Reassessing a year of disasters

The year 2014 was plagued by disasters that resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives

Prateebha Tuladhar

Reassessing a year of disasters

When the news of the avalanche on Mount Everest broke on April 18, it first appeared like just another incident of mountain-related disaster. But it was soon to snowball into a terrible tragedy--for the climbers, the Sherpa community and the tourism industry. Initially, three Sherpa mountaineers were said to have died in the avalanche and 13 others were missing. Soon, the missing would add to a revised death toll of 16, making the disaster the single deadliest incident in the mountain’s history. It marked the beginning of a year for Nepal that was going to see more disasters.
In the first week of August, torrential overnight rainfall overnight caused a huge mudslide in Sindhupalchok’s Jure, and an entire village disappeared under the debris. By the time the search operations closed, 156 had been declared dead. In mid-August, swollen rivers ravaged swathes of fields and washed out villages in southern Nepal. According to the Home Ministry, at least 17 districts in Mid and Far Western Tarai districts were hit: 89 died, scores were injured and thousands were displaced. Another 128 people who were said to be missing were never accounted for. Hundreds of houses were destroyed by the flood waters, while public infrastructure, like highways, bridges and culverts were wiped out.
The worst was not yet over for Nepal. On October 14, the start of the autumn trekking season suddenly turned murky when blizzards caused by the impact of Cyclone Hudhud in India killed 39 in Mustang and Manang districts. Hundreds were trekking in the Annapurna circuit when  the freak blizzards hit the region. And Nepal’s most popular trekking circuit transformed into a trail of tragedy.
“These unfortunate events show that a lot needs to be done regarding disaster-preparedness in the country,” says Dr Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a senior Climate Change Specialist and Programme Manager for Regional Programmes at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
“There is a strong need to assess the risks and increase the technical ability to forecast such events,” he says.
In the wake of the disasters on the mountains, the term ‘early warning system’ was brought up again and again.
“It is even more important to have a proper mechanism in place to ensure that the forecasts and warning messages are transferred timely and understandably to concerned institutions and people,” says Shrestha.
However, no such provisions seemed to have been in place at the time the disasters struck and the government came under fire from legislators over its delayed response to the Annapurna Circuit incident. And although the government officials withdrew their statements later, fearing a backlash, they initially complained about the lack of government initiative during rescue operations.
“We have been contacting the head office, but they still haven’t sent rescue helicopters,” a Chief District Officer, who did not want to be named, had told me over the phone soon after the storms had struck the ACAP region.
And although the Tourism Ministry claimed that they had issued a circular ahead of the tragedy on the possibility of bad weather, the information did not seem to have been relayed to the local authorities and trekking agencies.
By the time the ordeal ended, at least 400 people had been rescued by security personnel with the help of climbing experts and local residents.
“The Nepalese army did all it could. They did amazing work,” says Nadav Kalifa, head of a search team of the Israeli Harel Insurance Company. However, the international media was harsh on Nepal’s ‘response’ to the crisis.
The aftermath in the wake of other emergencies this year were similar. After the Jure incident, angry and heartbroken residents told local television stations that the ministers had ‘surveyed’ the area from choppers and that not enough was being done for their relief. Newspapers splashed photos of the ministers on rescue rafts on the temporary lake formed by the natural dam created by the landslide.
Following the flooding of the Tarai, while the Prime Minister’s Natural Disaster Relief Fund doled out money to support the victims of flood, the affected were only receiving low-nutrition food and still waiting for some sort of shelter. Those displaced by the flood appeared on local TV stations, with their faces weary, and they angrily said they were tired of living with the fear of turning homeless year on year.
Because of the series of disasters this year, the Home Ministry, in partnership with its stakeholders, recently drew up a strategic plan that would henceforth prepare the country to address disaster-related issues.
“It is important to maintain law and order and to support the affected people on time,” the National Disaster Response Framework endorsed by the government, reads.
The comprehensive framework has listed a number of important clauses on how the country is to respond to disasters from now on.
A rather complicated paragraph in the framework says that the government will provide immediate humanitarian services, coordinate rescue operations, restore the infrastructure, protect vulnerable groups, evacuate the people and deal with the dead.
It further says that from now on the Nepal government is to facilitate the issuance of entry to members of the international community who come in to provide humanitarian support during disasters, or accept or reject it, based on the existing situation.
Providing early information on geographical disasters or waterborne disasters is also among the operational activities listed in the framework. It also promises to develop emergency communication systems and disseminate information, among a host of preparedness pointers.
As the world braces for a new year, it will soon be the start of the climbing season in Nepal, which will then be followed by the rainy season. The government will need to be far more prepared than it was last year if it wants to clear people out of disaster areas before something big hits or if it is to conduct rescue operations that save more lives.
There have been attempts to bring about changes. ‘’The tourism ministry and the district development committee had decided to jointly build tea houses along the Annapurna circuit after the recent disaster. But there’s so much snow now, so we can’t build them,” says Devendra Lamichhane, Chief District Officer in Manang. “We can only initiate work in spring. But that too depends on the tourism ministry, as it has to allocate the budget first. Once that is done we have to idenyify locations to build the tea houses. Maybe four to five along the route so that trekkers can shelter during bad weather. And they have to be strong enough to withstand the weather.’’
Rameshwar Dangaal, join secretary at the Home Ministry, says  they will be more prepared next time.
“Preparations for the upcoming year, in terms of disaster management, are in place. All districts are armed with the Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan, which we introduced in 2012. In case something strikes, the authorities in the respective districts respond according to the need. We also have the National Emergency Operation Centre in all the 75 districts in coordination with the regional authorities. But in terms of disaster management, it is always better to focus on mitigation, rather than waiting for something to happen. And the Home Ministry has been trying to get prepared on that front.”

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Interview

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