Nepal is said to be ill-prepared to cope with disasters like earthquakes while it is celebrating the National Earthquake Safety Day. SHOKO NODA, country director of UNDP-Nepal, spoke to New Spotlight on various issues. Excerpts:
When Nepal was rocked by a 6.9 Richter scale earthquake last September, panic set in as devastation ran high. However, when the same magnitude earthquake hit Tokyo recently, there was no damage and human loss. How do you look at this?
I knew that there was an earthquake in Tokyo. We get the information about quakes immediately from Radio and Television. We were informed whether there would be Tsunami or not. Early warning system is a key issue to minimize the damage. Although the scale was high, looking at other countries, it was more or less normal for the Japanese people. There was no damage and casualty. We have a very good information system and preparedness. One of the major things is the level of preparedness in Japan. Japanese are educated from early childhood about earthquake and earthquake safety issues. Even I was taught from childhood on this. Every day we were told to do some kind of preparedness exercise against earthquake. We organized memorial services about the disaster. From the age of six or seven, we were taught about the danger of natural disasters. This is the reason why there is always a low casualty.
As Nepal lies in an active seismic zone and it was rocked by major earthquakes in the past, with an earthquake last September, how do you see is the level of preparedness in Nepal to face an earthquake in future?
The government of Nepal is much prepared now compared to few years ago. The government has set up the National Emergency Operations Center (NEOC). After the last earthquake, UNDP also supported the establishment of district level centers. The National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management has also been approved. The legislative environment is being prepared now. Of course, these are not enough and there are many steps to be taken.
There is the need to establish an operation center to cope with disasters. Secondly, there is the need to map the vulnerabilities. We need to look at all nine or ten storey buildings and other constructions whether they abide by the building codes or not. It is not only the law and setting up the center but citizens also need to look at their own responsibilities. Citizens need to be sensitive about the possible damage caused by those buildings which were constructed violating building codes. These are the major initiatives taken by Nepal. If there is a high level of preparedness, the damage will be reduced.
Experts have already predicted that there will be massive devastations in case of a major earthquake in Nepal like that of 1934. How will international communities like UNDP support Nepal in such scenarios?
During that kind of major disaster, the international community will always play a major role. Whether in Haiti or in Pakistan, the international community came to launch rescue operation as well as rehabilitation program. In light of the situation in Nepal, the international community supported the government to set up the consortium. That consortium will also help to increase the level of awareness and reduce risk in many fronts. International community continues to support during disasters with the government in the driving seat. If there occurs a disaster, it becomes important to extend life saving, humanitarian assistance and we will be there supporting the government leadership.
As a leading international organization working in disaster preparedness what specific role can UNDP play?
UNDP has been working in different countries in similar activities. We don’t bring rescue operation equipments in a big way but we build the capacity of government and we also assist the government in the formulation of different laws, policies and national strategy and public awareness.
Do you think Nepal’s current level of preparedness is adequate to face a major earthquake?
The central government is better prepared than before. But, we also need to think about the likely scenario of quake in Kathmandu which is itself a capital. Any major earthquake will likely affect Kathmandu. In that sense, if the central government is well prepared, it will help. If the central government is not well prepared, the consequences will be like that of Haiti. The rescue operation will be more difficult in Kathmandu because it does not have any port and it is landlocked. Land and air routes will be two options. In case of major earthquake in Kathmandu, India will also be affected. In that situation, Nepal’s road connectivity will also be disrupted. As there are high mountains in northern border, support from China will also be difficult. We need to think about decentralizing the capacity. In case of major earthquake in Kathmandu, we need to find out other cities from where we can start the operation. This applies not only to major earthquakes but even rescue operation here and there in different forms of disasters.
Nepalese officials including security agencies have been saying that they are ill prepared to launch the rescue operations. As a front line organization in rescue operation, what needs to be done to enhance their capabilities?
We often look at the equipment for rescue operation but rescue and rehabilitation are not only about equipments. They are also about trained specialists. We need to look at the capacity and those people will not only be concentrated in Kathmandu but they need to be sent in different districts. If you put all here, how can you send personnel outside when his or her family members face casualty?
You were here in the last earthquake, what is your observation about the level of awareness among Nepalis?
That was a wakeup call for all of us. I was surprised to see people rushing from one place to another. As a person from Japan, it was really strange to see various actions, nervousness of people. I saw all the people coming out of the houses. That showed the level of preparedness and awareness. I don’t know how people will face more severe earthquakes. We need not panic in case of earthquakes. If we panic in such a situation, we don’t know what to do. There is the need to take more steps at school, community and government level. Everyone needs to take preparedness courses.
In her recent visit to Nepal, the administrator of the United Nations Development Program also stressed the need for Nepal to prepare for disasters like earthquake to minimize the loss?
UNDP’s administrator Helen Clark and Crown Prince Haakon Magnus also underscored the vulnerability of Kathmandu. Again, it is not only the preparedness from the government side but citizens also need to be vigilant. Kathmandu’s buildings have not fully respected the building codes. If you look at the wiring of telephone, electricity and construction things, all these add the vulnerabilities. The risk of earthquake in Nepal is very high. Nepal speaks so proud that it is one of the top ten movers in terms of Human Development Index (HDI) in the past thirty years. Nepal has made a bigger stride than other countries in health, life expectancy, gender, literacy and child health. That progress of thirty years can be destroyed just in one minute if a major earthquake damaged the country. This is such an important issue. We need to include risk reduction elements in our program and activities.