Humanitarian responsesThe country should rethink and revise its strategies to prepare for and deal with disasters
As Nepal is one of the most disaster prone countries in the world, it is confronted with a number of natural and man-made disasters every year resulting in the loss of lives and properties. The country sits above active fault lines that can trigger earthquakes of great intensity anytime. The earthquake on April 25, 2015 and its aftershocks were a testimony of that fact. Koshi floods of 2008 made more than 50,000 people homeless. Flash floods in mid-western Nepal in 2014 caused 150 deaths and displaced nearly 30,000 people.
Globally, 218 million people each year are affected by disasters, and the annual cost to the global economy now exceeds $300 billion. Collective action and shared responsibility are needed to save lives and enable people to live with dignity. A report from the United Nations, ‘One Humanity: Shared Responsibility 2016’ emphasises humanitarian actions must respect dignity, safety and resilience of survivors and reaffirms universal application of core humanitarian principles—humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
Immediately after the earthquake in 2015, many humanitarian aid agencies supported Nepal in rescue and relief efforts. The government of Nepal did an assessment to carry forward the post-earthquake reconstruction process titled Post Disaster Needs Assessment, which estimated that the earthquake had increased Nepal’s poverty level by 3 percent. The world came together to support Nepal, with donations pouring in from everywhere. However, political instability and frequent changes in government have delayed reconstruction works.
Earthquake survivors have lived in temporary shelters made of iron sheets for two monsoons in a row. They are still unclear about what ‘building back better’ is and whether they will be able to build houses that can be called earthquake resistant. There should be mechanisms in place to help people so that they do not have to live in makeshift shelters for an extended period, which would have long-term consequences, not just on the mental and physical well-being of survivors but also at social and economic levels. Survivors of 2014 floods in mid-western Nepal are still living in temporary shelters.
A report Life after Devastation recently produced by Humanitarian Accountability Monitoring Initiative (HAMI) and Oxfam, Nepal portrays the ground realities of survivors living in temporary shelters without access to basic facilities like electricity, water supply, sanitation, health and education even after several years of the disaster. The report has stories of disaster survivors of the Koshi floods in 2008, mid-western floods in Surkhet and Banke in 2014, Jure landslide in 2014 and the Gorkha earthquake in 2015.
A case in point is Bimala Devi Yadav of Sunsari, a survivor of the 2008 Koshi floods, who narrates how her once fertile land turned into a river bank. She cannot grow paddy anymore as her land got silted and has become unproductive. She can produce only water melon and parwal (pointed gourd). Saha Bahadur Khadka, 68, survived the 2014 floods by staying on the branches of a tree for two days and later found out that he had five ribs broken. Two years since the floods, he is still living in Girighar temporary camp, Surkhet with seven family members in the middle of a jungle with no basic amenities.
Similarly, a family of Ram Kaji Shrestha, 72, and Ganesh Maya Shrestha, 63, of Barhabhise, Sindhupalchowk survived three major disasters—a landslide, an earthquake and a flood—in a span of two years. They lost their only son in the earthquake last year. To make matters worse, the Bhotekoshi flood this year swept away their land, and their newly constructed house, which they had built after the earthquake, was destroyed. They are now living in rented rooms and waiting for government support.
These stories speak for thousands of families living under unsafe and uncertain conditions after various disasters. A dignified rehabilitation of disaster survivors requires adequate support to help them revive their livelihoods. Loss of arable lands and businesses after a disaster leaves many families struggling to regain their livelihoods. Many end up taking up menial work such as crushing stones to earn some extra income to feed their family. They are also likely to become vulnerable to other forms of exploitation.
Humanitarian operations cannot bring a permanent end to the sufferings of the survivors. The rescue, relief and recovery initiatives get intertwined with complex political influence, low community participation and dissatisfaction among the population. All these undermine the rights of survivors. After the earthquake, there were also reports of irregularities, creating disharmony in society and discrimination in aid agencies’ work.
Although there have been a few initiatives to relocate the flood affected families, they lack systematic planning and participation of the communities. Whatever politics or complexities lie behind, it is the duty of the government to ensure a dignified life for those affected by the disaster.
As the world celebrates the World Humanitarian Day today, Nepal should rethink and revise its strategies to prepare for and deal with disasters so that, in the case of emergencies, humanitarian works are effectively carried out and people do not have to suffer for a long time. Affected communities have to be helped to become resilient and return to normal life as early as possible. Nepal must enact the Disaster Management bill that protects the rights of disaster survivors, and ensure proper recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Singh works as policy and research coordinator at Oxfam, Nepal; Shahi is a convener of HAMI and national chairperson of Human Rights Alliance