Oped

Disaster’s plight

  • To truly mitigate the effects of disasters, efforts have to be made to deal with a major underlying issue—poverty.
- MADHUKAR UPADHYA

Apr 17, 2019-

The evening of March 31, 2019 was witness to remorseless wreckage in villages in the two Tarai districts of Bara and Parsa. The exceptionally rare windstorm caught everyone, including weather forecasters, by surprise. Within minutes, the wind, which was later suspected to be as strong and devastating as a tornado, killed at least twenty-eight and further injured over 600  people, uprooted trees, whirled trucks and vehicles, and damaged over a thousand village homes. Over the last few years, we have been experiencing unusual weather patterns, leading to startling damage to lives and property.

In 2018, a drought in the midst of the monsoon season in several parts of eastern Nepal destroyed summer crops, leading to food shortages for the poor farmers;

meanwhile, the districts in the far-western part of the country suffered heavy rains causing massive landslides over large swathes, displacing hundreds of families and damaging crops and infrastructure. The events were unusual because the

eastern parts of the country are supposed to get more rain in the monsoon than their western counterparts.

The year 2017 was even worse. Three days of unusual rain over the Tarai in August brought massive floods. Rivers, from Jhapa in the east to Bardiya in the west, were flooded simultaneously. It needs to be reiterated that we have never suffered as badly as we did in 2017. It was the first time that the economic cost of flood damages went up to about Rs61 billion, which is more than ten times the amount of damage that we see during normal flood years.

Matter of concern

If these signature events over the past two years are anything to go by, we are entering a fundamentally different climatic scenario, which we have neither witnessed in the past nor are prepared to deal with. The severity of damage caused by these unusual disasters has been unprecedented. In addition to the loss of lives, the economic cost has been in the billions of rupees. Unfortunately, based on trends and predictions, these unusual events will become more frequent in the years to come, which is a matter of great concern. The question is: how prepared are we to properly deal with them?

Disasters and weather events don’t always claim human lives. Events that don’t take lives normally remain outside the media radar. However, they are still detrimental to normal economic activities and often push more people into poverty. A hail storm in Sarlahi and Rautahat districts last week damaged ready-to-harvest crops over large swathes of land. The winter rain, which began in early February this year, has continued even into April. The normal dry spell of spring has been replaced with thunderstorms and heavy rains. Though the rains have not caused any damages as such, the forecasts expect the monsoon rains to be below normal in the early months of the season, which, in turn, will delay paddy plantation—a major economic activity for a large number of farmers. Little is known about how farmers cope when crops are ruined by wind or floods or when the harvests decline due to delayed plantations.

Our efforts over the past several decades, of trying to understand disasters and formulate strategies to reduce risks, seem to have fallen short of our emerging needs. What we know will probably be inadequate to address the evolving nature of events.  Preparedness is key to the disaster risk management cycle. However, the Bara disaster made it clear that our ability to prepare preemptively, based on the past risks may not be applicable anymore. The magnitude of our problems grows exponentially, while our strategies stagnate.

In fact, the natures of both society and the natural environment are changing more rapidly in the recent times than previously anticipated. The social capital required to deal with disasters has been weakened; most of the young workforce has been forced to leave the villages and opt for foreign employment to sustain families back home. The severity of damage, thus, has also increased in the absence of first responders. Forest fires, for instance, require an army of people to put it out; an army which is often absent in villages. The forest fires that blazed through several parts of Chure this winter devastated substantial areas of forests.

A rapidly altering environment, with an increased number of extreme and unusual events, has been further complicated by our reckless approach to development, especially our utter disregard for how the natural environment functions. The loss of property, worth hundreds of millions of rupees, in Hanumante Khola in Bhaktapur, following the 2018 floods, is a glaring example; the damages were primarily caused by the encroachment of the flood plains. The same Khola has now been jacketed by walls on both sides, which only provides a false sense of protection for a few years; when extreme events occur, they are likely to cause damage on a higher scale, as witnessed when the Kosi embankments were breached during the 2008 floods.

 

Enable the first responders

There is no denying that we cannot prevent disasters from happening, nor can we afford to waste time realising that the reality on the ground has changed as far as disasters are concerned. We are no longer dealing with the kind of disasters that we’ve grown used to. They have become increasingly vicious and are often localised, requiring an increased level of understanding before they can be tackled to reduce the risks. One way to increase our understanding is to begin tracking these events to recognise the rate at which such changes are taking place and the ferocity with which they hit. Furthermore, we shouldn’t hesitate to accept that the institutions and expertise of yesteryears, perhaps, will not be adequate to deal with the dynamic nature of our problems. Our existing centralised institutions seem to be ineffective in managing disasters and require revisiting.

An unfortunate truth is that it is always the poorest who suffer the most. The poorest have been further marginalised by the impact of disasters, undermining their ability to recover from them. Reducing the extent of damage warrants making first responders capable. Although the irony is that the increasing losses are reshaping the relations between the community and the natural resources. A substantial number of families lose their livelihood-bases to disasters every year and are displaced for good, forcing them to look for alternate sources of income for survival.

To put it briefly, enhancing resilience to disasters is only a part of the overall development effort. And the way development addresses the needs of the people determines the extent to which we can tackle disasters. As long as the young workforce has to leave the villages just to make enough to support families, disasters will continue to make people poorer. Addressing disasters in a real sense will begin if our development efforts address the real concerns of the families: poverty.

Madhukar tweets at @mahukaru.

Published: 17-04-2019 07:58

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