction of dams, roads and other physical infrastructures on the bordering districts which is not only against the international law but also humanity, says Dr Meen B Poudyal Chhetri, President of Nepal Center for disaster management (NCDM) which works in disaster discourses and consultation. Dr Chhetri, who is also an adjunct professor of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane and visiting fellow for various academic institutions around the globe, believes that the other reasons are the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources, environmental degradation, unplanned urbanization and poor construction practices. Insufficient preparedness and poor disaster governance are other equally important factors that have aggravated the disaster problems in Nepal, he pointed out.
The Nepalese government did not even consider it important to conduct an emergency cabinet meeting or declare disaster emergency to deal with the tragic situation.
— Sher Bahadur Deuba (@PM_Nepal) August 12, 2017
This year’s tragedy occurred following heavy rains on August 11 and 12. Public life became paralyzed as major highways linking east and west via southern plains were damaged by the flood. Only two days after, on August 13, did the Government show some semblance of concern over the severity of the situation. It was then that PM Sher Bahadur Deuba instructed his Defense and Home Ministers, heads of all four security agencies to rescue flood victims and move them to safety and provide relief.
Personnel from Eastern Div Training School constructed 100 meter embankment in the flooded Chisang River at Letang Municipality-3, Morang. pic.twitter.com/3cCTOdJD3p
— Nepalese Army (@thenepalesearmy) August 16, 2017
Nepal does not have big investment in disaster preparedness and mitigation. However, home ministry and other agencies do have disaster units. A recent research on media stories proved that low investment in preparedness, mitigation and long-term and short-term planning without effective mechanism has badly impacted Nepal’s response and recovery cycle of disaster management.
हेलोसरकारको काम चित्तबुझ्दो भएपनि नभएपनि सरकारी संयंत्रप्रति रहेको मनको बह पोख्दै गर्नुहोला, केही नभए मन हल्का त हुन्छ।हाम्रो प्रयास जारी छ।
— HelloSarkar (@Hello_Sarkar) August 8, 2017
On the positive side, Nepalese government agencies now utilise social media as well as their respective websites in order to keep people informed and thereby remain prepared for possible disasters. But they aren’t prompt enough to keep their websites and social pages updated with the latest developments. For instance, home ministry has posted concerned minister’s plan to tackle the flood and latest information on search and rescue and response and recovery efforts of the government. Minister Janardan Sharma informed the parliament that all resources have been mobilised to deal with the problem. He said that 80% of land in eastern and southern plains was inundated and at least 111 people lost their lives while 35 were still missing with the possibility that the number would rise. However, this scribe was little surprised that there was not any latest information on the main website of the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) under the same ministry.
It is almost an uncomfortable feeling to see that the main website of the Government of Nepal has absolutely no mention of the recent floods and landslides. Our researchers and academicians enjoy retrieving and using well-organised data and information from globally renowned portals such as Relief Web. Likewise, we use other sources of data for research purpose as well. For earthquake-related information, many fellow researchers rely on the data of western agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Just as these western bodies, Nepal needs to simplify and manage its data and information so that the world promptly learns what is happening in the Himalayan nation. As things stand, this is not exactly the case now.
Instead of being packed with relevant information, popular twitter handle @Hello_Sarkar, an account owned by the Government of Nepal, contains old and irrelevant information. Nevertheless, this handle has this time shared posts from other government agencies involved in flood affected areas. Although Nepal Police and the Nepalese Army have some disaster response mechanism (which was proven during the Nepal Earthquake), the state has failed to make them well-equipped. Similarly, Nepal army has been continuously active on information and action on the field.
बाढी प्रभावित क्षेत्रहरुमा नेपाल प्रहरी अस्पतालबाट विशेषज्ञ चिकित्सकको टोली खटिई उपचार सेवा एवं स्वास्थ्य तथा सरसफाईसम्बन्धी परामर्श । pic.twitter.com/F6ePttw44P
— Nepal Police (@NepalPoliceHQ) August 18, 2017
The question here is why is Nepal always slow to react and why can’t it act effectively during times of major natural calamities? According to Dr Chhetri, the affected people have their right to food, shelter and water but unfortunately, not all victims get them because of weak response mechanism and poor awareness. In fact, Nepal is in urgent need of a powerful and resourceful agency which can effectively handle all aspects of disaster i.e. mitigation, preparedness, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Because of this, by the time Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba decided to visit flood affected areas on August 14, the damage had already been enormous. Hundreds of thousands of people had already been left with no food and shelter.
A Kathmandu-based expert says people of Nepal deserve to be well-informed by their national agencies in the event of natural calamities. Meteorologist Dr Ambarish Pokhrel claims that the country does have skilled workforce in the field of hydrology, meteorology or natural disaster. But they mostly work in individual capacity as they have good links with international research institutes. However, Nepal government does not use these resources to forecast climate severity. In fact, government rules and regulations are the main obstacles to using these resources. Some young scientists are working in the department of hydrology and meteorology (DHM) and other organisations but the Nepalese government never provides the necessary instrumentation or funds to these young scholars. So, they are obligated to work with insufficient resources. Although Nepal government dumps thousands of millions of rupees in the Relief Fund, they do not want to spend it because they do not have humanitarian compassion or do not get commission while spending money to mitigate the calamity and severity and they do not have own properties in the disaster risk area.
As we can see, social media activities of various government agencies have intensified over the years but they lag behind in terms of disseminating the information they have. Nepalese society needs framework-driven social and traditional media engagement during a disaster situation. The government can make people aware of the risks of natural disaster in future only by disseminating information to as many readers as possible.
A thorough review of media contents has found that Nepalese media outlets categorise disasters as current affairs, without a specific accountability for disaster reporting. Nepalese media must follow structured framework for news production and disaster communication. Nepal faces frequent threats of natural disasters and the media has a significant role to play in their management. Social media has been a powerful tool in ensuring communication as Nepalese residing abroad and reporters already in Nepal were able to inform the world via Facebook and Twitter.
A research (eprints.qut.edu.au) on the prevailing status of media management in natural disasters demonstrated that Nepalese media’s attention mostly focuses on human aspects and the response phase and less so on prevention and preparedness. The framework developed by this author may encourage a more comprehensive approach by the media. The researcher identified that the principal focus of media was on the response phase of disasters and on the human-interest aspect. There was limited reportage that encouraged the development of any disaster-resilient infrastructure in Nepal.
In the recent flood, along with global media, Nepalese media have conveyed message to public and it has definitely played instrumental role.
Despite wide-ranging media coverage and various efforts to inform and unite people, the decision of the government to implement one door policy to supply relief materials in disaster affected zones has disregarded NGOs. The Natural Disaster and Rescue Committee directed government authorities to ensure that relief materials both in cash and kind are distributed under the supervision of the government. A one-door policy for distribution of relief materials has restricted non-government agencies and individuals from providing support without coordination with the authorities. However, the home ministry has lately shown some leniency as it allowed Shesh Ghale-led NRNA and few other NGOs to visit effected areas and distribute relief materials.
Donors-given funds are now a matter of public dislike due to Nepal’s unorganised mechanism and the concern that such funds are mostly misused and misspent. The Mugling-Narayangarh highway is an apt of the typical disorganisation Nepal as a country suffers from. The meandering mountain road, despite the fact that it is the only lifeline for the landlocked nation, is never complete, safer or well-maintained. As a result, the entire country comes to a halt every time tiniest of landslides occurs.
Every year, a good chunk of Nepal’s budget remains unspent due to lack of planning and appropriate framework. A constructive way to address the South Asian nations’s lack of preparedness would be to divert that unspent money into programmes aimed at mitigating natural disasters.
This story was republished due to technical issues – Editor