Nepal is witnessing a steady rise in the Covid-19 infection cases, which is bringing the government under intense pressure and criticism. All three levels of governments are under public scrutiny for their inadequate planning and response. The monsoon havoc has worsened the pandemic’s impact. Although the monsoon was predicted to be normal this year, incidents of disasters like flashfloods and landslides remained high. For a country that has regularly suffered from water-induced disasters during the monsoon, Nepal still seems woefully underprepared.
Sindhupalchowk district in Bagmati Province, which was among the hardest hit by the 2015 earthquake, has been among the worst affected by disasters during the monsoons. This year was no exception. Incessant rainfall since July, triggering landslides and flashfloods have ravaged settlements in Ghumthang, Jugal, Lidi, and Bahrabise among others across the district, killing over 75 people and displacing over 500 households. On September 3, a flashflood in the Dhorpatan area of Baglung district triggered a landslide, destroying 80 households and leaving 53 partially damaged. At least 16 people were killed and 22 are still missing.
While the flashfloods and landslides cause deaths and destruction in the hills, the Tarai districts suffer from inundation. This year, at least 6,320 families have been affected, including 2,500 displaced families, by floods in the Kailali district of Sudurpaschim Province. According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, at least 273 people have been killed and 199 injured, due to water-induced disasters across the country this year. At least 92 people remain missing.
Apart from water-induced disasters, Nepal also falls under a high seismic activity zone, with young Himalayas forming a major faultline between the Eurasian and Indian continental plate. Five year since the devastating earthquake that killed more than 10,000 in 2015, the country continues to experience aftershocks. This week’s major jolt came early morning on Sept 16. It was close to 6.0 in magnitude, with the epicenter in Sindhupalchowk district. Nepal’s susceptibility means there has to be advanced preparedness. Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the government at all three levels must urgently update their disaster preparedness and response systems. The traumatic experience of being caught off-guard in 2015 has taught us that it is unwise to wait for the disaster to strike before jolting into action.
Take, for instance, the Monsoon Preparedness and Response Plan 2020. The plan, updated every year to manage the monsoon mayhem in the country, had incorporated Covid-19 response and management alongside. It focused on maintaining physical distancing, provisioning PPE for responders, disinfecting emergency shelters, as well as testing affected victims in shelters. However, the plan was approved by the government only on June 19, a week after the monsoon had already arrived on June 12. This makes the whole process of planning seem ritualistic, with little urgency and will to implement. The fact that we are witnessing a daily spike in the Covid-19 cases, despite the implementation of Covid-19 Nepal Preparedness and Response Plan 2020 since April, shows our approach to disaster preparedness and response remains inadequate, if not flawed.
One major bottleneck in government response to disasters is lack of basic coordination across its layered bureaucracy. The delegation of disaster management responsibilities to the sub-national governments, under the Local Governance Operation Act 2017, was expected to make the response at the local level swift and effective. However, inadequate financial support, lack of technically equipped human resources, and general lack of collaboration and coordination between different offices have undermined the impact of such positive policy provisions. This is evident in the weak Covid-19 response of the provincial and municipal governments. Lack of coordination between the provincial and municipal governments, and failure to timely relocate risk-prone settlement areas are also being blamed for the loss of lives and property due to landslides in Sindhupalchowk’s Lidi village.
It is imperative to shift our approach and thinking to disaster response, which remains reactive and focused on rescue and evacuation, setting up temporary shelters, and provisioning for relief measures. The worsening effects and intensity of disasters have exposed our limited emergency response capabilities, as well as our weak healthcare system that gets overwhelmed during national emergencies. Disaster preparedness and response must now include strengthening of relief response capacities, as well as health infrastructures at the local levels. Safe and secure stockpiling of food, drinking water, and medicines, along with other emergency goods must be a priority of every provincial and municipal government. Municipal governments must also identify large public spaces, to set-up emergency shelters and medical camps during disasters.
While the country continues to reel under an impending crisis, the decision by the federal government to introduce disaster risk financing to provide insurance for loss of property due to disasters is a step in the right direction. A multi-hazard approach to planning for more than one disaster, considering their inter-relationships and interactions, will go a long way in helping save lives and enhancing resilience.
Koirala and Shakya are researchers at Policy Entrepreneurs Incorporated (PEI)