Political smokescreen

Kathmandu before and after the wildfires. The second picture was taken on 29 March. Photos: PRABIN RAJBHANDARI

There is political miasma suffocating the country, and like the smoke shrouding Nepal for the past week, there is no immediate end in sight.

An environmental crisis is never just about the environment: climate change has political-economic antecedents in energy policy, hazardous air pollution is caused by regulatory failure, political neglect leads to health crises. Poor governance turns rivers into sewers, and policy miscarriage makes pesticides poison the soil.

Disasters, too, have political roots. There is nothing natural about ‘natural disasters’. An earthquake does not kill people, corruption that allows building permits for illegal, sub-standard construction does. Floods cannot always be blamed on heavy rainfall, they become human disasters because of poor drainage in new infrastructure.

Disaster preparedness is all about foreseeing risk, putting preventive measures in place, and when a calamity does strike, having search, rescue and rehabilitation exercises on standby.

The newly-formed Disaster Preparedness and Risk Management Authority has a long list of the dangers that this country is cursed with: earthquakes, landslides and rockfalls, floods, droughts, wildfires, lightning strikes, glacial lake outburst floods, avalanches. And this does not even include disease outbreaks, road traffic accidents and deaths due to preventable causes.

More than 7,000 children still die in Nepal every year from diseases that can easily and cheaply be prevented with vaccines, clean drinking water, or smokeless kitchen fireplaces. That breaks down to 20 children who die every day across the country, mainly in poorer, remoter parts of Nepal. They do not make the news because they are not all killed suddenly in one place where there is a tv camera to record the tragedy. But it is an unacceptable crime that should garner banner headlines in the media: ’20 More Children Died Today’.

But the media does not because that is the nature of this voracious beast. It only responds to a narrow definition of ‘all the news that is fit to print’. The news business is not geared to predicting disasters, it responds nearly always after a disaster strikes, and then there is a mad scramble to chronicle the carnage.

The media is also not so good at covering slowly unfolding disasters, the ones that get worse bit-by-bit and are difficult to measure—like the increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the air, or the winter fog in the Tarai that is worsening every year.

‘No news is good news’, and journalists are not primed to cover positive trends, improvements, solutions, or progress. We take our adversarial role so seriously that most reporters think it is not their job to cover development.

In a democracy, media is the essential feedback loop to highlight problems, preferably before they become unmanageable, or to cover individuals or communities that have surmounted obstacles and save lives by being prepared for known hazards.

The media’s lapse in serving this essential public service function lets governments, policy-makers and politicians off the hook. They can shrug and pretend they had no idea disaster would strike.

It is because Nepal’s politics is a disaster in itself, that we had the unprecedented wildfire catastrophe this week. In satellite pictures, we saw the entire country in flames, and the smoke haze was so thick it was off the charts. No one remembers it being so bad for so long. And it will happen again if the root causes are not addressed.

Those in government knew all along that this was the fire season. Every year, there are devastating fires that take a toll on lives, property and forests. This year, it should have come as no surprise that fires would be worse because winter precipitation was only 10% of normal in Central Nepal.

The Met Dept could have sounded an early-warning, but didn’t. Sure enough, the wildfires started as early as November, and soon spread to different parts of the country, until last week it became just one nationwide bonfire.

Nepal’s leaders are too busy in political firefighting to fight actual fires that are ravaging the country. It took some rain to douse the flames, when will it rain on Nepal’s desiccated politics?

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