The Sociology Of Flood Management: Learning From Below

The fact Nepal has made great strides in disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) in the past few years makes us wonder why so many people are still being affected by monsoon disasters, and, more importantly, why those affected in previous years are still struggling to recover. Though we look outside, trying to find complicated measures to fix the problem, the solution may be here with us, in simple things.

July 28, 2021, 11:14 a.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL. 15, No. 04, Sep. 03, 2021 (Bhadra 18, 2078) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

The search for the answer

With the advent of monsoon this year, Nepali media has been flooded with reports of floods. According to the government's DRR Portal, there were 14 flood incidents just between June 18 to July 18, 2021. In the same period, 35 people went missing and 63 died, most due to the flooding. And these are just the officially recorded numbers. The actual magnitude of loss is likely to be much higher and increasing daily as we wade through the monsoon season. Although we hear such news every year, it always comes as a shock, and it should, because losing lives and property is no laughing matter. The tragedy is that we are unable to prevent irrevocable loss despite the fact that we know that every year, the monsoon brings heavy rains and, in consequence, devastating floods. The country allocates a huge sum of money for DRRM and has mobilized many disaster management committees and experts and developed a wealth of policy documents for DRRM. What then are we missing?

The bright side

Nepal has made great strides in DRRM in the past few years. It has developed numerous acts, regulations, guidelines, policies, and strategic action plans, not just at the federal level but also at provincial and local government levels. For disaster-related coordination and disaster preparedness and humanitarian assistance, it has national, provincial, district as well as local emergency operation centers. There are also disaster and climate change learning centers in various municipalities. In fact, as mandated by the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (2017), there are disaster management committees at all three tiers of the government. Altogether 753 municipal offices are in operation to ensure proper flood management. In addition, weather forecast and early warning system (EWS) are being promoted across the country for their contribution to preparedness, and the government's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has a separate Flood Forecasting Division on whose website rain forecasts and warning signs can be viewed live. Innovative ways of communicating risk information are being explored. When there is a mishap, the nation’s security forces are well trained in search and rescue. Regarding finance, there are emergency and disaster management funds at the local, district and province levels as well as the well-endowed federal-level Prime Minister's Disaster Relief Fund. Furthermore, different tiers of the government have made disaster management plans and fund mobilization guidelines.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) leads, facilitates, and supports federal, provincial, and local governments on disaster risk reduction, response, and reconstruction. Under it, the government has made several attempts to prepare for the rainy season this year. Unlike in the past, humanitarian clusters were activated before any disaster event. After a national monsoon emergency response plan was made, provincial governments also followed suit. Their plans outline the responsibilities of different ministries, security forces, Nepal Telecommunications Authority, and the Red Cross as well as other humanitarian and development partners. With the objective of encouraging the involvement of the private sector in DRRM, the roles of the Nepal Chamber of Commerce are also covered in the federal-level response. Some features included are maps of helipads, open spaces and evacuation centers which could be useful for immediate assistance and temporary relocation following a disaster event. There are also records of stockpiles which could be used for immediate response.

Nepal is now facing the double trouble of the monsoon and COVID-19. The second wave of the pandemic has yet to subside and experts are already warning of the next surge in infections. While COVID-19 necessitates physical distancing, fleeing from the dangers of monsoon floods inevitably causes crowding. The government has recognized the risks and identified a number of measures in its monsoon response plan. These include readying search-and-rescue materials such as rubber boats and stretchers that are not easily contaminated, managing adequate personal protective equipment for both rescuers and the affected, stockpiling health supplies to fight COVID-19, equipping hospitals with facilities to treat COVID-19 as well as dispose of contaminated items, provisioning for the disinfection of the houses of infected people, and pre-evacuation of people living in areas at high risk of flooding.

Beside addressing this year's monsoon, NDRRMA has also been working on a 10-year campaign to build a disaster-resilient Nepal. It touches on topics such as building the capacity of provincial and local governments to integrate risk considerations into development planning; the establishment of emergency operation centers in all seven provinces and 77 districts and in key municipalities at high risk; the establishment of a national platform to communicate risk information; disaster risk financing with insurance of private houses and public buildings; integrated settlements for communities in high-risk locations; guidelines and a system to reconstruct infrastructure damaged by disasters; revision of the building code to integrate key risks such as floods, fires and lightning strikes and create incentives for their implementation; multi-hazard risk assessment and mapping; reduction of glacial lake outburst flood risks; EWS using all forms of media for all hazards; design standards to integrate disaster and climate risks into plans for roads, water supply and irrigation; restructuring of NDRRMA to include a ‘training and research directorate’ for disaster risk reduction, and so forth.

Dust under the carpet

At first glance, the system looks close to perfect, sp why is it that so many people are still being devastated by monsoon disasters and why are those who were affected in the past still struggling to recover? As we look outside trying to find complicated measures to fix the problem, the solution may be here with us, in simple things. Perhaps it is time to dig deeper within the system. If we are to clean the room properly, we must also remove the dust from under the carpet.

Our systems, plans and activities are remarkable in design but not so clever in implementation at the ground level. Nepal tends to develop plans and policy documents ritualistically rather according to need. Most provinces and municipalities prepare plans and policy documents just because they are required to and tend to adopt the policy templates prepared by the federal level. Thus, their legislative frameworks lack real contextualization. Not having staff with adequate expertise in the subject adds to the burden. Oftentimes, consultants are hired to draft plans and policy documents. While this practice is not inherently bad, when such consultants do not carry out adequate field-level consultations, the resultant policy documents are overly theoretical and fail to address real needs with local, workable solutions. The documents are filled with technical jargon, making it difficult for general people to grasp the idea. Furthermore, local people’s indigenous skills, experience and wisdom are often neglected. If development organizations wished to integrate indigenous flood management practices into their projects, they would have difficulty finding an authentic repository of such good practices since there has been no concrete national effort to document such valuable indigenous knowledge or include them in local DRRM plans. There are, for example, indigenous strategies to predict floods (e.g. observing the shapes of clouds, nesting patterns of birds, and digestion of cattle), safeguard building structures (e.g. increasing plinth levels, using bamboo for construction, making trenches or dams in front of houses), save lives (e.g. early evacuation, using banana trunk boats for search and rescue, mobilizing a messenger for early warning) and protect ing livestock and agriculture (e.g. farming flood-resistant crops, storing grains on the first floor and in mud vessels, shifting animals to higher grounds). These methods are cost effective, readily available, easy to implement, and reliable for local communities. They foster a sense of belonging and should be included in local plans.

Nepal did see an exemplary shift in focus from ‘disaster response’ to ‘disaster preparedness’ in its disaster legislative framework, but if we scrutinize the ground-level situation, we see that the focus is still on disaster response rather than on disaster preparedness, particularly in terms of budget allocation. As the saying goes, a stich in time saves nine. Far less budget would be required for riverbank protection than for the reconstruction of a town after a destructive flood. Another issue is that when a flood occurs, it is seen as a single isolated event. If we look at the bigger picture of a river basin, it is easy to understand that everything is interconnected. Isolated effort to control a stretch of river will not bear fruit; instead, multi-year flood preparedness programs with a “watershed approach” are needed. Since water basins are not limited within a single administrative boundary, inter-government coordination is pivotal, and coordination and collaboration among communities, too, becomes vital.

Forming disaster management committees and assigning disaster risk reduction (DRR) focal persons are praiseworthy endeavors by the government, but there is a need for improving the technical skills of such persons. High staff turnover and poor institutional memory are other major challenges that need to be addressed by proper handing over of jobs. Similarly, local, district, and provincial emergency operation centers need to be staffed and equipped with appropriate tools and equipment if they are to be fully operational. That way, it will be possible to have updated database at the local level, which could then be compiled at the district and provincial levels to form a complete federal-level picture. A disaster information management system has yet to receive the attention it requires. Having all the information about frequently affected areas and areas at high risk disaster at our fingertips through the establishment and strengthening of an information management system would not only help to formulate a practicable workplan but also facilitate quick response.

The 10-year campaign to build a disaster-resilient Nepal looks promising. Only time will tell whether the set targets will bring measurable results or just remain as embellishments on paper. Moving forward, it would be useful to consider the sociology of floods, learning from the ground, and what has already been completed (or not) and identify what could be done differently. For instance, many capacity-building activities are carried out every year as “events” but not as part of a “process”. We need to consider questions like these: How will the proposed training add value to the existing executive system? How will we ensure that trainees apply their learning on the ground? How will the challenges faced by emergency operation centers that have already been established in several districts and provinces be addressed? How will we ensure that the people living in high-risk areas and most in need of insurance are able to access insurance schemes, and that there are no implications due to ethnic and socio-economic differences? While reconstructing infrastructure damaged by disasters, what new and improved technology and indigenous knowledge will be used for cost effectiveness, durability, and resilience? After revising the building code, what additional measures need to be taken to assure full compliance? Along with mobilization of different media for risk communication, what infrastructural changes and forecast models will be adopted to ensure a more reliable forecast technology? When reports of multi-hazard risk assessment and maps are prepared, how will we ensure that they cover local issues and do not just duplicate the reports of other locations? After establishing a ‘training and research directorate’, what system will be established to feed the findings of research into annual plans and programs?

Voices from the ground

Building resilient communities has become a buzz word in the DRRM sector. It is important to study the sociological dimension of disasters in order to make communities resilient in true sense. Disasters have differential impacts on people depending on their gender, age, class, ethnicity and so forth. Oftentimes, the poor, the elderly, minorities, children, and women are the hardest hit. Acknowledging these differential impacts in policy documents is good. But are we really asking questions to the right people when designing risk-reduction programs and relief packages? We could learn a lot by asking questions to people who have still not recovered from previous disasters, those who have been displaced or are living in tents. Every community is unique. Thus, it is crucial to investigate the physical and environmental features that make a community more or less prone to flooding, the attitudes residents have about flood hazards, precautionary flood-control measures implemented by the local people and their coping behaviors, major obstacles to flood prevention in communities, how residents perceive the effectiveness of available flood-control measures, the existence of variation in ethnic and socio-economic factors in flood vulnerability, and the impacts and modes of adaptation.

It is easy to blame the government for disaster loss and damage, but analysis of the devastation caused by previous hazardous events shows a collective failure on the parts of the government, development partners and the general public. Most of the houses swept away during floods are those constructed alongside riverbanks, far too close to waterways. The government obviously would not want to throw away precious resources to rebuild houses in places at risk of future flood. And if current settlement areas are not appropriate, then who will find an appropriate land for reconstruction and where? Building settlement areas and markets on floodplains in the hope of saving money is idiocy. Unfortunately, the hunger for short-term profit in monetary terms has blinded people from seeing long-term impacts on the environment, infrastructure and lives and properties. Another reason for the willful ignoring of the truth is that the environment is often seen as a common property and thus, as per the principle of the “tragedy of the common”, individuals neglect the wellbeing of society in the pursuit of personal gain.

This tendency can be addressed with a two-pronged approach. First of all, the government must enforce protective measures by increasing inspection and strictly punishing law breakers. Second, people should be made aware of the long-term consequences of their actions through appropriate channels, adhering to the principles of “social and behavior change communication”.

The main objective of DRRM is to protectthe communities. When a disaster strikes, the first responders are often those belonging to the same or neighboring communities. Hence, a community should always be at the center of all DRRM endeavors. Behavioral response, social change, and political, economic, and environmental approaches are equally important as floods occur at the interface of society, technology and environment and are fundamentally the outcomes of the interactions of these characteristics.

Dr. Gautam is an Independent Researcher and Consultant. He is associated with National Disaster Risk Reduction Centre (NDRC) Nepal as Senior Research Fellow and HADRI/Western Sydney University as Adjunct Fellow. He can be reached through drrgautam@gmail.com.

Ms. Pyakurel has a major in climate change and works in the field of environment, disaster risk reduction and climate change. She can be reached through pratistha.pyakurel@gmail.com

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