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Learning from Disasters
Vinod Thomas, May 18, 2015
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 Natural disasters are devastating lives and turning back years of development progress. Nepal’s unfolding earthquake tragedy follows a string of recent catastrophes in Asia and other regions of the world, all underscoring the need to step up efforts to improve responses to disaster relief, recovery, and rehabilitation—and for mitigating future catastrophes.

Recent evaluations of disaster-related interventions by the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and other institutions offer lessons that can be useful in Nepal and future catastrophes. Clearly, each disaster is different in its characteristics, devastation and implications. But a thread that runs through many of these studies is that while the immediate challenge is to respond urgently to relief and rehabilitation needs, this should be done in ways that will help improve future responses.

The typhoon that tore through the Philippines in November 2013 killing more than 6,000 people vividly underscored the need for the swift recovery of damaged medical facilities, with restoring power as a first priority. This is particularly relevant to Nepal, where many injured had to be treated in the open because of unstable hospital buildings and fears of aftershocks. There is a huge payoff, and at relatively little cost, in adding disaster resilience to hospitals and schools, the initial form of shelter in many disasters; studies show the bill for this may involve only 5% of the additional cost of building a new facility.

Transparency and honesty in the use of resources is a concern in emergency recovery operations. The scramble to deliver relief often necessitates by-passing slow but careful processes to account for how these resources were used. It is essential to have transparent criteria for officials above and below local governments to assess local needs, and that the interventions which are supported by funds from international community are monitored.

Speed is at a premium but so is care in the design of rebuilding projects. This was highlighted in disaster responses in Honduras and elsewhere where infrastructure was quickly rebuilt, but not enough was done to prepare for future disasters through, for example, seismic resistant building codes, land use planning and early warning. Despite the massive scale of damage to buildings in Katmandu and in districts hit by the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, the value of building back better needs to be at the front and center of reconstruction efforts. In short, there is no grace period after a disaster in which anything goes.

Disaster responses from governments and international relief agencies often resemble military operations in their heavy reliance on command and controls. This understandable sense of urgency when lives are at stake can, however, lead to local communities and power structures being bypassed. Evaluations point to the value of involving both in rehabilitation programs, such as the relocation of residences and businesses out of danger areas. In what became a model of its kind, local communities in areas devastated by the 2004 tsunami in Aceh and Nias in Indonesia were involved in designing the building standard of social housing in a way that respected the local culture and tradition.

Assessments of disaster responses show the benefit of involving local communities in many other ways. After earthquakes and floods, loss of civil records such as land rights and personal identity documents pose serious and potentially lasting problems. There are well-tested interventions to overcome this. Again in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, the reconstruction of land property rights was conceived as a bottom-up process, with community-driven adjudication processes involving village chiefs and neighbors endorsing some 300,000 parcels of land.

Donor coordination is essential. On an often crowded stage, the performance of relief and reconstruction projects is at risk when each donor or NGO tries to retain a separate role. Just basic information-sharing is an important aspect of disaster coordination, but this isn’t always a given. Evaluations found that coordination during the Mozambique floods of 2007 and 2008 could have been markedly improved if donors had been more open in sharing information, such as on damage assessments. Equally, get out of the way if you can’t help. Some development agencies and NGOs are better placed in doing needs assessment and preparing for the reconstruction phase, while others get on with the initial humanitarian response, such as UN agencies, the military, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent.

Because of population growth, poor land planning, and shoddy structures in many of Asia’s poorest countries, earthquakes and other natural disasters are an increasingly devastating threat to lives and livelihoods. They need to be confronted more effectively than ever before through disaster preparedness being integrated in national plans, stepped up investment in prevention and mitigation, and putting lessons of experience to practical use.

*Vinod Thomas is director general of Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank.

Vinod Thomas is Director General of Independent Evaluation at the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

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