Threatened Himalayas: Humane Disaster Management in Nepal

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Securing insecurities

The massive flood of August 2017 where 130 lost their lives is a stark reminder to the government of Nepal that the country is at high risk when it comes to natural disasters. The occurrence of such natural disasters has been exacerbated due to climate change, and the question is not of what natural disaster will hit the country, but of when. While the government has drafted many policies with regard to natural disasters and disaster relief, the fundamental problem still lies with implementing such policies to yield the desired result.

Considering the period from 2005-2015, Nepal has been hit by three major floods— two in 2008 and one in 2014— a  major landslide in 2014, and a massive 7.8 Richter earthquake in 2015. The 2015 earthquake itself killed more than 8500 people. As recent as August 2017, the country was again beset by flood in its Terai region. Over a span one just one decade, the number of lives Nepal has lost and the number of people that have been internally displaced is indeed heartbreaking. Consequently, this huge displacement of people due to natural disasters has made Nepal stand in the third position in the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID 2016).

Be it an anthropogenic disaster or a natural disaster, the loss of a human life is always a tragedy. Post disaster, people become vulnerable to diseases and conflicts, suffer as refugees or become displaced in their own countries. The gravity of such situation requires a humanitarian touch, which is requires the Nepalese government to employ a human security centric approach to disaster mitigation.

Natural Disasters and Human Security

The debate on security is traditionally dominated by the realist understanding of security-i.e. one pertaining to state and military. But the understanding of security has broadened over time. Nontraditional security threats like climate change, environmental degradation, health problems and so on which challenge the survival and well-being of people are increasingly being recognized as security threats too.  Consequently, the concept of human security emerged where the focus was not the state, but the people, the individuals.

As per the UN Human Development Report 1994, human security is a human centric approach that concentrates on securing and protecting individuals “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”. As a bottom-up, people-centered approach, human security stresses the needs, capacities and experiences of individuals making its application apt for situations which demand humanitarian assistance.

Natural disasters are a major threat to human security as they threaten human survival, damage economic and social foundations of people’s well-being, and traumatize survivors. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is essential to protect human security in disaster hotbeds like Nepal. The country has shifted from a relief-and-rescue approach to DRR, endorsing the Sendai framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, but a specific strategy pertaining to it has not yet been penciled out. This is a typical trend Nepal has been following-endorsing agreements but failing to do the necessary homework for its successful implementation.

While it is important first to formulate a strategy for DRR, integrating a human security approach to it would deem more farsighted. In disaster preparedness, human security would contribute in steering policy development by ensuring resilience measures and adopting local tradition or indigenous forms of knowledge for sustainable solutions. Disasters do not discriminate between men and women, but the aftermath of a disaster has the potential to create victimization of different level between the genders where the victims generally are women and children-or the more vulnerable section of the society. A human centric approach to disaster management could help apply a gender perspective to the natural disasters bringing about tailored solutions to problems of women and children.

Furthermore, a society’s culture shapes its worldviews, knowledge, norms, values, social relations, and beliefs. Anthropological analysis of culture that focuses on identity, community, and economic activities should not be discounted as livelihood diversification and flexibility, idea of resilience, narratives and history about past changes and current conditions-all hinges on culture. Hence, applying a one-size-fits-all attitude to post-disaster efforts might hinder the efficacy of such efforts. It could also make victims/survivors potentially more vulnerable to harm. A human security approach to DRR would provide space for these considerations, which otherwise would focus mainly on technical aspects like inventory management or say providing make shift shelters.

Mere allocation of funds or application of early warning systems alone cannot be solution to disaster management preparedness. While they provide solutions to some extent, a more holistic effort demands attention to social elements too which are often overlooked while drafting policies.

A human security centric approach might not be a silver bullet to the existing problems of disaster management, but if engaged as a means of identifying linkages between different insecurities, like food insecurity, public health and well-being, livelihoods etc - it could be an effective form of response. Finally, given Nepal’s vulnerability to climate change effects, incorporating climate change adaptation, resilient coping mechanisms and targeted adaptation strategies to the particular needs and vulnerabilities of people and their community in DRR from the government itself would ideally be the way forward.