Before I do anything else I want to say thank you. Thank you to the Government of Nepal for your leadership on this vital issue. Thank you to the United Nations for your critically needed engagement and partnership. And thank you to all of our speakers, and to all in attendance, for your participation in this very important and timely program.
It has, I believe, been a most successful program but we should take little satisfaction in the symposium’s success if it does not translate into meaningful action. And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be no easy task even with all the good will in the world. The real work lies ahead. Serious work. Hard work.
Over these two days, we’ve heard about the earthquake risks in Nepal and, in reviewing the lessons learned from past calamities, we have begun to see new paths that could possibly change Nepal’s future. Our current reality is such that, if a major earthquake were to occur today in Nepal, we would see hundreds of thousands of lives lost and decades of development erased in seconds, as we did in Haiti. We know, however, that we can change that future. We can save lives and we can mitigate damage. But we need to begin now and commit to a sustained effort.
The long term goal, of course, is a future in which Nepal can withstand a major earthquake without substantial damage. I like to imagine a Nepal that looks more like Christchurch than Port-au-Prince. I am realistic enough to know that will not happen quickly but I am enough of an optimist to hope that we can nonetheless make Nepal a little bit safer every day.
Every life we save is a triumph. Every school that doesn’t collapse in an earthquake is a victory. Every hospital that stands, every community that is trained to respond, every bridge that is reinforced, will make a difference. And each step on that path will move Nepal in the right direction on that continuum that ranges from Port-au-Prince to Christchurch.
The obvious next question is how do we get to this different future. There are, I would suggest, many things we can do and I’ve tried to imagine what that “alternative” Nepal might look like.
I imagine a Nepal where disaster risk reduction measures are mainstreamed throughout government planning and budgeting and I know this can be done. I picture a Nepal in which the government incorporates disaster risk reduction measures into sectoral planning for health and education, as they have already begun to do, by including some schools for retrofitting. It takes leadership and planning, not necessarily new resources but leadership and planning, and a government that is committed to risk reduction can do it. So why not now?
I imagine a Nepal where the new buildings mushrooming around the Kathmandu Valley are constructed in a manner that is seismically safe, and this too is a matter of leadership not of resources, it is the leadership. The government’s rigorous enforcement of building codes, and the determination to put the public good ahead of private interests, is the key. I believe that the government’s “absolute duty of care” for its citizens that Mayor Parker spoke of yesterday makes such actions not only the smart thing to do but the morally imperative thing to do.
I imagine a Nepal where government officials’ efforts to do the right things are not impeded by unhelpful bureaucratic hurdles—where, for example, hospital administrators can implement cost-effective measures like bolting down the equipment so it’s not damaged in an earthquake, and they can do that without having to seek approvals from multiple government ministries.
I imagine a Nepal where communities are prepared for and are resilient in the face of natural disasters:
• A nation where the Red Cross and other organizations expand their excellent training in first aid and emergency response to all communities and schools so people don’t die from relatively minor injuries as they did in Haiti;
• I imagine a country where the schools are the safest buildings in the communities;
• I see a Nepal where the Rotary Clubs efforts to help neighborhoods prepare for disasters and build grassroots networks for neighbors to help one another are replicated throughout the country
Similarly it is not hard to imagine programs, like the one started by USAID to train local masons in sound building practices, being expanded throughout Nepal to help change the risk equation here.
As you all have gathered, by now, I have a very active imagination. I hope that you do as well. And imagine with me just a bit more.
Imagine a Nepal in which the public is aware of the risks and knows hot to protect themselves:
I can see a Nepal where every child knows exactly how to respond when the earth starts to shake…and they go home and teach their parents and siblings;
I hope for a country where individuals use the power of the marketplace to force change by only purchasing houses that are seismically sound;
I imagine a Nepal where the private sector is a critical partner in disaster risk reduction; doing well by doing good;
A Nepal where Banks refuse to finance infrastructure or other projects that do not meet seismic standards;
And a Nepal where the private sector helps drive such challenging but exciting ideas as land-pooling projects in the heart of Kathmandu that will lead to urban renewal and cultural preservation while also generating profits and jobs;
I imagine a Nepal in which donors and international organizations are full partners with the Government in the disaster risk reduction effort and where effective advance coordination shortens timelines for relief supplies to reach disaster survivors;
I see a time when donors (and the Government) incorporate DRR into the designs of all their development and infrastructure programs, so that all new infrastructure including, bridges, roads, hospitals, and schools, will be able to withstand a major quake, making it easier for humanitarian assistance to reach its destination;
And I can imagine all of us coordinating in way to ensure that all disaster plans are shared on open-source data systems like the military is doing with the joint Nepal-US plans;
I imagine a Nepal where political parties put their differences aside and give priority to making Nepali citizens less vulnerable to a catastrophic disaster;
Lastly, I imagine a Nepal where the government’s dynamic leadership on disaster risk reduction has made this country a global model and our Nepali colleagues are giving speeches in other countries about reducing seismic risks.
Now I want to ask you… what do YOU imagine? And what are you prepared to commit to make what you imagine real?
When I imagine these things, I think about what the United States can do to be part of the solution. Our commitment to the disaster risk reduction effort is strong and reflects our long-standing partnership and friendship with Nepal. Moreover, it is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.
General Nadeem commented yesterday that 20% spent on preparedness prior to Pakistan’s floods would have made saved approximately 80% (or more) of what was needed to respond to the flooding. The bottom line is that disaster risk reduction efforts can be hugely cost effective if done right. And in today’s economic climate this is a lesson we need to understand. Disaster risk reduction does require resources but, far more than resources, it requires committed and sustained leadership, effective policy choices, and careful planning and implementation.