Even by Japanese standards the 25 April earthquake was a major one, according to Kenichi Yokoyama, Country Director of the Nepal Resident Mission of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In an interview with Nepali Times on Wednesday, Yokoyama outlined the earthquake’s impact on Nepal’s economy and talks about the ADB’s plans for future assistance in reconstruction.
Nepali Times: Where were you when the earthquake struck?
Kenichi Yokoyama: I was visiting an ADB-assisted urban development project in Biratnagar. We were 500km away from the epicenter, but it was still the biggest quake in my life.
But as a Japanese you must be used to such shaking?
Japan has a rating system of measuring earthquake intensity in each location: from intensity 1 to 7. In Biratnagar I felt it was intensity 5. Coming back to Kathmandu and seeing fallen bookshelves and cabinets in ADB office, it looked like intensity 6 or slightly lower. In the East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, intensity 6–7 was felt in only about 10 per cent of the country. So this was really a major earthquake even by Japanese standards.
What is your assessment of the Nepal government’s response to the earthquake?
One may be tempted to say that the response could have been faster. But we should recognise the huge scale of the disaster in remote and inaccessible terrain. Before the earthquake, our discussion on preparedness was also largely focused on possible devastation in Kathmandu, but not much on rural areas. Dealing with a rural disaster of this extent calls for very strong partnership, trust, and coordination of key players: the government, security forces, international agencies, and I/NGOs. The absence of elected local bodies has also been a constraint.
ADB has been very prompt with assistance to Nepal, what other support is planned?
ADB formed an emergency response team immediately after the quake, and approved an emergency grant of $3 million within 48 hours to the PM Relief Fund for immediate needs like opening temporary schools. Ongoing programs like the Melamchi Project are also helping with relief in Sindhpalchok. ADB is now taking part in the joint post-disaster needs assessment by the government and donors that will prepare a reconstruction strategy and plan. An emergency $200 million assistance project is envisaged for priorities such as rebuilding schools, rural infrastructure. Before the earthquake, ADB and the Australian government supported retrofitting of 160 schools in Kathmandu and preparation of a national school safety master plan.
What is the ADB’s view on plans to set up a separate disaster management commission?
We may differentiate reconstruction from permanent disaster management. Reconstruction has to be implemented quickly and efficiently. Reconstruction should also go hand in hand with development programs without affecting each other. In this sense, establishing a special purpose agency for the duration of the reconstruction period with a lean setup and streamlined budget, execution, and decision making systems can make sense. But it needs to be established without diverting human resources of existing ministries or causing conflict or rivalry. Such a lean setup also assumes substantial outsourcing in implementing programs, rather than government staff doing everything. In our view, these need to be met if such an option is considered.
How best could emergency relief and shelter be speeded up to areas that still haven’t received them?
As explained, solidarity of all the key players led by the government with the help of international agencies and I/NGOs would be essential to deal with this scale of devastation. Usually, defense and police forces can play a quite significant role in rescue, relief, and early recovery, given their strong human skills, discipline, and logistical bases that are also demonstrated here. Building on such strengths, all key players may join hands with strong coordination and collaboration, by ideally setting up a common platform to jointly plan and execute who are delivering what goods in which villages in what schedule and how, at VDC, district, and national levels. Existing setup such as ward citizens forum may play an active role in networking and coordination.
You have just returned from northern Gorkha, what was your impression?
Yes, I was there with the World Food Programme team. Relief operations seemed under good control reaching remotest villages where there was good community spirit and coordination among different parties. Local people said they immediately need temporary shelter that can endure the monsoon. Delivery of material and tools in a limited time span appears a critical challenge along with labour and logistics. The relief teams are also doing immediate needs assessment by checking available local material and skilled labour to identify gaps to be filled from external sources. Such an approach will provide a good basis to seamlessly start recovery and reconstruction activities most efficiently. This means there should be good coordination between relief and recovery teams.
What impact do you see on tourism and agriculture?
We think tourism could be the hardest-hit sector. It directly or indirectly generates almost 10 per cent of the GDP and jobs, and popular spots like the World Heritage Sites, Everest and Langtang Mountains. Top hotels have been closed for weeks, and tourists have stayed away. But we should remember Nepal’s natural beauty and cultural heritage are undiminished, the tourism potential had also been heavily underutilised. The sector can come back strongly with proper promotion and product packaging to attract more tourists and promote higher spending.
As to agriculture, the severely affected districts account for 14 per cent of the country’s total agriculture land holding. When the earthquake struck, harvesting of winter and summer crops had been mostly completed. But minimising the impact on monsoon crops will require timely availability of seeds, fertiliser, draught power, and labour. Livestock seems to have been badly hit in the affected districts. Food insecurity could make the population living in the last two income quintile quite vulnerable. This calls for immediate attention for timely and sufficient relief and recovery and livelihood restoration for the most vulnerable groups.
Are there any long-term implications on migration?
Over the short term we foresee migration will slow down, since overseas workers may prefer to return to take care of family and rebuild homes and livelihoods. On the other hand, the trend of increasing out-migration and remittance income may re-emerge in the absence of growth engines in the economy that can rapidly increase production and jobs. To reverse this trend, a lot of efforts are needed for
a) expediting reconstruction and creating a construction boom that would increase local labour demand, while
b) concurrently maintaining focus on development to address power and other infrastructure deficits, so that the country’s potential for high value and labour absorbing industries can be unleashed the soonest.
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