Learning from Jajarkot what we didn't after 2015

Every earthquake throws up lessons so we can be better prepared next time. This month's quake is another chance.

Photos: GOPEN RAI

The 2015 earthquakes in Central Nepal that killed over 9,000 people had many lessons for us, most important of which was the need to be prepared for future disasters. After all, it was not a question of if there would be another quake, but when.

And sure enough, it came with the 6.4 Jajarkot earthquake of 3 November. At least 160 people were killed outright, buried under the rubble of their fragile homes. Dozens more have died of cold and diseases since.

After the 2015 disaster, there was a general consensus about putting safety measures into place: building seismic-resistant structures, retrofitting public buildings, and the need for emergency preparedness. Prior to this, there was no such understanding at the political level, within government or the public.

Another big lesson learned was how a separate institution, independent from the regular government structure, can more effectively carry out reconstruction, post-disaster.

Reconstruction was fraught with challenges, political interference being the foremost. But the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) coordinated effectively between internal and external assistance, and helped to carry out the process successfully.

The NRA was also crucial in managing resources, setting guidelines, and developing a single goal-oriented approach that would incorporate everyone from the public to the Prime Minister.

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But we did more than rebuild the houses. What was achieved was technology transfer on a massive scale, including knowledge about safe building even for mud-mortar, stone and wooden structures. It also showed us how to make cash distribution transparent and take it directly to the people with zero-tolerance for corruption.

We created a National Consultative Council for all the political parties to work together as well as the bureaucracy, private sector, and civil society. At the district level, a mechanism was put in place for MPs and representatives from all three levels to collaborate. There were vertical and horizontal links between all levels.

The NRA was superseded by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) in 2019 which has since put forward plans to make Nepal a disaster resilient country by 2030. Blueprints, frameworks and maps have been created for earthquake and flood preparedness and relief.

They were submitted to the government, but it has been filed away with no action taken.

As soon as the reconstruction work was complete, it seems we forgot about disaster preparedness. And so, when the Jajarkot earthquake struck, we were unprepared again.

We cannot prevent or predict earthquakes, but we sure can prepare. Even so, all we seem to be capable of is to react after a disaster hits. More than 60,000 houses were partially or completely damaged in the Bajhang, Doti, and Jajarkot earthquakes that have struck in the past year. Most of the partially damaged houses have to be demolished.

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2023 Western Nepal earthquake NT

The NDRRMA allocates Rs400,000 in subsidy for houses to be rebuilt in the mountains. This adds up to Rs24 billion, and if we add other expenses including technical assistance, technology transfer and others, the total comes to Rs30 billion.

But if we had followed the preparedness plan, we could have retrofitted and made houses across Nepal safer at a lower cost. They could have withstood a moderate earthquake like the one in Jajarkot and the casualties would have been much lighter.

What we had proposed was a safety steel rod in every mud-mortar house, retrofitting and Rs100,000 to the owner so that the structure is safe from earthquakes as well as water and fire disasters.

In fact, 300,000 houses across the country could have been retrofitted with just Rs30 billion with the government providing the initial Rs100,000 in subsidy for people to reinforce their concrete homes. The World Bank was ready to invest $10 million to survey the state of houses across the country for retrofitting, but it never took off.

Reconstruction of the structures damaged by the Jajarkot earthquake will now proceed. The good news is that after the 2015 earthquake, we now have experience and expertise in doing that. We also have local governments, unlike the last time. They will be at the frontlines of reconstruction and resettlement.

NDRRMA can provide strategic guidelines, gather resources, coordinate and train human resources, monitor the reconstruction work carried out through the local and state levels, and give policy directions.

This exercise in turn will capacitate all three structures of government, and in the long term, all three levels of the government will be better equipped to deal with disasters.

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It is an opportunity to put our federal structure to good use, empower local leaders, resolve doubts about the system, coordinate the three levels of government and mobilise the support of the international community.

Shelter is the topmost priority following any disaster, especially now that winter has set in on the western mountains. Survivors need relief materials including money for temporary housing. We need to identify beneficiaries, distribute grants by establishing a banking system, develop human resources and other frameworks. Only after that do we start reconstruction.

Experts, government agencies and local representatives should coordinate with all levels of government to determine the role and share the work. Initiatives should be taken now in terms of raising resources.

We have created a framework for dealing with disasters at the national level in the form of the Disaster Resilience Framework.Similarly, provinces and local levels should also create theirs.

The framework has five elements:

1. Provide financial and technical support to make homes and schools safer through local governments.

2. Assess the damage and estimate the amount needed.

3. Put the Disaster Management Act into operation at all three levels of government.

4. Look at disaster insurance instead of just doling out money to people to rebuild. The government can pay the premium for the poorest families

5. Establish emergency centres with relief stockpiles at the federal, provincial and local levels. The Far West and Karnali provinces are underserved. Reconstruction, if done intelligently, is also an opportunity to uplift these areas economically.

Disaster preparedness should be integrated into the education system so young Nepalis know that the country is disaster-prone and it is best to be prepared.

Disasters do not kill people but poorly built structures do-- local levels should carry out risk assessment while developing land use plans. Most of all, what is needed now is the readiness to implement the blueprints, frameworks, experience and knowledge that we gleaned after 2015. Otherwise this tragedy will also be in vain.

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