Mid-summer monsoon rains in Nepal triggered over three dozen floods and landslides, killing over 200 people and displacing tens of thousands. Experts say this highlights preparedness and response challenges and the urgent need for these to be prioritized in development plans and at local government level.
"There was nothing unpredictable about this summer's events in Nepal," Moira Reddick, coordinator at Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC), a coalition of humanitarian, development, financial and government bodies, told IRIN.
"Until we see investments effectively risk managed and centred into development planning across all sectors of government and international community, we won't start to see the kind of revolution we need in terms of disaster management, risk-proofing and effective preparedness," she said.
Nepal's Ministry of Home Affairs put the number of people dead between June and September due to floods and landslides at 265, with 256 missing and 157 injured. A landslide on 2 August was the deadliest in the country's history. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), monsoon disasters in 2014 affected over 200,000 people across Nepal and displaced more than 34,000.
Humanitarians point to a 2008 flood in the River Koshi, which killed several hundred and displaced nearly 60,000 families, as a turning point for Nepal's disaster mitigation and response work.
Ram Prasad Luetel, humanitarian adviser at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kathmandu, called the flood an "eye-opener" for disaster management in the country. The Koshi experience inspired changes such as the Armed Police Force (a paramilitary) establishing a disaster-training centre in 2011, the Nepal Police creating a disaster division in 2013, and the Nepal Army opening its disaster directorate in 2014.
However, a combination of reactive instincts instead of preventive action, weak local governance, and geographic diversity across Nepal means the country continues to grapple with the fall-out from small-scale disasters, experts say.
The instinct to respond, not prevent
Madhukar Upadhya, a Nepali watershed and landslide management expert, says the organizational changes are not geared to managing small-scale prevention, early warning, and management. "Dealing with small-scale natural disasters is going to be a serious challenge for our future, but the government mechanism is not structured to deal with it because its entire focus and expertise is invested on rescue and relief," he argued.
A 1982 Natural Calamities Relief Act remains the central policy pillar for disaster response in Nepal; a Disaster Management Bill was prepared in 2008 but seven years on, the draft is still waiting to be tabled in parliament, which has lurched through its almost one-year term without touching the issue, much like the previous legislature.
Pradipkumar Koirala, under-secretary of disaster management in Nepal's Ministry of Home Affairs, told the Preparatory Committee of the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva in July: "In order to sustain disaster risk reduction [DRR] efforts and promote resilience, it is critical to embed DRR. into development initiatives." He said Nepal prioritized "risk governance and accountability" but asked for "prioritizing the response part."
However, according to Rita Dhakal Jayasawal, head of humanitarian response at DanChurchAid (DCA) in South Asia, "small-scale natural disasters don't trigger a full-scale humanitarian response, so we need to think about a different approach."
NRRC's Reddick said Nepal's entire model for development - for which the country of 27 million people receives nearly US$1 billion per year in foreign aid - needs to change.
"Given the many development challenges that Nepal faces, the country focuses on natural disasters every year only for a few months during monsoon and flooding season," Reddick explained. "But it needs to be a 12-month-long process built over a couple of decades to get the capacity we need so that we can respond to 40, 80, 200,000 affected."
Systems need tests
Disaster management mechanisms may have improved in recent years, but NRRC's Reddick said in order to prevent loss of life and property during the monsoons equipment and protocol need regular tests.
"One of the challenges is that if the infrastructure is not regularly tested by natural disasters or simulations, it is hard to maintain or scale up momentum," she explained. By contrast, Bangladesh sees regular flooding in the same locations, meaning its warning, mitigation, and response systems for water catastrophes are regularly tested.
According to Jayasawal, early warning systems have been set up in the District Emergency Operation Centres in Nepal's 75 districts. "But we don't have the sufficient resources to use and maintain this equipment," she warned, "and there are many districts where they haven't been tested because there have been no simulations or they haven't had a disaster."
"This means the early warning system equipment hasn't been used and no one knows if they work when needed," she said.
Community awareness can lag in between disasters as well, and the lack of accountable local governments can exacerbate the gap by eroding institutional knowledge.
"The awareness level is high in places like Bardiya, Surkhet and Sindhupalchok right now, but if they don't see another natural disaster in the next few years people forget," Yuwan Malakar, DRR officer at Practical Action-Nepal, told IRIN, referring to three districts hardest-hit by this year's summer rain disasters.
For example, Sindhupalchok (central Nepal) was the country's most affected this year, with 51 dead. In 2012, Kaski (in the west) was the hardest hit by floods with 40 dead. Two years earlier, in 2010, it was Jhapa (far east) with over 14,500 people affected.
Village Development Committees (VDC) and District Development Committees (DDC) - two of the smallest units of Nepal's local governments - are responsible for conducting regular drills, says Malakar. However, due to political in-fighting in the capital, Nepal has not held a local election in 17 years, meaning local officials are appointed bureaucrats with diminished accountability to local populations.
"So far we've had government bureaucrats who work as local leaders who get transferred every two years. There's no institutional memory," said Jayasawal. "If we really want to do proper disaster planning we need local representatives, VDC secretaries who have interest and who are empowered to work for their people."