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Huge challenges in preparing for natural disasters

In the Terai, thousands of families are routinely displaced from their homes due to lack of pre-disaster preparedness.
Naresh Newar/IRIN

Nepal is becoming a disaster hotspot, with natural hazards increasing over the past two decades, according to aid agencies.

Floods, landslides, fire, cyclonic winds, hailstorms, drought and famine are among the disasters gripping the Himalayan nation with increasing ferocity.

In addition, there is a serious threat of an earthquake, particularly in the capital, Kathmandu. Records show that a quake occurs every 75 years in the city, with the last one in 1934 when 3,400 people died.

Another big one is expected within a few years in the range of 8.1 to 8.3 on the Richter scale, which could kill at least 40,000 people and render 900,000 homeless.

According to the Nepal Contingency Report 2008 by the Nepal Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a forum for coordination and decision-making among key UN agencies and NGOs, between 1971 and 2006, flash floods, landslides and urban and rural fires resulted in a huge loss of life.

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More than 1,000 people die annually in Nepal because of natural hazards, with almost 300 deaths due to floods and landslides alone, the report stated. Experts say the death toll is higher than a decade ago.

In addition, the disasters frequently damage livelihoods and property, limiting development in the impoverished nation.

Stepping up preparedness

For these reasons Nepal, with a population of 27 million, is boosting its disaster-preparedness activities between aid agencies and the government.

“There has been improvement in terms of coordination on the ground,” said Wendy Cue, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Nepal.

“As it is very important to know who is present to react, we now have lots of local NGOs in partnership with international NGOs in the districts,” she said.

To complement that, the “cluster approach” was introduced this year to help reduce immediate post-flood vulnerabilities in both east and west Nepal where nearly 240,000 people were displaced.

The cluster system helps each agency to focus on particular areas such as food security, health, education, protection of children and women, while avoiding duplication of effort.

Moreover, the cluster approach allows agencies to more effectively raise funds, and faster.


Photo: World Vision International/Sunsari
More than 1,000 people die annually in Nepal because of natural hazards, with almost 300 deaths due to floods and landslides alone

Challenges ahead

Yet despite such progress, challenges remain.

Aid workers maintain the focus continues to concentrate on post-disaster response preparedness rather than pre-hazard situations, since the cost is much higher. “Most of the money comes only after the disasters [especially floods and landslides] take place,” Deepak Paudel, an official with the Disaster Preparedness Network (DPNET) Nepal, told IRIN in Kathmandu.

He explained that preparedness had to be strengthened on a par with the frequency of the disasters intensifying every year.

Weak infrastructure and poor housing in both the Terai (fertile flatlands in the south) and the hills is one of the key reasons why the situation worsens during disasters, displaces more people and poses increased challenges in bringing in humanitarian assistance, according to NGOs.

The nature of disasters differs in each region, with the Terai prone to floods while the hill region faces more landslides. The mountain region is most vulnerable, due to the cyclonic wind that destroys crops in spring, while hailstorms cause significant harm to crops in both summer and winter, according to the IASC.

Government response

“The government has been doing a lot in disaster relief operations but now there is a need to focus also on pre-disaster and mitigation efforts,” Thir Bahadur GC, a senior official from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), told IRIN.

The government is introducing a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management, designed to scale up funding as its annual budget of US$700,000 is insufficient to cope with the magnitude of disasters.



Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
There is a serious threat of an earthquake in the capital, Kathmandu

“There is an important need to focus also on recovery measures, which include reconstruction and rehabilitation of victims,” said Bahadur GC.

Still another area requiring work by the government is housing and land rights as many of the affected people live on marginal lands more susceptible to disasters.

“That is something the government needs to take seriously in terms of policy for people who have been affected by flood and rehabilitation,” said an international disaster expert, who did not want to be named.

At the same time, rescue and disaster relief workers agree there is a need to boost the coping strategies and mechanisms of affected communities.

“So many communities have so few resources and are living on the threshold of poverty. If they lose their grains and food, they have nothing to lean on,” said OCHA’s Cue.

She explained that while dealing with disaster preparedness, it was important to look at people’s capacity and respond to their vulnerability.

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