Print Edition - 2015-05-03  |  Free the Words

At the ready

  • The government alone is not to blame; we citizens too were unprepared for the Great Earthquake
- KAMAL DEV BHATTARAI
At the ready

May 2, 2015-

After last week’s devastating earthquake hit Nepal, my father called me on the telephone. Our family home in Shyampati-8 of Kavre district has been destroyed and my parents had no shelter. I was in Kathmandu then, and also looking for a tent for myself. Now, I had to find a tent for my parents too.

I spent two days in Banepa and Panauti, two big Kavre cities, as well as in Kathmandu searching for a tent. But the shops were closed and there were no tents to be found. Thankfully, my neighbour in Kathmandu provided me with a second-hand tent. I managed to find some large plastic bags and then rushed to my village in Kavre to construct a temporary shelter for my parents.

It had rained the night before and my old father and mother told me that they had spent the night under burlap sacks, which did not really afford adequate protection against the rain. I was worried about the health of my mother as she is an asthma patient and any cold triggered by the rainfall could compromise her health condition.

This was last week, on Monday. Until Friday, no government officials had visited my village with a relief package. No one had been there to distribute any tents.

Thousands of people affected by the earthquake share the same fate as my parents. Basic needs such as tents, food, water, and medicine have not reached those who desperately need them. The government’s delay in providing relief packages is absolutely deplorable. This truly demonstrates that our government offices have become totally dysfunctional.

 

Sharing the blame

But I have realised it is not only the government that is to blame. We, common people, share the blame for the current crisis too. In the recent years, there have been massive campaigns across the country about the potential risk of a great earthquake. Government agencies as well as I/NGOs have hammered in the message time and again that Nepal is long overdue a huge quake. We should’ve prepared accordingly, but we turned a deaf ear to those warnings. We were not at all prepared for the quake when it finally hit.

Public Service Announcements (PSAs) had repeatedly urged people to keep ready a ‘go bag’, which contained basic necessities, including water and dry food for a few days. Posters had been put up that provided basic guidelines on how to prepare and respond to the earthquake. There were earthquake notices at government buildings, health posts, and other public buildings. But we rarely ever took the time to read them and make the necessary preparations.

After the earthquake, all the shops were closed. It was not possible to go back inside many of the homes. I did not even have any food to give my four-year-old son. I learned a harsh lesson that day. We all need to prepare. If I had only prepared a bag with basic necessities, my time after the quake would been that much easier. But I have learned well. Now, I keep handy a bag with dry food, drinking water, and some clothes.

One of my neighbours, a woman, was injured when she rushed out of her house after the quake. She went to the hospital for treatment but there were already a large number of seriously injured people there. She returned without having received any treatment. If we had had first aid materials in an emergency bag, we could’ve treated her and prevented her condition from worsening. Now, first aid materials sit beside the dry food in my emergency bag.

A governmental failureAll of this is not to let the government off the hook. It has failed too. In anticipation of the earthquake, the government should have stockpiled dry food to provide relief. Instead of relying solely on the international community for help, the government should have been prepared.

The primary problem, however, has been the government’s continuous disregard for formulating a separate act, policy, and a powerful mechanism to deal with all kinds of disasters. Since 2009, civil society members and international organisations have been repeatedly pressuring the government to constitute a Disaster Management Authority. Yet, not much has happened. A disaster management bill has been prepared but it has not been passed. Currently, we do not have any independent mechanism to deal solely with disasters.

There is just a division at the Home Ministry, led by an undersecretary, to deal with disaster management. This division cannot take any policy-level decisions, neither can it coordinate adequately with key vital security agencies and other line ministries. According to current provisions, government agencies need to go through a long bureaucratic process even to respond to disasters and provide relief. Decisions need to be taken by the District Administration Office before any relief can be distributed. This centrally-led process has been a major reason behind the delay in distributing relief packages, mainly to the rural areas.

Empty at both ends

If we look at examples from other countries, many of them have formed high-powered mechanisms at the centre, led by the head of government themselves, so that there is effective coordination among government agencies. These powerful bodies have the mandate to act decisively in the face of a disaster. In Nepal, we don’t have a powerful central body nor do we have empowered local bodies. In such a situation, it is no wonder that the response to the disaster has been found wanting.  

Both the government and the people need to take lessons from this massive earthquake. On the part of the government, we need a strong mechanism at the centre to deal with any national crisis. On the part of the people, we should all take care to prepare adequately for any kind of future crisis, especially since we know how our government functions.

Bhattarai is with the political desk at the Post

Published: 03-05-2015 08:49

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