Preparing for the next oneIn a federal system, disaster management should be a provincial responsibility with federal oversight
The Gorkha Earthquake of 2015 and the Tarai floods of last month are two examples of natural disasters when national capabilities were overwhelmed. Although the level of response varied on both occasions, one similarity existed: Both disasters were handled under the direction of the central government. Nepal has already stepped into the federal system, and the response scenario will be different in the future.
Under the federal system, disaster response is purely the jurisdiction of state governments in most countries. The central government remains in the background to provide technical, logistical and financial assistance as per the request of the state when things go beyond its capability. The central government takes the lead with regard to coordination. It is responsible for formulating strategic policies, plans and frameworks to develop a common portal for national risk assessment, early warning systems and damage assessment.
Similarly, state governments also formulate their own plans, policies and response mechanisms which have to be in accordance with federal guidelines. However, the disaster response mechanism of particular states can be different depending on the kind of disasters they are prone to. So, when disaster occurs, the state mobilises its own resources at the initial stage. But if the response requirement goes beyond its capacity, the central government steps in with material assistance or direct involvement in response operations. In extreme cases, central authorities might also take over the entire responsibility.
Coordination is key
If the disaster is of a very large scale, like the Gorkha Earthquake, where international assistance becomes imperative, the central government takes charge from the beginning. However, it still can’t overrule the significance of the state government. In this way, the state government and the central government supplement and complement each other’s requirements to make disaster response holistic and effective in a federal setup. While responding to a disaster, the establishment of robust coordination and cooperation among various stakeholders is one of the biggest challenges since there exist different tiers of authorities in a federal system. And for a country like Nepal where ‘resource constraint’ is always a chronic problem, the need for coordination and cooperation is much more imperative.
There are two aspects of coordination in a federal setup. One is vertical coordination between central and state governments, and the other is horizontal coordination between neighbouring states. The second is critical since the effects of a mega disaster extend beyond state lines and cause damage to more than one state, directly or indirectly, and to the economy and development in the long term. In such a situation, a collaborative response becomes urgent not only for humanitarian response but also for minimising the effects.
Similarly, the procedures and development work of one state should match the plans, procedures and development of another state so that the overall resilience capability of societies can be achieved. For example, if the flood control measures for the Koshi River of Provinces 1 and 2 don’t meet the needs of Province 3, the final results may not match the requirement. Legislative provision is another critical issue that needs utmost consideration. It should be kept in mind that that the autonomy of the affected state shouldn’t be jeopardised in the name of response by the federal government or neighbouring states. Instead, there should be a provision to help fill gaps, ensure effective cooperation and limit duplication and overlapping.
Provide a backbone
Since Nepal’s political system is in the process of being turned into a federal system, many state mechanisms are being restructured. So this is the right time to revamp the country’s disaster management system too.
First, devising a comprehensive national policy is imperative. The National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management 2009 needs to be restructured so that the prevailing National Disaster Response Framework can meet federal needs. Second, the Disaster Management Act which has been languishing in Parliament should be revised and ratified as soon as possible so that the disaster response mechanism becomes a national priority. Third, an ad-hoc mechanism needs to be structured to establish effective coordination among the different tiers of government in the federal system.
The Inter State Council of India, the Council of Australian Governments of Australia and the Inter Provincial Coordinating Committee of Pakistan are some examples of multilateral agencies formulated purely for coordination and cooperation. These bodies comprise authorities from all levels of government (federal, state and local) and meet periodically to maintain a holistic approach.
Although responsibility and authority are shared among federal and state governments in a federal system, Nepal’s constitution states that national defence, foreign policy and monetary policy will be looked after solely by the central government. Now the question arises: Can disaster management also be put in that basket? Nepal is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. It undergoes heavy losses every year and suffers gravely from resource constraints to fight natural calamities. Indeed, it is possible to do that if the required political will is mustered. After all, it’s our federal system and we have a right to devise it as per our needs.
Malla is pursuing a PhD in disaster management from Kagawa University, Japan