"An Authority Should Handle Disasters Better" ACHYUT LUITEL

Regional director of Practical Action South Asia Office ACHYUT LUITEL has long experiences in the development sector. As Nepal has recently faced two major disasters, including flooding and landslides, causing heavy loss of life and property, Luitel,

Sept. 11, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 08 No. -7 September. 12- 2014 (Bhadra 27, 2071)

Practical Action Nepal has long experiences of working in disaster management, how effective is the early warning system in Nepal?

Practical Action Nepal has more than a decade long experience of implementing the early warning system. Initially, our early warning system was based on indigenous knowledge. We implemented early warning program in Chitwan district by looking at the floods from the roof of a tower. Our initial approach was to make people aware about the usefulness of preparedness, do some preparatory exercises and pass information to the people, so that they get prepared and move to safer places during the flood time. This approach is still useful to save their life and property. We built some observation towers in Chitwan to make the people aware of the dangers. We also conducted mock drills by using life jackets, sirens, whistles, torches and other preparedness equipments. We also mapped safer areas and provided few boats to evacuate the people to make sure that lives and useful assets can be saved in case of major disasters.

How do you plan to expand this to other parts of Nepal?

As there are new technologies, approaches and equipment available now, our modality has been gradually changed. We have developed a mechanism to pass the information related to potential floods from upstream to downstream communities. This helps evacuation of the people to safer areas. Practical Action has worked closely with the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology to improve river gauge stations, which are reliable and credible means to disseminate information about the exact situation. Gauge readers can disseminate the information about the level of water to the communities and other stakeholders, including Nepal Police, Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and District Administration office and District Emergency Center, consisting of all security agencies and other civil society organizations as members. Through this we can help downstream population to move to safer places.

What about the performance of the system?

We build a good system to disseminate the information at different levels. Over the years, this system was working perfectly well. We recorded the past memories of flood observed by old people by taking them under a historical walk program up to river gauge station. Through this exercise, we collected anecdotal information about the history of floods. Such records helped us to establish the empirical theories about the state of floods and level of risks according to the gauge reading in the river stations.

What is mainly lacking in Nepal?

There is the lack of real time data, which has recently bees started. Had Nepal got such data, we would have better and scientific calculations, including modeling and animation. The data available in the country is recent, just five to six years old. As we don’t have enough data, the only option is connecting with available data and identifies safer areas and evacuation routes. More than that, it is now high time to think about resilient infrastructure as well.

Despite preparedness and early warning system in place, there is a huge loss of life and property happening in Nepal. How do you look at this?

Our early warning system is not designed for the extreme situations. We need to have real time data over many years to have an advanced system. We need to do modeling on the basis of such data to find out the level of possible extreme events. For this, Nepal needs to move to a high tech mode. Organizations like ICIMOD, DOHM and Nepal government should work closely and take initiatives. INGOs like us will compliment by bringing in ideas from our global experiences. Due to the effect of climate change, Nepal’s rainfall patterns have been changing. For instance, the monsoon was delayed this year and the early prediction was that the total rainfall will be lesser than the previous years. However, the recent extreme rainfall has shown something else. Massive rainfall in short period of times is creating problems and causing the risk of disasters. We also need to build the resilient infrastructure which can sustain shock of flood. They could be our highways, irrigation channels, bridges, drinking water systems and other infrastructures.

How do you look at the current state of disaster management?

The Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible for response and relief. Other organizations including the civil society organizations compliment. The experiences every year during this particular time indicate that we have not been doing great. We are not good in preparedness and also not good enough in response. We should learn from others’ experiences too. Countries having National Disaster Management Authority are doing better jobs in such times. This is high time for us too to think about establishing such an authority. Such an authorityworks round the year and ensure timely and effective response to disasters. They also ensure integration of the measures for prevention of disaster or the mitigation of its effects in their development plans. They also take responsibilities for capacity building of other organisations to deal with disasters. So, we need to have a focused and mandated organisation to deal with disasters.  

How do you view the role of INGOs?

The role of INGOs is limited. Our role is to establish good practices available around the world. If you see the annual budget of INGOs, it is less than a government's line office of the districts. Due to a public myth that INGOs spend a lot of budget, accumulate lots of dollars, people expect much from us. Although INGOs have fewer budgets than the government line agencies, they have been establishing good practices. The role of INGOs is to show the concerned offices how good practices can be established and support the community. They should also compliment with the government at all levels.

What about INGOs programs?

We are launching programs in a sector priority given by the government. We are implementing the programs through the government mechanisms like District Development Committee or prior approval of District Development Council. Our role is to ensure coordination and create synergy. We cannot run a parallel program or project. This is my position and I retained it when I was chair of the Association of International NGOs (AIN).

Nepal’s current mechanism is adequate to cope the situation?

To cope with extreme events, we don’t have other alternatives than to follow high tech options. There is the need to do research that requires investments. INGOs can complement to them, but INGOs alone cannot do everything. For this, there is the need to make DOHM resourceful and link up with international agencies working in the hydrological and meteorological sectors. The best option for the country would be to strengthen DOHM for information (Data) and establishing NDMA for disaster management and also to ensure timely and effective response

What does Nepal need to change?

We need to change our tendency. We work hard during the time of disasters and gradually ignore it when the situation is normalized and weather improves. We talk too much on flood and disasters during the monsoon seasons. But, we forget it when the winter starts. As monsoon is at the last stage and the onset of winter is right there, we slowly and gradually forget the disasters and floods till the next monsoon. We need to actively get involved in planning and preparedness and remain alert all the time to deal with disasters like floods no matter what the season is. We need to work on how to bring resources and experts to manage disasters. We need to do homework for all the time. This is what is lacking in our efforts.

How do you see the role of Practical Action?

Practical Action cannot claim that it can do everything alone. We can complement to efforts in flood and disaster management. We have signed a long term MoU with DOHM. Our immediate plan is to establish early warning system in Kankai River together with DOHM. We are also working to develop cross border early warning system as rivers originate in Nepal and go to India. During the rainy session, the flood also widely affects the life of people living across the border. Along with political border, there is also the humanitarian aspect during the flood. Nepal and India need to look at each other’s interests. There is the need to increase mutual understanding between Nepal and India on flood. We have started to work on the cross border issue. Currently, we are working with an NGO based in Gorakhpur. As we have regional ambit, it makes us easier to work in cross border flood situation also.

What do you suggest to make disaster management more effective?

Ministry of Home Affairs has multiple roles including DRR. Ministry of Home Affairs is too busy on law and order and other issues.  However, disasters sometime get less attention. In other parts of the world, including Nepal’s neighbors India and Bangladesh, they have already established separate autonomous Disaster Management Authorities to handle the disasters. If we establish such units, then they will be active all the time in response and mandate. There is the need to take initiatives to establish this kind of authority in Nepal. If there is a national authority, it will be more effective and accountable. The joint secretary is heading a national level Emergency Operation Center at the Ministry and they have been doing quite a hard work. We have to give full credit to them. But, the time has come to think more broad institutions with their own mandates.

It is said that the government is planning to table a bill in parliament, how do you see the possibility of setting up the authority?

Although the bill has already been drafted, there is no such provision for the authority. However, it can be added during the course of parliamentary discussions. Media can play an important role here to compare the bill with the experiences of other countries. If we enlighten the members of parliament, they will be likely to think on the direction of establishing an authority.

What does Nepal need to do to minimize human casualty?

We have to replicate the good experiences of other countries. For instance, India has made a tremendous progress in minimizing the impact of disasters. Last year, there was a major cyclone of great magnitude in Indian state of Orissa. However, the casualty was drastically reduced due to the efficient plans of Central Disaster Authority and State Disaster Authority. The casualty was reduced from ten thousand to merely over 46 in same magnitude of cyclone. This is due to their efficient and effective homework and preparedness.  Of course, the Phailin cyclone damaged infrastructures and agriculture, inundating large areas of Orissa. Similarly, Sri Lanka and Pakistan too have such institutions and Bhutan is in the process of making one. It is high time for Nepal to think about it too.

How do you see the present policy of the government in disaster management?

Policies are good. The question is the implementation. If implementation parts are bad, good policies alone cannot bring good results. We have to look at the policies with the perspective of what is implementable.    


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