In Quake’s Wake, the Price of Political Disarray
April 29, 2015
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday morning, April 25, and the 6.5 aftershock the following day left frightened residents here in Kathmandu huddled in the rain in streets blocked with rubble and shaken by powerful tremors that made those structures still standing too dangerous to enter. Deaths are now estimated at over 5,500, a number that will continue to climb as emergency workers dig through collapsed buildings and push into the most affected districts of Dhading, Gorkha, Nuwakot, Rasuwa, and Sindhupalchok.
The quake struck shortly before noon, so everyone was awake. My own family and I managed to run from our house, but the convulsions were so extreme that we were repeatedly knocked off our feet. Almost everyone in Kathmandu has a set of bruises to show. We stayed outdoors until yesterday, minimizing time inside the house for fear of aftershocks. From today, we expect 50 percent of those who have homes to return and stay indoors.
Overall, the situation is grim, with rain adding to the misery of the thousands who are homeless. Villages in the remote countryside have been completely cut off from rescuers, as already poor roads have been blocked by landslides. Nepal’s infrastructure is generally weak – rural roads are rudimentary, building construction is unregulated and haphazard despite the risk of earthquakes, and electrical blackouts are an accepted part of daily life. Disaster preparedness has also repeatedly fallen short.
This quake has been expected for many years now. While the government and the international community have had a number of programs and projects to prepare for it – a national plan and a coordination center for disaster response, for example, and several functionaries who can meet at short notice to issue orders – still, when events like this happen, the preparations appear inadequate for what is actually required in the immediate aftermath. There have been repeated failures of execution in this respect historically, from the Sunkoshi landslide and Tropical Storm Hudhud, to the Turkish Air mishap, the swine flu epidemic, and now this earthquake, all within one year. The shortcomings start with strategic communications, and continue with who is responsible for the actions of the first several hours, and what is needed during those hours to provide succor and relief.
A significant part of the problem is political. For nearly a decade, Nepal has been preoccupied by the struggle to develop a new constitution. As the political fight has worn on, basic democratic institutions such as local government have disappeared, and governance has become increasingly insular, politicized, and ad hoc. This failure of democratic governance has inevitably hurt disaster preparedness. In a country where it is left to bureaucrats and politicians to decide public policy, the rest of society (including citizen groups, civil society, the media, and NGOs) is excluded from participating in disaster management planning. Preparation for disasters requires a partnership between citizens and their government, and it is presumptuous to think only government can be responsible. After all, the aftermath is witness to what really happens when disaster strikes: it is all hands on deck, with common folk leading the way!
As major international relief efforts get underway in coordination with the Nepali government, we are providing immediate, catalytic support to groups, associations, and networks of Nepalis who have been working for several days already, and The Asia Foundation’s affiliate organization, Give2Asia, is helping to coordinate donations. Please visit the Nepal Earthquake Fund. Our hearts go out to the people in Nepal and neighboring countries who have been affected by this disaster.
George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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