Lesson On Disaster Response

Dr. Narad Bharadwaj


The dance of death and destruction, which the mother nature staged in central Terai Sunday night, should be taken as a warning to what we have in store rather than an isolated incident of devastation which will pass off in course of time. It must also be viewed as part of a global phenomenon in which nature has been striking back with ferocity for decades of willful manipulation of nature’s order by mankind in its quest for living space, development and modernisation.

The unusual meteorological phenomenon, which has been described as a ‘freak rainstorm’, was a grim reminder that our vulnerability to natural disasters has not diminished despite the technological advances achieved by the mankind to address them.
It has been highlighted by the fact that the official meteorological authorities are not capable of detecting the formation of the extreme weather by observing satellite images before it takes everybody by surprise. This is a painful situation in which the people of Bara and Parse were caught unawares by the deadly twister when they were preparing for a night’s rest in blissful ignorance of what was going to happen.
The global experience shows that an effective early warning system is possible and necessary for putting vulnerable communities to some sort of weather alert. Such an alert can enhance preparedness mitigating the possibility of casualties and damage to infrastructures.
Unfortunately, Nepal can boast of no single instance in which early warning system has been activated to protect the life of the people exposed to vulnerability to predictable natural disasters.
Even as a layman it is safe to say that meteorological events are the culmination of a complex coordination of weather conditions. But our meteorologists failed to notice it. In developed countries, the formation process of the extreme weather phenomenon hardly goes undetected. That is the reason why the number of casualty is relatively low and the preparedness for potential disaster is more systematic and coordinated in Western countries.
Terai area is always more prone to disasters like storms, floods and fire. The forests, which once stood as a natural barrier against high velocity winds, are getting depleted fast. The rampant poverty in the Terai has compelled people to live in homes made of wood, thatch and bamboos. This was one of the reasons for greater number of casualties as most of the victims lost their lives or were injured even while they were staying inside their houses.
The same factor comes down to their disadvantage during the incidents of floods and fire year after year. The high temperature and the use of highly combustible materials in construction of houses together with the practice of cooking foods in open ovens puts them at risk of catching fire with devastating consequences.
During flood season, the one-storey thatch-roofed houses, which most poor people of Terai are living in, hardly give any protection against the risk of submersion. The lack of awareness among the local people about the need to utilize indigenous knowledge in fighting onslaught of calamitous events exposes them to the risk of being overwhelmed during the time of crises.
Moreover, the marginal situation of food security they are living in, leaves them completely defenseless in times of disasters. Lack of safe water sources, healthcare facilities and mechanism for psycho-social support for the victims make post-disaster life of the victims more chaotic and un-coordinated.
As a matter of consolation, the fearsome storm was rather weak with a velocity of about 56 kilometers per hour. Tornadoes that tear a swath of hundreds of miles at coastal areas of US, Australia and other western countries have velocity reaching to 4/ 5 categories.
For Nepal, this is perhaps the first ever super storm that has wreaked such a widespread havoc in the life of the people of central Terai. This is also a wakeup call for both the federal and provincial governments to start sweeping disaster response measure taking into account the possible repetition of seasonal storms such as this.
Luckily, Terai is not in the immediate vicinity of huge water mass like in coastal countries where waterlogging of communities adds to their hardship, prolongs tragedies and brings disruptions in their life.
Another streak of good fortune which the Sunday’s storm had was its being extremely localized. If it had travelled long distance after making the landfall which is generally the case in coastal countries of the West, it could have left the trail of death and destruction of an unimaginable scope.
The grim history of killer storms that have struck different part of the world shows that storms as disasters are happening in ever greater frequency and with ever more destructive force. This has been ascribed to rapid increase in the earth temperature induced by greenhouse gases precipitating climate change throughout the world.
As a country with extremely diverse geographical and climate zones, Nepal has the chances of encountering very uncommon combination of meteorological events. The small geographic space and the diverse climatic conditions make it difficult for meteorologists to forecast freak weathers with spatial accuracy.
In such situation, it is the responsibility of the government to equip meteorological forecast centers with state-of -the –art technology to enable them to put the endangered people on alert, at the same time, raise awareness of the people about the potential risk and the indigenous way of coping with it.
We live in a country which is prone to various forms of natural calamities. We live atop one of the most active seismic fault line created by the collision of Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. The Himalayas has a huge mass of water in the form of high mountain lakes, glaciers and mountain snowfields. The rising temperature keeps us at a constant menace of glacier bursts, avalanches and floods.
The loss of the snow cover on the Himalayas is causing rapid loss of the water sources of the hills and mountains rendering them unlivable for the people. Instances of unprecedentedly large land -slides, avalanches and blizzards are bringing widespread disruptions and distress to the people living on the high mountain slopes and lower hills.
Terai, being at the receiving ends of north-south flowing rivers, is always prone to great floods, mudslides and water logging endangering the people, livestock, standing crops and industrial bases.

In this sense, what happened in central Terai should not at all be taken as unusual occurrence. It was nature’s coincidence that it took place in the form of a ‘class-room demonstration’ of its apocalyptic potential for destruction. Now is the time of post disaster response. All the Nepali people need to unite to mitigate the hardship of the people of central Terai who are suffering in the sweltering heat; shelter less, hungry and under the the onslaught of mosquitoes.
But the most important responsibility for all of us is to take proper lesson from this event so that future disaster are better predicted and post-disaster responses become more systematic, focused, inclusive and participatory.
(Dr. Bharadwaj is a freelance writer and holds PhD degree in ethno-history. He writes on history, foreign relations, and contemporary national and international politics)  

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