Indu Ghimire: I am trying to focus on strengthening emergency disaster preparednessThe head of the Disaster and Conflict Management Division under the Home Ministry on their efforts to create resilient communities.
Climate change and disaster risk pose fundamental threats to sustainable development. According to the 2015 Nepal Disaster Report, produced by the Government of Nepal, Nepal is among the top 20 on the list of most multi-hazard-prone countries in the world. Its active tectonic plates, variable climatic conditions, rugged and fragile geophysical structure, unplanned settlement, and increasing population expose the country to all kinds of risks, making it a disaster hotspot. But the government’s vigilance and preparedness has been tepid at best and reactionary at worst. The Post’s Avasna Pandey spoke to Indu Ghimire, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs who also heads the ministry’s Disaster and Conflict Management Division, to talk about government’s efforts to make disaster management more effective and how it envisions getting the private sector on board to play a key role in community resilience.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
The recent tornado in Bara and floods in eight districts of Nepal have highlighted our vulnerability to disasters yet again. Do we do pre-positioning of relief materials? If yes, how does it happen?
Yes, we do pre-position relief materials. For example, in the recent floods that devastated eight districts in the Tarai, search-and-rescue operations were carried out immediately and we were able to save many lives. The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017 clearly states the role of the local, provincial and federal governments when it comes to disaster management. In the case of Bara, the response was swift because the centre handled most things. But in a federal setup, the first point of contact in case of any disaster should be the local government. For example, in cases of floods in Rautahat, Dhanusa, Sarlahi and so on, we mobilised tents from Makwanpur. We have pre-positioned relief materials in Itahari too. So when floods happened in Saptari, most relief materials were obtained from Itahari. We mobilise resources from the nearest point.
This time around, during the floods, food items were made available by local governments. This initiative was then followed by the provincial governments, individuals and other organisations. So there is pre-positioning of relief materials as well as coordination with the local and provincial governments.
The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) diligently puts out warnings against floods. But even after receiving warnings in advance, why don't we evacuate and move people to safer places like they do in other countries?
Right, the DHM does put out warnings but we have not been able to evacuate people because the technology that we have does not identify any area in particular. Therefore, evacuation becomes difficult. The warning mentions that certain rivers might swell owing to heavy rain, but it stops short of mentioning the particular areas that might be in immediate danger. We have few radars at the moment that can identify the exact location for evacuations, but even if we evacuate, there needs to be open spaces where locals can be temporarily settled. When evacuating, it is not just the people we have to move. Most families have livestock too. So we need to consider their resettlement as well. The governments at different levels have been slow to identify such places and create flood centres where people could be resettled. At present, there is a dearth of open spaces but the governments at all three levels are working to identify such spaces throughout the country.
While governments and organisations are responsible for disaster management, individuals and communities have a role to play too. They must take care not to construct homes too close to the river basin, as such places can get flooded anytime. Being safe from a disaster is a joint responsibility, but individuals often forget their roles.
Indeed, individuals must be aware, but there are laws in place that prohibit people from building homes near the river basins. Why haven’t they been implemented?
The Department of Urban Development and Building Construction formulates such laws, but the authorities at the local level are responsible for their implementation. The Disaster and Conflict Management Division under the Ministry of Home Affairs is not responsible for this.
During any disaster, the District Disaster Management Committee (DDMC) is responsible for the coordination of all relief activities at the centre, local units and district level so that relief materials are distributed impartially. What role has the Disaster and Conflict Management Division played to strengthen DDMCs?
The Chief District Officer heads the DDMC and all the chairpersons of different wards are its members. The DDMC was envisioned to respond promptly in search-and-rescue operations and then coordinate with provincial and local governments for effective disaster management. But what’s happening right now is that ward chairpersons don't attend meetings chaired by the Chief District Officer. There is an ego clash at play. But if all ward chairs participate in the meeting, there could be more deliberation on disaster preparedness and how each responsible agency could be proactive in disaster risk reduction.
As of now, according to the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017, each local ward is mandated to prepare a disaster preparedness response plan (DPRP). The district then makes a larger plan by putting together plans from all wards. The provinces derive their disaster response preparedness plan from the plan made by the districts. These provincial plans are then used by the federal government to formulate an elaborate disaster preparedness response plan. So unless the local levels make their DPRP, the district cannot formulate its DPRP. Had the meeting between the ward chairpersons and the CDO taken place, it would have been easier to know the kind of technical assistance or any other types of support the provincial or federal government needs to provide. The Disaster and Conflict Management Division provides guidelines to prepare the DPRP. So the Disaster and Conflict Management Division is trying to streamline efforts of different agencies and ensure coordination between the ward chairs and the DDMC.
Since disasters are fairly common, why have we not been able to come up with standardised kits for food items and non-food items?
We do have standardised kits but again, like everything else, the problem is with implementation. The people who are involved in disaster relief are more concerned with collecting accolades for the social work they have done, rather than wanting to help those who have suffered. But the bigger problem is with multiple distribution channels. We have been advocating for a single door to distribute relief materials so that every local unit gets what they need and materials are not distributed haphazardly.
The National Policy for Disaster Risk Reduction states that one of its objectives is to enhance disaster resilience by increasing public-private investment in disaster risk reduction. What role does the private sector have in disaster information dissemination?
The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Chamber of Commerce are members of an executive committee that is headed by the home minister. Most private organisations have a separate fund allocated for Corporate Social Responsibility. We are working on a policy that allows the private sector to come on board and mobilise their funds under corporate social responsibility.
The private sector often helps in myriad ways during any disaster. Last year in winter, we had a pre-agreement with FNCCI and Chamber of Commerce’s district offices to provide the needy with clothes when necessary. This is just the beginning. We are working on pre-agreements to remove unnecessary barriers during collaboration and actively capitalise on each other's strengths. Coming to information dissemination, we have a partnership with Nepal Telecom and Ncell to send early warning messages to people living in disaster-prone areas for an imminent natural disaster.
What initiatives has the division taken to make that more effective, like tying up with local FM stations or disseminating information in local languages of a particular area?
Currently, we are working on preparing guidelines for the Early Warning System. We are contemplating how local languages can be used so that information will be accessible to and understood by everyone. We are also working on sending an audio warning in local languages via mobile phones because sometimes, people will not even have the time to listen to the radio. But mobiles phones are readily available in everyone's hands.
In India, for example, they have a National Disaster Response Force. Have we been providing similar training to our security forces involved in disaster rescue?
There is training happening on a massive scale for disaster rescue teams. We might not have a dedicated team like in India, but our security personnel receive year-round training on how to rescue people during landslides, floods and earthquakes.
What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as head of the Disaster and Conflict Management Division?
Disasters will happen, so I am trying to focus on strengthening emergency disaster preparedness—that is where pre-positioning of relief materials, deploying security personnels on time, implementing a standard toolkit for food and non-food items all come in. Second is guiding the policy front. Third, identifying priority areas to mobilise foreign aid. We have a National Policy for Disaster Risk Reduction plan 2018-2030, the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017 and other legislations in place. They will guide the division's actions, and we will divide our targets accordingly.