Where Is SAARC When Disaster Strikes?

08/05/2015 8:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
A Nepalese woman sits with her son near their house, destroyed in last week's earthquake, in Pauwathok village, Sindhupalchok district, Nepal, Saturday, May 2, 2015. Life has been slowly returning to normal in Kathmandu, but to the east, angry villagers in parts of the Sindhupalchok district said Saturday they were still waiting for aid to reach them. In the village of Pauwathok, where all but a handful of the 85 houses were destroyed, three trucks apparently carrying aid supplies roared by without stopping. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Sadly, it took a natural disaster, the devastating earthquake of 25 April, to turn the world's attention to Nepal. And on reading this oped - "Don't Forget Nepal" -- by a Nepali citizen I felt more strongly than ever that there's a need to reiterate and even repeat messages to keep Nepal alive in people's minds even after TV screens change their "big stories" to something else.

The calamity has to be alive until the region's leaders collectively take some decisive actions towards the reconstruction of Nepal, and more importantly resolve to set up an effective disaster management system which can minimise the impact of any further natural calamity that South Asia might face.

In particular, the Nepal quake is a warning bell for SAARC to get its act together to set up an effective disaster-response mechanism which can minimise and mitigate impact in an already disaster-prone region.

According to reports, about 8.1 million people have been affected by the quake. The death toll stands at well over 7500. Nepal's already ailing economy is expected to experience further jolts with damages amounting up to $10 billion. The tourism industry, the country's highest revenue grosser is likely to be hit hardest.

"[SAARC] members like India and Pakistan have reached out to Nepal - but all in their individual capacities. What is needed is a joint effort to chalk out long-term reconstruction plan."

The international aid so far is nowhere close to what the country needs to rebuild itself - at least $1 billion by year end. International agencies, especially the UN, are already stretched too thin with other global crises.

If this were not bad enough, some scientists believe that the catastrophe may not be over yet and that there is a possibility of more aftershocks.

The question is this: can we afford yet another disaster in this region? South Asia is one of the most natural disaster-prone regions of the world. Out of eight countries in the region, six (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh) are located in the earthquake-prone Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) belt.

Where is our South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) when disaster strikes? Agreed, members like India and Pakistan have reached out to Nepal - but all in their individual capacities. What is needed is a joint effort to chalk out long-term reconstruction plan for Nepal where resources could be pulled in from SAARC repository as and when required.

Poverty makes the region even more vulnerable, and now Nepal stares at a lack of shelter, contaminated water and poor sanitation, which raise risks of diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

According to reports, Nepal generates about $20 billion each year, which is lower than most other countries. Meagre opportunities have led the country's young men to look for work elsewhere. Economists say the exodus will swell (and thus corrode the nation's capacity to rebuild) if the government doesn't take immediate action to provide incentives to victims of working age.

nepal rice

Those who are left behind - mostly women and children - might become victims of human trafficking for child labor and prostitution. Sex trafficking is rampant within Nepal and to India (where 5000-10,000 women are trafficked each year).

"There have been talks of disaster risk reduction among the SAARC members... However, a huge gap in implementation exists with no proper coordination at various levels."

There have been talks of disaster risk reduction among the SAARC members with drafts like the SAARC Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management being penned. Even a regional framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) has been drawn. However, a huge gap in implementation exists with no proper coordination at various levels.

Most of the SAARC members have legislative framework for attending to such natural hazards, but capabilities differ in each country. While India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh have considerably ramped up their capabilities and ability to network, the rest simply do not have enough resources to put an effective system in place.

In the case of the Nepal quake, one of the main challenges was the country's inability to utilize resources due to lack of coordination. Most of the workers had to be routed through the Nepalese Army which led to aid reaching the victims late and cramming up the country's international airport with piles of relief materials.

Most of the efforts were concentrated in Kathmandu for some period even though there were reports of locals waiting for help in other affected locations.

A combined effort from SAARC could have addressed this with a proper needs assessment and accurate data on the extent and loci of devastation. For streamlining international response, a proper mechanism for customs clearance and emergency cargo at the airport could have been arranged.

The monitoring of seismic events is particularly important not just to understand the location of the epicenter and its magnitude, but to also be able to share information on time. According to this report, scientists had already predicted the Nepal earthquake and the possible devastation that might follow back in 2013. However no action was taken.

SAARC as an organisation should have not only shared information of an imminent natural disaster but should have also monitored or even pressurised the authorities to prepare adequately.

"[N]owhere have the SAARC food reserves been used despite the many cyclones or floods that the region has faced."

However, we can still hope that this tragedy has woken up regional leaders. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already spoken with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on pan-South Asia initiatives where the region could pool in resources and expertise during disasters such as this.

Following the earthquake, India sent unmanned aerial vehicles to Kathmandu to map destruction on neighboring countries. New Delhi has also stepped up efforts to lead initiatives around the SAARC monitoring system for early warning and risk mitigation in member states.

Meanwhile, many of the victims are still struggling to get enough food. As noted in this Hindustan Times article , the SAARC food bank should have been most active now. Ratified by all the members in 1988, the bank provides for a reserve of food grains to meet emergencies in member countries.

But experts lament nowhere have the SAARC food reserves been used despite the many cyclones or floods that the region has faced. The main reason observers say is problems with timing, accountability clauses and the lack of an independent mechanism to evaluate the implementation.

Other regions like the ASEAN have built commendable and very robust disaster response systems. Why not get some learning from them?

For instance the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) exists to activate a regional disaster mechanism real time such that it can also coordinate international relief responses to maximise results.

In a recent conference ASEAN talked about a new strategy called "One Asean, One Response" to bring various parties together for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

There is a huge need to network and gather knowledge from different organisations on how to mitigate the effects of natural calamities. Action with a sense of urgency is the least that the regional leaders can do to create a more resilient South Asia.

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