Jajarkot: Lessons learnt and notThe government must discourage disaster tourism for domestic and international do-gooders.
The naming of an event, accident or calamity is not as innocuous as it seems. Naming identifies the site of a disaster, describes its extent, captures the ground situation, and labels it appropriately for future reference. The name also affects the public response to the occurrence.
The reverberations of the 1934 Bihar-Nepal Earthquake, also referred to as the “Nabbe Saalko Bhuichalo” by Nepalis, were felt as far away as Assam and Bombay. British authorities in India named it so because the disaster had created havoc in these areas.
Though the epicentre of the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, which occurred on April 25, 2015, was in the Barpak village of Gorkha, it caused massive destruction in Kathmandu Valley and its neighbouring districts. However, calling it the Nepal Earthquake 2015 was a generalisation born out of either ignorance or indifference about the human geography of the country. A similar simplification in referring to the tremors that struck Jajarkot and Rukum West on November 4 is being noticed in a section of the media. Perhaps it is more appropriate to maintain uniformity in calling the calamity Jajarkot Earthquake rather than refer to it as the Nepal Earthquake 2023 since only about 1.5 percent of the national population was directly affected by the tremors over a limited area.
Some context is in order here. The 8.0 magnitude 1934 Nepal—Bihar Earthquake flattened several settlements within the range of about 260,000 square kilometres, and the loss of life and property was enormous. The 7.8 magnitude Gorkha Earthquake, with its 7.3 and 6.9 magnitude aftershocks, reportedly caused 8,790 fatalities and 22,300 injuries. It affected 8 million people from 31 out of 75 districts, and the overall economic loss was estimated to be nearly $10 billion. The country is yet to recover from its long-term impact.
The extent of losses due to the 6.4 magnitude Jajarkot Earthquake has yet to be fully assessed. The 5.8 magnitude aftershock in the afternoon of November 6 has added to the list of the injured and the damaged houses. At least 153 people are reported to have been killed, and hundreds of buildings in Jajarkot and Rukum districts have either collapsed or damaged due to tremors that some experts dub ‘moderate’.
Nepal’s preparedness for disasters is extremely low, but the response to the Jajarkot Earthquake was relatively swift and effective. With their limited resources, local government units and security personnel swung almost immediately into action. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was on the disaster site the very next day with a team of health professionals. Within 36 hours, search and rescue efforts were largely complete, with focus shifting towards relief efforts.
The Gorkha Earthquakes revealed that the government’s response mechanism was extremely weak. The reporting system was so tardy that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala came to know of the disaster from a social media post of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Foreign media and international assistance reached many sites of devastation before the government agencies gathered their wits.
Apart from the first responders from the security forces, only Nepal Telecom could maintain uninterrupted service despite enormous challenges. Fearing scarcity, shopkeepers had begun to charge exorbitant prices for daily necessities. During the comparatively smaller Jajarkot Earthquake, there was much less panic, and the responses of the state, the market and the society so far has been measured and mature.
Within a day of his return from comforting the earthquake-affected people in Jajarkot and Rukum West, Prime Minister Dahal was comfortable enough to be at the TU Cricket Ground to support the Nepal National Cricket Team. Unless there was a reason more important than mere symbolism, the hasty deferral of President Ramchandra Paudel’s planned tour to France, Italy and Germany was perhaps unnecessary. He even visited the disaster sites on Tuesday.
Other than to be present and inspire, there is little, if any, role for the ceremonial head of state in the rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts after a disaster. President Paudel, however, can nudge the government to go beyond post-disaster cures and pay a little more attention to the formulation of pre-disaster measures of prevention and preparedness.
The urgency of rescue and relief efforts is impossible to ignore. All necessary action for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation must be prioritised. However, the urgency of rescue and the necessity of rebuilding need not draw attention away from preventive measures that minimise the impact of hazards and build societal resilience.
An estimated 90 percent or more of the budget allotted for disaster management goes towards the search and rescue, relief and rehabilitation of affected families in the medium term and then the restoration and reconstruction of the lost infrastructure over the longer term. Strange as it may seem, globally, less than 10 percent of the disaster management fund is invested in prevention and preparedness programmes.
Rescue and relief efforts grab media attention and help those involved in the act get public accolades. It is often a public relations exercise for everyone involved in the act. Security agencies are applauded for their promptness. Politicos seen on the scene of disaster earn brownie points over their rivals. For humanitarian agencies, videos of volunteers in reflective clothing digging through the debris to rescue a cat, a dog, or a doll are powerful images of enticing donors into doing more for the sufferers.
Donor agencies have to report to their constituency back home, which wants to see the immediate impact of their tax dollars. Rescue ropes being dropped from hovering helicopters, professionals in protective gear and yellow helmets directing their precision apparatuses towards any sign of life for immediate rescue, and technocrats engaged in restoring iconic buildings appear to be nobler. The funding of research, support for preparatory groundwork in the disaster-prone region and investment in the risk management mechanism of reduction, readiness, response and recovery appears humdrum in comparison.
There is an adage for seismic hazard preparedness: Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do. That requires changes in the building codes and stricter enforcement of construction standards, which the government must do from its own limited resources.
While spontaneous assistance for relief needs to be welcomed with gratitude, the government’s decision not to seek foreign aid for the rescue effort is laudable. It was a complete mess during the Gorkha Earthquakes when storehouses were overflowing with inappropriate goods, Chinook helicopters waited in India for months before being sent back home for reasons other than merely technical, and unfamiliarity with difficult terrain and unpredictability of weather perhaps led to the air accident near Charikot.
There is one more thing the government must do forthwith: Discourage disaster tourism for domestic or international do-gooders. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, nobody ever learns anything from experience, but one must keep pointing out the necessity and importance of possible lessons time and again.