"Preparing For Disasters Is An Opportunity Too"

AMOD MANI DIXIT needs no introduction in the field of earthquake and disaster management. Executive director of NSET, Dixit spoke to New Spotlight in connection with the Earthquake Day Nepal celebrates on January 16 to remember the devastation of the

Jan. 16, 2015, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 08 No. -21 May 08- 2015 (Baishakh 25, 2072)

Having worked for a long time in disaster management, particularly in relation to earthquakes, what to do you suggest for making our disaster plans more effective?

First of all, we will need to bring all the stakeholders together, including the 36,000 wards of about 4,000 village development committees, of 120,000 villages, across the country. Disaster management is impossible without the involvement of all. One ministry or two ministries cannot do it. Even the government alone cannot do it. Similarly, the District Development Committee or Village Development Committee cannot do it by themselves. Likewise, the Ministry of Home Affairs cannot do it alone either.

Why is that so difficult?

Disasters always need we work in rush. If we miss one day, we will lose a month. We need to work in close coordination and with the technical knowledge.

How do you view the debate going on as regards the Disaster Management bill?

Although a Disaster Management Bill is the prerequisite in dealing with disasters, it is yet to be table in the Legislature Parliament. The Ministry of Home Affairs is still holding it as the bill has economic importance. One day's delay in tabling the bill will have long term implications. It will take over 30 years if don’t work now. If we make mistakes in the bill, it will take more time. 

Why are you in such a hurry?

If we start from today, it will take twenty years. If you start from tomorrow, it may take thirty years. In case of mistakes or wrong provisions in the bill, it may take even a hundred years. Even with everything in place, we cannot prevent human loss, but we can recover from the loss of property. For this, a functional disaster management act is necessary. One needs to understand this. We don’t have time to make mistakes.

It seems that you are exaggerating the scenario?

I am not exaggerating anything about the severe implications and impacts of a disaster or earthquake in Kathmandu. According to a report published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which was prepared with support from JICA,  Kathmandu is unlikely to remain as the capital of Nepal in case of a major earthquake like that of 1990 B.S. Does it mean the collapse of Singh Durbar? Or death of prime minister, king or high-level person? Or Kathmandu will fall down.

As Nepal is celebrating the Earthquake Day, how vulnerable is Kathmandu actually now?

Kathmandu may not be in a position to govern Nepal socially, politically and economically after a big quake. Finally, everything lies in the strength of economy and economy is everything. The quake will bring a huge economic cost. Since we are a member of UN and various UN agencies have predicted that Nepal’s economy will have to bear a heavy burden, even impossible to carry, in case of a major earthquake in Kathmandu. 

What will be the other implications of such an earthquake?

History has shown that major earthquakes can bring many changes. The 1976 Tangshan quake of China halted the Cultural Revolution. The quake killed half a million people. After that China has completely transformed. The fall of Mao started from this point. Current prime minister of India rose following the earthquake in Gujarat.

What has all this to do with vulnerabilities from quake?

Tokyo and California are also prone to earthquake like Kathmandu. These cities are also expecting major earthquakes. However, their damage of infrastructure and human loss is likely to be more nominal than Nepal's. In terms of loss of humans, Kathmandu will have to see much larger casualty and devastation than those cities as the settlement of Kathmandu city is unsafe. Along with human casualty, Kathmandu will see a greater economic loss.

Does disaster bring only destruction?

Absolutely no. Natural disasters also bring economic opportunities. After the 1934 great earthquake in Nepal, new roads were planned to accelerate the economic activities. When we talk about the effects, the quake will have devastating impacts and effects in the society. The destruction and devastation like collapse of buildings, bridges, deaths and injuries, short supply of drinking water and electricity are one part of the story.

How do you describe the disasters of the last two decades?

In the last two decades, the world faced several kinds of disasters, including earthquakes, Tsunami, floods, hurricanes and so on. Tens of thousands of people lost their life and property worth billions of dollars. After every disaster, what we are counting is the loss and human casualty. We ignore the economic opportunities disaster generated. After disaster, those injured and who survive want many things. Here lies the opportunity, as the country wants to revive and the people want to survive.

How do you see the level of devastation in developed and developing countries?

What we have experienced in the last two decades is that there is a very low human casualty and economic loss in the developed countries compared to developing countries like ours. Fifty years ago, there used to be a huge casualty in developed and rich countries and fewer casualties in poor countries. In terms of human and economic loss, rich countries used to pay a heavier price than the poor countries. The situation has reversed now. Due to haphazard settlement, there will be more human casualty and loss of property in developing countries. It is now in unimaginable scale. In developed countries, there will be economic loss but they have already controlled the human loss.

What would be the situation in the developed countries now?

For developed countries like Japan, disaster cannot pose any threat for their survival. However, countries like Nepal will have major consequences in any disaster. Japan and USA don’t need to worry about reconstruction because their economy is so big and they are in a position to minimize the damage.  In developed countries they have insurance and re-insurance policy and the property will be easily recovered.

Why are developing countries more vulnerable?

Developing countries like in Nepal cannot bear the loss of life and property.  Developing countries have to bear the losses including human, property and infrastructures more than the developed countries. Developed countries can economically recover soon. Japan suffered heavily two years ago with such a huge devastation by earthquake and Tsunami. However, one cannot see eve a trace of such big devastations now.  However, Nepal is yet to manage the damage caused by the quake of 1988.

Why is there such a difference?

Our level of development is different from that of Japan, a highly developed and industrialized country. Nepal is a Least Developed Country. Human life in developed countries is regarded as precious. Thus, focus is always on saving life and preventing human casualty. This is not so with the developing countries.  Even a small quake and flood badly damage us and take decades for us to recover. The good example is how people are still suffering from the flood of last July. Large numbers of people are still living in huts and camps.  

How do you see economic impacts of disasters in Nepalese economy?

Natural disasters like flood, earthquake and landslide have major impacts in our national economy. Floods and landslides have been destroying property, land, cattle, and crops with human casualty. People have to live in pathetic situations as victims cannot get anything to eat for days. Children cannot go to schools for days and a person cannot go for work for days. The disaster will affect income of persons as well. Once there is a flood, it disturbs the life of people for at least a couple of months. This is what we have seen in flood affected areas. Floods not only wash out the property but also stop persons from work. This way, disasters badly affect the economic life. Once there is a major earthquake in Kathmandu, it will take at least six months to bring the life back to normalcy.

How are disaster and quake affecting the GDP growth?

A small earthquake of 1988 damaged 25 percent of GDP. We have to understand the economic value of earthquake. In the decade of 90s, Nepal’s GDP growth rate was 4.8 percent. However, Nepal is losing almost 1 percent of GDP annually in disasters. It is a direct loss of property and infrastructure.  In every five years, the loss is around 2-5 percent of GDP.

How frequently is Nepal facing big disasters?

In every cycle of twenty years, Nepal is facing major disasters, like Kosi. There was a major flood in 1993 and earthquake in 1998. Similarly, there was Kosi flood in 2008, and an earthquake in 2011. They destroyed almost 1 percent equivalent of GDP.

If we calculate roughly, there will be five percent loss in every five year and 20 percent in every twenty years. This means we have been losing half of our growth in disasters. If we calculated all the loss, it will be much higher. The indirect cost is much higher. I may be wrong but we have to think about it. Whether or not Nepal’s national planning is analyzing it. There is the need to do the calculation of loss and damage.

Is the loss from disasters is coming to the red book?

The question is for the economists and disaster experts to explain. I have not seen the cost of disasters reflected in red book. Construction of bridge is development. What we have been saying for the last fifty years.

Is disaster related to law and order?

No. Disaster is related to development but it is under the Home Ministry. My concern is whether the Ministry related to disaster is looking at this or not. As disaster is related to development, it must come under development related ministries. Whose responsibilities are to focus on the disaster? Ministry of Agriculture, National Planning Commission, Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Health and Population, Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Local Development and Federal Affairs. Since these ministries are related to development, are they taking any role? 

Where does the earthquake affect most?

The indirect cost of disaster is much higher. It would have much repercussion, but what we lack is the discussion in terms of loss and damage. Eighty percent of risk of quake lies in houses and infrastructures. However, there is no role of Ministry of Urban Development.  Ministry of Finance seems to have no interest at all whether there is a quake or not. The quake of September 2011 devastated a large area in eastern Nepal but nothing happened in the way we manage disasters. According to the Ministry of Urban Development, 30,000 houses were damaged, with desperate need for reconstruction. Have these buildings been repaired? Has anybody disseminated information regarding making the house safe? How much compensation did the people get?

Is there no provision of compensation in Nepal?

Compensation given in Nepal is peanuts. In Pakistan, a person gets 175,000 rupees for damage of each house. In India, the compensation is over 300.000. There is a provision to pay Rs.5000.00 per house damage in Nepal. However, the Chief District Office cannot give more than Rs.500.00 showing the lack of budget.  In 1934, Ranas provided interest free loan to those who lost their houses. Later, the money was waived.

How do you see the relations between finance and disaster?

The disaster has direct relations with finance not only in terms of damage but also regarding reconstruction. After any kind of disaster, there is a need to launch reconstruction activities. Kathmandu is one of the most prone to earthquake. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the houses will either be destroyed or demolished, ninety percent of the bridges will be damaged without any chances to operate vehicles. The water supply system will completely go out of order for six months. Telecommunication and electricity will be out of order for months. What will be the impact of all this? Dead bodies will be buried but what about the reconstruction. Do our economists know the disaster economy? So far as I know, nobody thinks about this.

What do you suggest then?

As Nepal’s capability of spending the money is much lower, we need to start discussions on disaster economy. The finance minister is talking about only 6 percent of capital spending. As Nepal lies in high-risk zone, there is the need to involve all stakeholders from Municipality, private sectors, economists, and sociologists in discussions. I don’t hear the Finance Minister talking about disaster. They start discussions just after disasters.

What about the role of Private Sector?

The government is the driving force. People and private sector are engines. People have power. Those who create value are power. Farmers and workers are power.

What is the present scenario like?

If there is a quake, it will bring a lot of opportunity as well to business. How much are they prepared for this. Our business people are unprepared for this. Once there is a quake, half of businessmen and industrialists will suffer. Most of the industries will be shut down. This is the global statistic. For many industries, it will be difficult to sustain. There will be over 5 billion dollars equivalent reconstruction work in Nepal. If Nepal’s industrialists lose, the 5 billion rupees business will go to outsiders. The money will go outside. There was earthquake in Kobe in Japan. But, the local consultants and contractors were lost but all the work was done by others.

How should the debates go about disaster economy?

We always look at disasters as loss of humans. We ignore economic, social and other costs of disasters. A report prepared by Nepal government predicts that once a great earthquake occurs, Kathmandu will suffer with immense loss of life and property and it will be unlikely to function as a capital of Nepal. This is the loss of development process. There is no awareness as no groceries, for example, have insurance.

Who will suffer much?

Although all have to face the loss, small businessmen will suffer much. Retail shoppers will have to bear heavy cost. We have been requesting businessmen to take handling disaster as a big opportunity. It is unfortunate that Nepalese businessmen are not prepared for disaster nor to grab the opportunity. They are themselves living in vulnerable houses. The businessmen in California may be waiting for the great opportunity. Pakistan’s business communities made a lot of money during Tsunami in 2004. However, they failed to supply the tents when there was a big quake in 2005.

What do you mean?

If Nepalese do not prepare for it, the role will be filled by foreign workers. This means, Nepal’s money will fly to other countries. You will take loan but money will fly outside.

What do you suggest for the business community?

The businessmen should see disaster as an economic opportunity. They have to take three works. First of all industrialists and business communities should protect their families in case of major quakes. Their houses should be protective. They should know what they need to do for their own safety. Secondly, they need to work to make their own businesses and houses safe from any major quake. Thirdly, they should have the business continuity plan. The main basis of that plan is that disaster is an opportunity and they have to prepare for using this opportunity by making necessary arrangements for the coming disasters.

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