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Disaster Relief

#NepalQuake: The Need for Effective Emergency Response and Recovery as the Death Toll Rises

by Vanessa Thevathasan, Aid International Development Forum

  •  May 06, 2015
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On Saturday, April 25th Nepal was struck by a massive 7.8 earthquake, the worst to hit the country for more than 80 years. More than a week later and several significant aftershocks later, the scale of the destruction and loss of life is now emerging, bringing forth a tragic and devastating new reality for many Nepalese. As of writing, more than 7,300 have been killed, and will likely rise as rescue operators and NGOs start to reach remote and cut off communities. 39 of Nepal’s 75 districts have been affected. The latest UN situation report (29 April 2015) indicates that there are 8.1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 3.5 million in need of food assistance and over 14,300 injured. The search for survivors is continuing, but rural areas which suffered the worst impact are currently inaccessible due to extensive infrastructural damage and will take weeks to reach.

With the government declaring a state of emergency, it is clear that that no government can face this level of devastation alone.  The country has few resources and capacity to provide a proper disaster relief operation: the army has only one helicopter in operation. Effective and rapid response now depends on the international community mobilising humanitarian effort to ensure immediate relief to provide protection, security and aid assistance to those left homeless. The task now and in the coming weeks will be immense. UNICEF-Nepal has stated that there are over 1.8 million children affected by the earthquake, many are now orphans, have no homes and are unable to access sanitation, food and clean water. As such, UNICEF is delivering emergency supplies to meet the critical needs of children, including nutrition, sanitation, education and protection.

Aftershocks measuring 6.8 magnitude have destroyed buildings already damaged from the first earthquake has left many unable or fearing to return home. Survivors are sleeping in open spaces, in tents where available, exposed to the elements in fear of another aftershock. Health concerns are growing in these ‘quake camps’, which have sprung up around Kathmandu, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and poor sanitation is becoming a serious health hazard. Vaccines are in critical need to stave off diseases, including diarrhoea and measles.  Recently released satellite images from UNOSAT evidence the mushrooming of these tents and highlights the shelter needs of many more survivors. The looming monsoon season will impose further problems.  

UN’s situational report (29 April 2015) has indicated up to 90 percent of health facilities and homes in the regions of Ramechapp, Nuwakot, Sindhupalchowk and Gorkha have been severely damaged. Basic supplies and services are at critical levels. In Khatmandu, electricity is remittent, medical supplies are dwindling and availability of food and clean water is rapidly becoming hard to come by. Prices for basic items have sky rocketed: a bar of soap is now 100 rupees and instant noodles that previously cost 10 rupees are now 70 rupees.

The main airport is open, allowing tonness of aid into the country. Many organisations are now on the ground coordinating and conducting relief efforts: the World Health Organisation has sent supplies and medical personnel to assist with treating the injured. The World Food Programme is leading efforts around food allocation and coordinating logistics whilst UNHCR is providing 19,000 plastic sheets and 8,000 solar lamps for those displaced by the disaster. However, more supplies coming into the country have been delayed because of the bottleneck created at the country’s largest airport, which can only handle eight planes at any given time. The second airport in the city of Pokara is operating fully.

If these emergency interventions are to remain fully operational until all those in need have been reached, relief efforts from the international community need to be bolstered. Search and rescue teams are finding it particularly difficult to reach those caught up at the epicentre of the earthquake, about 50 miles from Kathmandu, where damage is catastrophic.

Despite the challenges, aid is slowly getting to remote villages through helicopter airdrops. However, unseasonal weather means the next few days will expose survivors to even more hardship and increase their potential risk to illness, malnutrition and contaminated water. Already there have been torrential downfalls of rain, severely hampering operations and increasing the risk of flash flooding. In some cases, flooding and landslides have blocked of roads, leaving aid distribution via  helicopter the only viable option.

In many ways the Nepal earthquake demonstrates how lessons have been learnt from previous disasters and indeed is the silver lining amongst the tragedy: states have rapidly galvanised efforts providing logistical and expert assistance for appropriately scaled humanitarian relief and rescue operations. So far, 18 countries have pledged aid to meet the UN’s initial flash appeal (next three months) of $415 million. Of this, food ($128 million), health ($75 million) and shelter ($50 million) make up a majority of funding needs. The Nepalese government is leading response efforts with the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC), supported by the UN and international community. It is hoped that these funds will meet the needs of people now desperate for food, shelter and basic sanitation. Releasing these funds without delay is imperative given that the Nepali government are in urgent need of financial support. Delays or gaps in funding will mean the difference between life and death for survivors if humanitarian agencies run out of financial resources to support their relief efforts.

Initial indications reveal positive response from the international community: the UN’s infographic ‘Member State initial relief efforts’ (30 April 2015) shows the number of Member States offering support to Nepal. India, Nepal’s neighbour, has taken the lead in providing swift logistical support: Air Force’s first C-130J super Hercules aircraft with 285 members of the National Disaster Response Force, alongside 13 military aircraft, 3 civilian aircraft from Air India and Jet Airways and 8 helicopters. Tonnes of aid, including blankets, water, food and medicines are being flown in.

Nepal’s earthquake spotlights the debate on the question of military inclusion for disaster operations. Mervyn Lee, senior advisor with Mercy Corps on Nepal, says military assistance can facilitate more rapid humanitarian relief, especially where helicopters can reach remote communities:

“Helicopters are by far the best way to assess the damage in these remote areas, get casualties out and aid in…In the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 the Pakistani army really took control of the operation. Even agencies that were prone not to work with the military suddenly realised that you couldn't do that kind of operation without the military – they were essential to it. And they provided a tremendous service of logistics support and helicopter transport. Unless that’s organised here and we start to operate like that, it’ll be a long time before these people get the help they need.”

Key lessons can be learnt from the experiences of Pakistan in responding to its own disasters and the success of the military in delivering emergency aid. In these situations, military assets are complementary to the overall relief efforts rather than supercede them and provide an immediate solution to the logistical hurdle faced by agencies, given the immense challenges of delivering aid to villages far from the capital.

Lessons must also be learnt from the responses to Haiti, where millions of dollars in international aid went missing or were mismanaged: only 1 percent of the $3.6 billion provided by international donors for immediate disaster relief and recovery ended up reaching the government. Coordinating efforts will require working with transparent and accountable organisations and agencies. With so many organisations now on the ground in Nepal, in addition to the 40,000 NGOs already present in the country, coordination has to be prioritised to limit duplication of effort and financial resources. Making sure that roles and responsibility are delegated right will help enhance the multiplicative effect of NGO and international community efforts.

For example, the American Nepal Medical Foundation is working with engineers from Google, to perform live needs-assessments to create effective supply chain management with hospitals and care teams to treat the sick and injured. Both MSF and Red Cross are on the ground facilitating relief efforts. MSF has started running a mobile clinic by helicopter, visiting remote villages in the mountains.

However, this positive response from the international community has given way to frustration with the government’s slow-paced distribution of international aid to remote areas, some of which have not received any assistance since the earthquake struck. Many are in need of shelter from the rain and cold. Protests are growing over the perceived corruption by the government in the distribution of aid. So far these protests have been non-violent, however if aid continues to not reach those in desperate need, this frustration and anger at the government can very quickly turn violent, further impeding response efforts.

According to George Varughese, Nepal country representative for The Asia Foundation, "[we] are seeing that the Nepali government has a couple of bottlenecks in terms of delivering aid. They have neither a useful fast-track system for importing relief materials nor a useful system for receiving and warehousing relief materials.” As a result international relief materials have piled up at transit airports or border crossings. Further reports have indicated that foreign relief were held up at customs and aid trucks turned away at the border with India for not having the right documentation. Clearly in a country with a total annual GDP of $20 billion last year, an annual per capita GDP of only $1,000, Nepal has extremely limited capacity to mount an effective disaster relief. Capacity gaps must be plugged through external assistance.  What is needed is a ramping up of consolidated and coordinated efforts by the government working alongside agencies and INGOs who are at the forefront of delivering aid.

Tweet in support #NepalEarthquake 

Just as critical to coordination is facilitating active communication channels. The Nepal earthquake yet again reinforces how important communication is to disaster survivors. Indeed, in these situations of high alert and critical need, communication is a form of aid. Immediately after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, survivors were on their phones texting families and sending urgent messages for assistance. Twitter and micro-blogging sites have become platforms for information gathering and reaching contacts. UNOCHA's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (ROAP) have been deployed to set up an On-Site Operations Coordination Center (OSOCC) with the primary goal to coordinate search and rescue efforts. Facilitating emergency communication in Nepal is the Standby TaskForce, a group of ‘volunteer humanitarians’ who mobilise after a disaster on the request of international agencies and local NGOs. UNOCHA has placed Standby TaskForce in charge of developing a crisis map on priority areas from the thousands of tweets coming out of Nepal. The ‘MicroMappers CrisisMaps’ are already live and publicly available, currently updated every hour. Patrick Meier, co-founder of Standby TaskForce, sees “crowdsource critical thinking” as essential to ensuring relief workers in the field have the latest and most accurate information.The creation of new web platform Verily is an opening into this thinking but requires greater uptake and understanding by users on how to use the platform if it is to be effective.

Traditional platforms are also being utilised to great effect: BBC Media, which has a community radio in Nepal, has broadcast live radio feeds about the emergency on its first Lifeline programme. BBC Media Action programme coordinator Kathryn Tomlinson has said: “The investment in preparedness has really paid off…All our staff, and our partners, had been trained in lifeline programming so we could start really fast.”  This information is lifesaving for communities cut off from rescue operators and with no means to access physical aid. Helping remote Nepalese to know how they can help themselves through mass media broadcasting will ensure they are kept safe until aid reaches them. The silence from these remote areas is increasingly ominous.

The Humanitarian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Network has also been activated to mobilise and coordinate UAVs and teams. UAVs are crucial to providing MicroMappers with high resolution nadir imagery, oblique imagery and 3-D point clouds to facilitate rapid crowd sourced analysis. UAVs are set to be dispatched to Nepal by May 2.There are clear benefits to technology from how it can be utilised with good effect, clearly learning from the response to Cyclone Pam that hit Vanuatu in March 2015.

Taking account of the massive response and recovery this disaster will no doubt require, it is essential that these efforts reflect the social and cultural reality within Nepal. The rural poor, women, children and those at the bottom of cast hierarchies already face socio-economic hardship, discrimination and prejudice, making it imperative aid reaches at-risk groups with the food, medicines, water and shelter they need. Ethnic Tibetan communities and Dalits must be adequately catered for; this is to learn the lessons from the post-tsunami response in India in 2004 where Dalits and the low caste were discriminated against, exploited or received less aid. Poor families without a safety net will urgently require emergency support and help to rebuild their livelihoods. Equitable aid distribution must be guaranteed and monitored to ensure critical needs by all groups are met. Meanwhile, UNDP is working with the government to provide short-term employment such as debris collection and clearing infrastructure to provide economic security as well as quicken recovery efforts.

More broadly, in line with the post-Sendai disaster risk reduction (DRR) framework which acknowledges local capacity and ownership, the voices and needs of communities must be taken into account and include community-based organisations (CBOs) in rebuilding efforts, resilience and sustainable development programmes. Organisations like Tewa, Nepal Women’s Fund, will need support to get back on their feet and continue their community projects. Moreover, women need to be recognised in disaster relief given that local women in Nepal are leading aid distribution efforts to affected communities (ActionAid, 1 May). Protection and security clusters are needed to protect the 40,000 women and girls at immediate risk of sexual and gender-based violence in the aftermath (ActionAid Australia, 1 May). Reproductive health kits and dignity kits are in critical need as the risk to unborn children, pregnant women and mothers is escalating: UNFPA has rushed through the delivery of kits to reach the 2 million women and girls at reproductive age, including the 126,000 pregnant women.

Recovery efforts will only begin in the next few days or weeks, after rescue and retrieval operations have reached their conclusion. Looking ahead, the government must ensure that rebuilding is premised on the foundational DRR thinking of ‘building back better.’ Current estimates indicate that recovery will cost up to $10 billion (U.S Geological Survey; this in a country that is one of the least developed in the world and relies heavily on international aid. Saturday’s earthquake will impair current development progress, setting the country back years, even decades.

The reality is that for a long time it has been widely known amongst experts that a major earthquake was going to strike: it was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ The extensive damage and loss of life is not because of the earthquake itself, although many of Nepal’s towns and cities are located across fault lines, but rather down to poor governance, lack of investment in infrastructure, loose adherence to building codes in densely populated areas and high levels of poverty. In all, these factors compounded vulnerabilities making the impact of the disaster more significant than in a context with modern infrastructure and stable socio-economic conditions.  The government of Nepal has taken steps to improve existing infrastructure and enforce legislation on new developments, including training masons on earthquake building techniques for non-engineered buildings and retrofitting of hospitals and schools. Additionally, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium has assisted the government to understand and address key vulnerabilities to natural hazards. However these efforts have been undermined given that before this drive by the government lay decades of substandard buildings; in Kathmandu, many thousands of houses have been too expensive to retrofit, which contributed to the widespread destruction. Further, despite Nepal finalising its National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management, years of political instability since has inhibited significant progress towards the implementation of strategies that would have limited the scale of damage we have seen with the April 25th earthquake.

As FAO reports on $8 million, needed to assist farmers impacted by the earthquake as food insecurity escalates and agricultural production stagnates, which is part of the $128 million request under the Food Security Cluster, the earthquake has caused many farmers to miss the planting season this May, leaving them unable to harvest rice, the main staple in Nepal, at least until late 2016. This will impose dire economic hardship among the rural poor given that two-thirds of Nepalese rely on agriculture for their livelihood (FAO, 30 April). This illustrates the urgent need to invest in DRR initiatives.  Japan’s pledge of $4 billion the Sendai Conference in March for DRR initiatives will help provide a small fraction of the financial support needed for resilience building.  More countries are now pushing for the inclusion of DRR in the Sustainable Development Goals to be consolidated in September 2015. Statistics indicate that five times more funding goes towards response than preparing for and reducing the impact of disasters, despite the fact that for every $1 spent on disaster preparedness saves $8 in response. The Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) will be a further opportunity to highlight the benefits of disaster preparedness and how cases like Nepal show the need for allocating aid funding specific to climate adaptation and DRR.

This will not be the last time an earthquake strikes Nepal, indeed the next one could measure even greater; Nepal needs to be prepared and this is a critical window of opportunity. Rebuilding for resilience will require international community, organisations and the private sector working with the Nepalese government to engineer ways to build structures and systems that are better protected from collapse. The private sector in particular will need a bigger role in DRR. Key lessons must be learnt from this devastating event, which means prioritising earthquake proof infrastructure. Continued risk assessments will be needed to ensure rebuilding is premised on promoting long-term sustainability. Tying recovery efforts to broader development will no doubt be challenging in a country that faces significant vulnerability and is one of the poorest in South Asia.  This is why the international community must commit to its pledges on aid and provide the necessary sustained support to Nepal as it tries to reclaim a sense of normality, recover livelihoods and start investing in a better, safer and resilient future so that they can start to live again, and not just survive. 


AIDF Team fundraised internally over £1,000 to support #NepalEarthquake 

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