After the recent earthquake in Nepal that killed over 8,000 people, injured tens of thousands more and made hundreds of thousands homeless, questions began to be asked about why Nepal wasn’t better prepared. After all Nepal sits on a known fault line and this has happened before.
In 1934, the magnitude 8.0 Bihar Earthquake struck the country, devastating the capital Kathmandu and also leading to over 8,000 deaths. Many historic buildings, including the UNESCO world heritage sites of the Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares and the Dharahara Tower, were destroyed, rebuilt and subsequently destroyed again last month.
The risks were known. And as far as earthquakes can be predicted, this one had long been forecast and by many calculations was even overdue.
That Nepal was not fully prepared for an earthquake of this magnitude is self-evident, and given the scale of destruction and loss of life, criticism that the Government and international community should have done more is not unwarranted.
But such sweeping statements belie the enormous challenges that are faced both in Nepal and around the world in preparing for and reducing vulnerability to disasters, as well as the significant work that had been undertaken towards better preparedness in spite of such challenges.
While the need to prepare for and have the capacity to respond to the aftermath of disasters has long been accepted, the need to invest in programs and initiatives to reduce exposure and vulnerability to natural hazards and mitigate risks is a much more recently acknowledged priority.
The Hyogo Framework for Action, adopted in 2005, was the first international agreement on “Disaster Risk Reduction” and set out key priority actions to monitor disasters, reduce underlying risk factors, improve early warning systems and ensure reducing disaster risks are national and local priorities.
This work requires long-term change, including both technical and policy solutions, and ongoing investment in the creation of environments that enable effective risk reduction.
In Nepal and across our region the Australian Government has played an important role in supporting these initiatives, but the announcement of a further $1 billion in cuts to the foreign aid in the recent budget will place the continued investment in many of these ongoing initiatives at risk.
There is also a critical social element in disaster risk reduction that involves challenging attitudes that inhibit action.
A commonly held belief is that disasters are unavoidable natural phenomena, but while the occurrence of many natural hazards cannot be prevented, by reducing risks and improving preparedness we can prevent these natural events from becoming disasters.
Where a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal was a disaster, a similar magnitude earthquake in Japan would likely not be.
The ability for households, communities and governments to prioritise the necessary time and resources to prepare for a disaster that may happen at some unknown point in the future, also cannot be taken for granted.
This is especially the case if one’s immediate concerns are having enough food to feed your family, access to clean water or being able to live free from conflict.
Addressing these needs is of critical importance and a major focus of international development activity. But at the same time, we need to continue working with communities and governments to better identify and reduce risks before they become disasters.
Between 1996 and 2006, a brutal and bloody civil war raged in Nepal. The conflict, fought predominately in rural districts, led to massive increases in migration of families seeking the relative safety of the capital.
Some estimate that the population of the Kathmandu Valley doubled during this time, placing extreme pressure on infrastructure, land and resources and leading to the rapid and unregulated construction of new buildings; effectively doubling the problem.
While new National Building Codes had been introduced in 2003, compliance remained problematic and it is easy to understand how paying the extra cost for more resilient construction, even if they were aware of the new codes, may not have been people’s first priority.
Such attitudes towards disasters are not limited, however, to developing countries. Indeed the continued inaction on climate change from large parts of our own society, justified by arguments that the required actions would harm our economic development, demonstrates that these attitudes also remain prevalent in Australia and the developed world.
For at least the last 10 years, significant work had been undertaken in Nepal to help the country prepare for an earthquake of this magnitude, or greater. This included joint Government, UN and NGO planning on earthquake scenarios that included over 100,000 deaths and more than two million people displaced.
Work was also being implemented to reduce Kathmandu’s earthquake vulnerability, including a program to retrofit 900 school buildings and 10 hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley to improve their resistance to high intensity earthquakes.
Ensuring the structural safety of schools was seen as a priority after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, where thousands of inadequately engineered school class rooms collapsed, killing an estimated 9,000 school children. Completing initiatives such as this, however, would always be a race against time before the “big one” struck.
The aim of Disaster Risk Reduction is the prevention of catastrophic events, and while measuring what didn’t happen remains beyond our ability, it is not possible to exactly quantify the impact that these initiatives have had.
But by comparing the specific impacts of different disasters and the different ways communities were affected by the same disaster, we know that initiatives to reduce vulnerability and build community preparedness do save lives.
There are many challenges to overcome in this work and very few “quick wins”. Disaster Risk Reduction takes time and requires long-term programming and investment.
The Australian cuts to foreign aid will likely lead to a reduction in the funding available for these initiatives.
Reduced funding reduces our ability to make the required investments and commit to the critical work of preparing for and minimizing the impacts of disasters such as the recent catastrophic earthquake in Nepal.
* Evan Davies works in in International Development specialising in Humanitarian and Disaster Risk Reduction Programming, including in Nepal.
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