Independent and capable

  • Nepal must learn from Kashmir’s experience and institute an independent body to deal with earthquake response
Independent and capable

May 21, 2015-

The April 25 earthquake resulted in widespread death and damage across the nation. Not even three weeks later, on May 12, a second earthquake struck, creating further havoc. While doubtlessly working at its level best, the government has yet to gear up to a challenge of this magnitude. We cannot overstate the fact that Nepal is going through a colossal crisis—one that requires experienced planning, organising, and rapid response.

Kashmir and Haiti

At this point, it is relevant to draw reference to the earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on October 8, 2005. That earthquake was recorded at 7.6 magnitude and devastated an area of over 30,000 square kilometres in a similar challenging mountainous terrain, taking the lives of over 85,000 people. One of the lessons learnt from this disaster, and a crucially important step taken by the Government of Pakistan, was the delegation of disaster response to a cause-specific, highly-empowered and autonomous body—the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA). This body came into existence and began operations within 16 days of the earthquake. The establishment and active role of ERRA enabled the government to focus on other important strategic and political aspects. The Authority became fully invested in macro-level planning, strategising, organising, and standardising the reconstruction response—given the name and theme of ‘Build Back Better’—as well as controlling micro-level implementations, including but not limited to its own reconstruction and recovery projects, financial management, and disbursement of government-announced funds to victims. ERRA also facilitated various reconstruction programmes and projects carried out by various private, UN, bilateral, and I/NGO implementing partners, following international seismic standards to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future.

Key ERRA staff included experienced private sector managers, armed forces personnel, and civil servants, and the body reported directly to the country’s prime minister. The ERRA chairman also served as the chairman of the ERRA Board, which comprised of few select and distinguished private, military, and government people. Given the nature of the urgency required for relief, reconstruction, and recovery deliverables, the composition of a highly-empowered and autonomous body was unquestionably necessary.

The results achieved by ERRA were commendable, including damage assessment; engagement of all major funding organisations; establishment of seismic codes and standards; establishment of safe standards in over 95 percent of houses; constitution of 3,000 village reconstruction committees; mobilisation of 720,000 people; training for over 200,000 people on safe reconstruction; a mass public information campaign distributing over 1 million printed items; over 1.5 million visits for door-to-door inspection; building over 200 model houses and 1,700 demo sites for locals to understand seismic codes; and rehabilitation/reconstruction of public infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, mosques, government buildings, roads, bridges, water and drainage works, and power lines.

Due to the active coordination and assurances by the Pakistani government for the proper utilisation of pledges and donations through ERRA’s efficient and transparent mechanism, within a month’s time, over 75 donor nations and institutions gathered in Islamabad and promised to open their purse strings to the tune of $5.8 billion for long-term reconstruction. It is on record that most donor organisations either provided the pledged money or completed their committed projects.

On the contrary, if we take the case of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, measuring at 7 magnitude, which tore apart the entire nation and took a toll of over 100,000 lives, we can easily discern the problems faced during relief, recovery, and reconstruction. There were delays in aid deliveries, poor quality of aid materials, lack of human resources, minimal accountability, and a lack of community participation. All of this happened while all major nations and international aid agencies were substantially involved in the response—as there was no well-organised local institution to coordinate the response. As a result, all these nations and organisations met with failure. Many dropped out or stopped their programmes while others postponed them indefinitely. Reconstruction efforts were poor and funds were wasted. Five years after the quake, some 80,000 people are still living in tents and makeshift shelters in Port-au-Prince alone. Slow reconstruction was compounded by donor fatigue, growing political instability, and anti-government protests. Such problems and failures could have been avoided if an approach similar to Pakistan’s ERRA had been applied.

A new institution

Right now in Nepal, over 600,000 households are reported as damaged or destroyed, which require significant amounts of funds for reconstruction. It is time to ask ourselves who is going to be responsible and accountable? Who will ensure that recovery and reconstruction funds will not be wasted? Who is going to accept the responsibility of ensuring that recovery and reconstruction will in fact take place swiftly, efficiently, and effectively? These questions reflect the importance of having a purpose-specific empowered institution, led by an expereinced manager/leader, coordinating and implementing response, and ultimately ensuring that we ‘build back better’.

The need of the hour lies in a two-step approach. The first being the swift establishment of a national disaster response institution, similar to ERRA in Pakistan, to conduct a rapid and thorough damage assessment, including identifying required response and budget, will help the earthquake fund receive commitments and funding. An equally crucial second step is the placement of an experienced leadership with substantial knowledge of the tools and techniques, as well as the right attitude to serve. With the current dismal pace of recovery and response, this is the most opportune moment to unveil such an institution to lead the monumental task of relief and reconstruction.

Thapa is Group Manager, Finance & Operations, for a multinational engineering company

Published: 22-05-2015 08:07

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