Disasters lead to grief, and if they are tackled well and knowing that disasters do happen, and when relief and recovery infrastructure are planned in advance the grief can be shortened.
--BY JAGADISH PRASAD AGRAWAL
It is reported worldwide that aid whether food, medicines, clothing etc donated during natural calamities or other types of disasters reaches the target group only 20-25 percent of the time and the rest goes to the unaffected who make a profit out of it.
In any calamity, a nation is stunned and the government is panicked. Victims are in dire need of food, shelter, medicines and clothes. There is chaos. Everybody is trying to come forward to help but what is absent is leadership to co-ordinate and channel the offered help and assistance to the target group. Roads are obstructed, the power is down and the affected areas become inaccessible to relief work. In the heat of the moment, much genuine and in-genuine offers of assistance -local, national and international-arrive which the government agencies fail to discipline and the bulk goes to waste. Unscrupulous elements wake up and try to fish in the troubled waters of chaos.
In such a situation, how do you address the disaster and manage relief work for better productivity and effectiveness?
Any addressable system requires a lot of discipline and technical competency in order to be effective at the time of any disaster. This technical competency needs to be honed separately and specifically in the selected members of a permanent task force created for the purpose by the state and stationed at different clusters for relief work.
It’s seen during any national disaster there are a large number of volunteers ready to join from inside the nation as well as from outside. But these volunteers mostly do not have any expertise and sometimes, instead of helping, they become a hindrance in themselves. It is necessary that a structured cadre of national volunteers for disaster management be trained in different disciplines such as medical, warehousing, logistics, distribution and others, so that volunteers can be sourced from there only at the time of necessity.
Secondly, in the matter of procurement of supplies if unnecessary items are collected and sent arbitrarily to disaster sites without any reference to what is needed, it creates a problem in storage and security. Transportation of these low priority supplies leaves out or slows the flow of urgent ones. It has also been observed that donors vie with each other to try to reach the disaster site with men and materials which only crowds the place and adds to mismanagement. Perishable goods never reach the site in good condition. Some contributions are lost in transit and some are misappropriated. Contributions in the form of relief materials from foreign countries face the dilemma of customs clearance and payment of duties also.
The whole process of managing men, relief material and money during any disaster which has been declared of a national level should have their own rules and regulations under a National Disaster Management act and the prevailing provisions in other acts should remain suspended till such a time when the declaration of a disaster is called off.
Nearby military cantonments can be the collecting and distribution centres for relief from inside and outside. They should depute their representatives to customs points to facilitate foreign aid and local contributions should also be diverted to these centres and receipts obtained. These centres should immediately announce the type of material required and their approximate quantities when a disaster happens. Onward distribution to the disaster site should be the responsibility of these centres.
These centres should also have the minimum supply of specialised emergency equipments, tools and tackles appropriate to a likely disaster in that area. The whole purpose should be that the work on power restoration, vehicle movement and medical assistance can be mobilised without any delay.
Medical aid is a specialised subject and needs to be only given by those who are trained for it. We are fortunate that Nepal has a wide Red Cross Society network. Designated Red Cross units should have a minimum number of trained manpower, minimum quantities of blood storage and a minimum supply of medicines and accessories ready for an emergency. These units must be at the vanguard for organising and coordinating medical help at the site. They should come out with a list of medicines and other accessories required which procurement centres can arrange to supply them.
A National Disaster Management Authority created under an act of parliament would be the focal point for managing any disaster which is of a national level and declared as such by the government. However, it will be necessary to debate how this authority will function during any crisis coordinating with local civil and military authorities. In the federal structure, the provincial governments will have the first responsibility to mobilise itself immediately while central assistance comes a little later on. The national act of disaster management has to take care of the command structure and the military cantonment can be the cluster for relief work for a certain geographical area.
An aftermath of any catastrophe especially if it occurred in remote places is the spectre of cholera and other likely epidemic infectious diseases because of poor hygienic and sanitation conditions in relief camps. So while the primary objective of any disaster management will be to provide immediate relief, the secondary objective has to be preventive efforts so that the consequential impacts of the disaster do not fall out. In order to prevent such consequences disposal of dead bodies becomes immediate work, to identify and to entrust the bodies to their relatives. In this work the local residents and the serving administration can only help.
All of the above leads to the need of a central authority to manage and be the focal point for coordinating all efforts in the management of men, material and money from inside as well as outside. The government has to take full control of the situation and every effort has to be routed through this authority only.
Authentic and elaborate communication frequently and at designated times through mass media goes a long way in alleviating the panic and calming the agitating residents of the area. Panic triggers migration of people which impedes relief work and burdens transportation capacities. If the highest authorities can reassure the people from time to time of the efforts being taken and in planning for the future the situation starts calming down and comes under control. The poor quality of communication leads to conjecture and rumour which only aggravates the already grim situation.
The government has to build faith and trust in itself otherwise all aid including that of foreign donors will start to be managed on their own and that creates chaos as well as waste and duplication.
The recovery plan has to be separated from the relief work. Rebuilding requires capital and it takes time to formulate strategies and to start the work. But relief work has to ensure that it is available till the rebuilding is completed. It means that apart from immediate relief an interim arrangement of relief for the displaced needs to be provided, taking into account the seasonal vagaries till complete rehabilitation is done. This should be the fundamental right of any displaced citizen.
The recovery plan has to be more rational and less emotional. A displaced family faces the problem of a livelihood which if not addressed creates problems in society. But it has to be ensured that any such devastation does not lead to foreign aid dependency syndrome. Aid will stop and if the displaced person does not regain their buoyancy on their own society becomes poorer and perverted.
The destruction during the 2015 earthquake was so enormous that it was beyond the capacity of the national government, therefore, the international promises of aid was also substantial. But the transfer of foreign aid and contribution of the donors depends on the efficiencies of the government to be able to utilize the given resources productively for which advance preparedness in infrastructure is needed. A central authority is the basic need. It is necessary that in order to plan in advance and prepare for any eventuality the country needs to be mapped in terms of the nature of likely disasters short term and long term and disaster prone areas and accordingly clusters of relief centres be designated with facilities, equipment and the necessary authority so that the centres take command immediately on any mishap and the people of that area know who to look to for relief assistance. We know that sometimes the catastrophe is such that the local administration just collapses and they themselves are the victims of devastation. These clusters have to be so located that they are immune to the likely mishap and can take over the command even if the local administration has collapsed.
21st century disaster management has to be built around technology, which includes fast communication, modern emergency equipment, accessibility and networking with other centres and other designated support services. The manpower in these centres must be trained to world standards comparable with others anywhere in the world. These centres will eventually become world recognised centers for disaster management in demand anywhere especially in SAARC countries. They can operate under UNO systems. Also +2 class students should have a mandatory curriculum to train them in the basic skills of communication, data management, logistics, first aid etc so that this skilled manpower is available to these centres for support in an emergency at short notice.
In any disaster humanitarian suffering becomes uppermost. Children and the aged suffer the most because they cannot manage on their own and are vulnerable to all sorts of abuses. NGOs who have been allowed to operate in childcare should be given the additional task of taking over the care of the children and aged. These NGOs should be registered with the above centres and be specifically equipped to attend to the children and the aged especially for their shelter, nutrition and health. During any calamity, the availability of water becomes poor. Sanitation suffers and as a result health problems start surfacing soon.
There should be an advanced plan for sheltering residents during an emergency. Normally people flock to schools and other public places which disrupt the schooling and the services for a long time as the people shifted there become reluctant to vacate unless given a better alternative.
Last but not least one very important aspect of disaster management is to provide safety and security to the affected residents as well as to their assets. There are unscrupulous people around who not only try to fish in troubled waters but purposely create a law and order situation to make a profit out of it. Dropping of food packets and the delivery of supplies should be in designated cordoned areas under accountable competent manpower. During an emergency receipts and issue systems totally disintegrate and the unscrupulous groups take advantage of this disorder. This is also one important area which needs to be technologically managed.
Disasters lead to grief, and if they are tackled well and knowing that disasters do happen, and when relief and recovery infrastructure are planned in advance the grief can be shortened. Predicting disasters is part and parcel of preventive management especially in terms of climatic disasters such as flood, famines, storms etc for which world class centres of prediction can be installed in Nepal and services provided to neighbouring states also. We can excel in disaster management as we do in mountaineering rescue work and these niche services can become a commercial opportunity for us. Humanity has developed a lot of capabilities to keep its people safe from such disasters and all that we have to do is to start working on it. It is said that “calamity is man’s true touchstone”. So it is for the nation also.
The writer is the chairman of the Nimbus Group.