When disaster strikes: lessons for humanitarian response in Nepal

3 December 2018 Anurag Acharya  When disaster strikes: lessons for humanitarian response in Nepal

Disaster preparedness is not just about developing capacity for an immediate response. Anurag Acharya, Saferworld’s project coordinator, explores how it is equally about ensuring any response takes into account community priorities, sensitivities and realities.

I grew up learning in my school textbooks that Nepal's location and rugged terrain makes it one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. But no textbook can prepare you for a disaster when it strikes.

On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing 9000 people, injuring more than 22,000 and leaving 3.5 million people displaced. Within hours, and amid strong aftershocks, thousands of people in Nepal became what the humanitarian community term first responders, volunteers pulling survivors out of collapsed buildings and saving lives. 

Having personally witnessed the extent of loss and destruction in the aftermath of the earthquake my sense is that though swift and efficient action from volunteers and humanitarian agencies saved many lives, the longer-term reconstruction and recovery, at times, disregarded the priorities, sensitivities and realities of the affected population, making their recovery more difficult.

For example, efforts by international aid agencies to restart public and community schools after the earthquake ended up complicating rather than supporting locally-appropriate recovery due to a lack of sufficient local coordination and collaboration.  Madhu Dawadi who works for Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre - a partner organisation of Saferworld which has over 30 years of experience working for child rights and protection - reflected on this recently:  “In many cases, temporary learning centres (TLCs) were built on the same spot where the main building had collapsed, which meant they would have to be dismantled to reconstruct the building later, leaving children without classrooms in the meantime. Had there been better collaboration at the local level, these TLCs could have been constructed in a nearby piece of land for the time-being. Also, in some cases, we found the cost of setting-up the centres using pricy imported materials and expensive technicians could have been better invested in the maintenance of the partly damaged school buildings. In one case, a school was given a water filter which was very expensive and difficult to maintain. With that money, four schools could have benefitted from locally purchased quality water purifiers.”

The international response also had some unintended impacts on the economy in Nepal.  Market prices rose in the aftermath of the earthquake as a result of cash assistance programmes injecting funds into the economy and the ability and willingness of international agencies to pay inflated prices for services and goods. A journalist from Sindhupalchowk district in Province 3 - one of the areas most affected by the earthquake - told me how a rush of humanitarian organisations camping in the district after the earthquake were blamed for shortages of essential supplies like petroleum products, and sudden hikes in rent prices. Cases of sub-standard food and utility of supplied relief materials, allegations of proselytisation, and lack of coordination in the delivery of relief and assistance also created tensions between the humanitarian agencies and the government.

Relief and rehabilitation efforts led by the government and humanitarian agencies were also criticised in the aftermath of last year's devastating floods in the southern plains, for failing to reach out to those most affected.

This also reminds me of Sindupalchowk's Jure, where a massive landslide in 2014 had swept away three settlements. In this instance, the 224,000 USD aid money that was raised for relief and aiding the survivors became a source of conflict as local politicians muscled to mobilise the aid money hoping to reap electoral benefits later. This conflict and delay over the disbursement of aid money made things worse for the survivors, as they were forced to continue living in makeshift camps.

In my view, responses to disasters in Nepal show that immediate relief efforts, as well as longer-term reconstruction and recovery, are more effective when they adopt locally led and conflict-sensitive approaches. These demand that all those involved in humanitarian and peacebuilding work reflect on the interaction between their actions and the conflict context, to ensure their response does not exacerbate conflict factors and, wherever possible, contributes to peacebuilding.  And crucially, affected people shouldn’t be treated as passive recipients of aid, but rather as equal partners and decision-makers in the disaster response process. 

The lesson to be drawn from the experience of Saferworld and its partners is that, working with  people affected by crises and understanding their needs and context can not only help to ensure efficient use of aid money but, more importantly, it upholds the dignity of disaster-affected communities during disaster response and peacebuilding efforts. To do otherwise undermines existing local capacities, leads to inefficient and ineffective action, and can exacerbate tensions that may lead to conflict

In some instances, this may mean not accepting offers of humanitarian aid. My friend Dawadi put it nicely when he said: “There have been instances, where we have politely declined aid money from the donors because we did not have mobilisation and collaboration experience in certain areas. It is best if the aid is managed by organisations who understand the context and have strong collaboration with communities.”

Photo credit: Omar Havana / IRIN.

This blog is part of a series produced by Saferworld on the theme: towards a devolved and conflict sensitive humanitarian system. Please email humanitarian@saferworld.org.uk to receive the blog series direct to your inbox or to propose a guest blog on the series theme.