Govt call to coordinate aid has been seen as control attemptTwo weeks after the Great Earthquake, the government has proceeded to relief phase from search-and-rescue.
Two weeks after the Great Earthquake, the government has proceeded to relief phase from search-and-rescue. All the while, it has come under constant criticism for inefficiencies in relief distribution, especially in hard-to-reach areas of the quake-hit districts. Now, with the monsoon nearing, there are fears of fresh and bigger landslides and outbreaks of disease especially in households and communities who have lost their homes in the quake. Darshan Karki spoke to Surya Prasad Silwal, secretary at the Home Ministry, about the government’s continuing relief works and the urgent reconstruction, its plans for rural areas, demolition and rebuilding of precarious buildings in urban areas, and the other challenges it faces.
Can you explain what stage of relief work the government is in?
Currently, we are at the preliminary stages of relief. Initially, we prioritised search-and-rescue activities, medical treatment for the injured, and management of dead bodies. Then, we moved on to the relief phase. Initially, we sent dry foods to various areas. That stage is over too. Now, we are sending staple food items (rice, daal, salt, cooking oil, etc). However, the relief phase does not last long. We need to ensure temporary shelters for those who have completely lost their homes. Until now, we have distributed around 300,000tarpaulin sheets/tentsreceived from various agencies, governments, the Red Cross, donor agencies, and bought by the government. We still need the as many number of tents as people either do not have homes to return or are just too scared to live in their partially damaged houses.
In the meantime, as the monsoon is approaching, people have begun rebuilding their homes with whatever materials they have and the tents/tarpaulin sheets they have received. The government has mobilised 10-person technical teams to various districts.Their main task is to identify the houses that are livable and help people build temporary shelters by using tarpaulin sheets and local materials. Unfortunately, we haven’t been still been able to fulfill the demand for tents and tarpaulin sheets. So that is still a priority.
Has the government managed to reach all affected areas?
One round of relief materials has reached all affected areas. It will be difficult for even district-level authorities to ascertain whether every individual has received relief, though. In some places, we have even been there twice.
What about the safety of many settlements that are under threat of landslides?
In many places, for instance Rasuwa, roads have developed cracks and there is the danger of hills being eroded due to the rains. The only solution is to airlift people in helicopters and temporarily locate them in safer areas. The problem is, in some places, there are no safe spaces nearby. For that,the technical teamshave been mandated to identify new areas near the vulnerable areas where reconstruction can take place in the future. This is because people are emotionally attached to their land. This might take some time, about a month, as they need to bring in information from the village level.
Then, there is another team, consisting of an officer, an engineer, and an assistant, which is visiting all affected villages. Its task is to facilitate relief work and also collect relevant data from the villages, eg, houses that are livable, unlivable, among other things. When we have the figures from the ground, we can then devise a plan. To further speed up work, in each of the constituency of the 14 most affected districts, there is a team under the leadership of a Joint Secretary—even if the team is replaced, a person of Under Secretary level will be there—which will verify data, recheck, and also be responsible for coordination at the district level.
After we have data on the population, we need to relocate the people, which we will do before the monsoon as helicopters cannot fly in that season.
In urban areas, many houses are at risk because of tilting houses, many of them tall apartment complexes, in their vicinity. Will the government hold to account builders of high-rises who seem to have violated building codes? Who do you prosecute in such cases?
If the building was made, then one government agency or the other must have provided the permission to do so. We should now be thinking of ways to save the smaller buildings that are at risk. If the larger building is not removed now, any strong aftershock can destroy it. Some parts of the larger building could fall down on others and damage them even when machines are used for demolition. But that risk needs to be taken.
What we have discussed until now is for such houses to be demolished. For houses that do not pose any threat to others, we will take the consent of the owner before bringing it down. In case of other houses that must be destroyed but pose a threat to other houses in the demolition, we need the agreement of the other affected houses too. Discussions are currently underway with members of the Armed Police Force, the Army, the police, engineers of various municipalities, and engineers from the Urban Development Ministry about the best ways to demolish concrete structures. We will ask for experts and equipment from overseas if we need them. In rural areas, this should not be much of a problem.
What about the enforcement of building codes?
This will be the role of the Urban Development Ministry. Even so, in urban areas, they will need to be enforced.
But in the villages, people build houses made of wood, stone, mud and use tin sheets if they can. The problem is, not all such houses have collapsed. In some places, structures that are destroyed stand next to ones that are intact. So those I/NGOs that talked of earthquakes during other times, and who are now seen nowhere, need to inform people about ways to build earthquake-resistant houses. This would be a big help.
Experts need to share their knowledge with the government and help it devise policies too.
Many people have left Kathmandu. Most students might come back, but does the government have any migration plans?
People have the freedom to move. We cannot tell anyone not to come back. But as many houses have been destroyed in Kathmandu, there is a shortage of safe spaces to return too. People need to think for themselves, as the government is overstretched.
Lastly, what is the biggest challenge before the government?
We brought out a one-window policy for aid. All we wanted the donors to do was register with us what they wish to give so that we have cumulative data at the end of the day. We wanted donors to tell us the district they wished to work in. Our argument is that we will not allow donors to choose villages that they do not know well. We told them, if you really want to help, district authorities will point out the places in need and you can go there and distribute materials accordingly. This has been misunderstood and created problems.
Many people have gone to the affected areas with a desire to help people, which is commendable. But most do not seem to understand that because of their desire to help, relief materials are being heavily concentrated in certain areas—more than what those areas need—while other places lack such relief materials. We wanted everyone to come under our mechanism so as to ensure equitable distribution of relief materials. Many interpreted this as the government seeking control.
The other problem is that many people are collecting government relief materials and then distributing it to locals saying that it was brought under their personal capacity. Likewise, as we had never faced such a disaster before, there was some confusion about what our roles were in the beginning. This led to initial problems in coordination.
What about the revival of the all-party mechanism? Has this made things easier or has it created new problems?
In some places, they have facilitated the process by helping to identify places that are most in need. There have been some problems but all in all, the all-party mechanism has helped reduce political rivalry.