Print Edition - 2015-05-31  |  Free the Words

Shelter before the storm

  • The primary tasks at hand for the govt are to construct temporary shelters and provide food stock
- Jagannath Adhikari
Shelter before the storm

May 30, 2015-

The unique nature of the earthquake needs a different, rapid response, not only for immediate rescue and relief operations, but also for rapid action to deal with interlinked disasters that can follow the earthquake. Rescue operations are now almost over, but we have not yet made adequate preparations to deal with potential disasters that could start

with the coming monsoon. The main tasks at hand now, as we all know, are to build temporary shelters in preparation for the rainy season and the provisioning of food stocks in different locations that can be accessed by affected people in this period.

Different types of land degradation that have been seen after the earthquake means that there will be more landslides, land slips, and land subsidence—both of massive and small scales—in the coming monsoon, affecting settlements and infrastructure, making it difficult to provide emergency help. After the monsoon, we will also be able to examine the fragility of the land. Then, it could be easier for engineers and settlement planners to inspect the land and identify potentially suitable locations for permanent settlement and housing.

Another crisis ahead

In this rainy season, a food crisis is very likely in affected districts. The old food stock that people had maintained has already been destroyed or buried under rubble. Similarly, there has also been destruction to standing crops. Livestock animals have also been killed, which could have provided food as well as labour for farm work. In the context of the loss of human lives, there have been few reports or accounting of the loss of animals in this disaster. But for many small farmers, animals are as important as their family members. This all means that a food crisis is inevitable unless action is taken before the commencement of the rainy season. This crisis will continue next year too, as there are no means to plough the fields and no seeds to cultivate land. Moreover, people could be displaced from their land and will not be able to get to their lands for cultivation purposes.

The government’s response in dealing with these two interrelated problems is still wanting. For example, the government has not been able to provide zinc sheets for roofing temporary shelters, which is vital. These need to be quickly transported to rural areas. Now, the government has left it to the market, giving Rs 15,000 cash to affected families to arrange for sheets themselves. But for people to be able to buy these roofing materials, they should be available in accessible areas.

We can assume that traders or market mechanisms will take them to accessible locations. This could work in normal situations, when there are adequate transport facilities and when there is some lead-time to arrange the supply. But, in an emergency situation like this, the availability of these materials is not guaranteed. Furthermore, the price of zinc sheets have already been hiked, and it could be too expensive when traders take them to village markets because of a shortage and high transportation costs. Giving cash directly to the people sounds good. It could give them a choice on whether to use zinc sheets or local materials like thatch grass. But again, local materials may also not be available in sufficient amounts because this has not been planned in advance. Moreover, in the event of unavailability of zinc sheets, people may also not follow the government’s model of safe housing.

Getting them there

In this context, we expect that the government will procure more zinc sheets from other countries, as local production and available stock in the market just cannot meet the rise in demand. I am certain friendly countries will be more than willing to provide these roofing materials. Then, the government should immediately transport them to accessible locations using air transport.

Here, the debate over bringing in Chinook helicopters is relevant. If these helicopters were technically suitable (I am not aware of their technical feasibility though), there would have been nothing wrong—politically or socially—in using them to haul roofing material at rapid speed to various locations, especially in remote districts. If these helicopters were not allowed because of sensitivity to national sovereignty, national pride, or as ‘revenge’ for past political problems, then this is an unfortunate act on the part of national political leaders. Compromising people’s lives to retain the hollow pride of national elites is certainly not a desirable act. Even if there was a geopolitical element to be considered, these helicopters could have been operated under the guidance of the Nepal Army or Nepal’s civil authority. Therefore, I wish to believe that these helicopters were returned simply because they were not suitable in Nepal’s physical geography.

The lackadaisical attitude of the government with regard to zinc sheet supply is also seen in food provisioning. the government must capitalise on international support to collect and haul basic foods like rice, wheat flour, oil, and lentils in sufficient amounts for the coming rainy season to different accessible locations and maintain a reasonable stock.

Declining with time

As time passes, the government will have further difficulty in carrying out the immediate tasks discussed above. The initial emotional outpouring and support that comes with disasters declines as time passes. This has already been seen. The media—both international and national—has already reduced coverage of the disaster. It will take time to bring in this kind of support again. Therefore, it would have been prudent to accomplish these two tasks—of hauling zinc and basic foods to appropriate locations—when there was much attention. Still, these tasks can be completed if there is urgency on the part of the government, which certainly include, among others, the bureaucracy and the security forces.  

Adhikari is a social scientist researching various aspects of development

Published: 31-05-2015 07:18

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