01Jul2022

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Tag: South Asia

Research Commentaries

NRC0021 – Cross-border Infrastructure to Address Recurring South Asian Floods

Nirnaya Bhatta

Synopsis

With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) effectively sidelined politically, a number of mechanisms under its purview that were mandated to address cross-border disasters have also taken a hit. Against such a backdrop, this Research Commentary (RC) brings in focus the recurring flooding that seriously disrupt livelihood in South Asia and has claimed the lives of 2000 people on an average in the past 2 decades every year. This RC underlines that there is no way around cross-border infrastructure, or at least a transnational system of regulations on the rivers, with an emphasis on digital infrastructure that allows for information sharing between concerned government. It provides suggestions on what could be done at both the regional and national level and concludes that meaningful action can be made through cross-border digital infrastructure that keeps at the centre a three-layered mapping-approach (described in detail below).

Introduction

Rivers have nurtured all major civilizations, but they have also brought immense misery to dwellers living along them during floods. Today, millions of farmers along the Ganges basin keenly welcome the monsoons for irrigation every year. But recurring flooding is an inherent feature of this part of the South Asian landscape, which has claimed 2000 people on an average in the past 2 decades every year.

The magnitude of this recurring disaster is informed by both the number of people it affects and the intensity of the damage it brings (paralyzing an entire region). Even though it is anticipated almost every monsoon, governments have failed to address it in any meaningful manner, giving this crisis the distinction of a typical wicked problem.

The Policy Problem- A recurring flood and lack of cross-border mechanism

In August 2017, South Asia witnessed the worst floods in decades, affecting nearly 45 million people. A reported 16 million in urgent need of basic life support were children. This RC documents a cross-border natural disaster that escalated into a humanitarian crisis largely due to the failure of the respective governments to collaborate and respond effectively. Although, it should be acknowledged that, while the floods are usually anticipated, its magnitude is usually unknown.

Source: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). As of September 01, 2017 (People affected- in millions)

On September 2, Red Cross announced it was the worst flood facing South Asia in 4 decades, with 1/3rd of Bangladesh submerged. The river and its numerous tributaries that flows from the Himalayas downstream into India and Bangladesh (that has an average elevation of 85 meters above sea level) are forces to reckon with. Further, with destruction of millions of hectares of agricultural lands, while it severely affected food security locally, it also had the potential to disrupt global rice supply chain.

The costs on society

In southern Nepal, northern India, and Bangladesh, the floods inundated thousands of villages, natural habitats, hospitals, and schools. As one of the densest and impoverished regions in the world, people were rendered acutely vulnerable immediately. Evidence suggests that recurring natural disasters perpetuate chronic poverty . Take for instance, the head-count ratio of poverty are consistently found to be higher in flood-prone areas in Bangladesh. The floods pose a serious challenge to development efforts, as they have to operate at the face of immense uncertainty. Sure, the world is increasingly uncertain to natural disasters, but the worst crises such as these occur when governments are inefficient to respond, largely due to absence of necessary infrastructure in place.

Addressing the Crisis

While there is little scope to preventing the floods itself from occurring, the focus of policy can certainly aim to decrease vulnerability of affected population. To be fair, trans-boundary issues are inherently complex, especially when the policy agenda pertains to bringing together massive infrastructural undertaking. With multiple bureaucracies, interest groups, ambiguities in national responsibilities, contradiction between multiple national and international legal frameworks etc. coherent response to trans-national disasters are challenging. The political-economy of water issues is all the more sensitive because rivers not only accrue multitudes of benefits to nations but are also subjected to concerns of national security- associated with food and state stability itself.

  1. Regional Level:
a. To have policies that have a cross-border infrastructure component to them:

Traditionally, disaster management has been under the purview of national governments (Water, Ecosystems and Energy in South Asia Making Cross-Border Collaboration Work- ICIMOD). Against a backdrop of political distrust in the South Asian neighborhood between countries, governments find it difficult to collaborate on any issue.

To break this practice of governments working in solos, there needs to be a shift in how each government perceives the shared-ecosystem and disasters emerging from them. For instance, when the scope of one country’s policy with regard to managing rivers is sharply limited right where its own national territory ends, the shift is approaching these issues for policies could change.

Along these lines, the idea of desecuritization of the South Asian rivers looks promising. Researchers are oftentimes denied data in the name of national security. For example, in India, data on Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers is considered classified information. Working in silos to manage rivers purely along national-territorial lines will only expose one’s own citizens to disasters.

b. Functional apolitical institution for disaster management

The grounds for effective cross-border responses starts well-before the floods occur. Since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is highly dysfunctional, an apolitical institution exclusively dealing with disaster management could be established. This will open up possibilities for seamless cross-border data and risk sharing mechanisms, early warning systems, and harmonized national and regional planning etc. Clarity of responsibilities pertaining to the management of shared eco-systems will only be achieved through such an institution, which can clearly designate governments their share of duties.

  1. National Level

Polices based on localized socio-economic and demographic data

It is often argued that crisis after natural disasters is engendered by poor housing planning and land use codes, and inefficient early-warning systems. To accurately target the affected population, inputs for national policies must be based on localized socio-economic and demographic data. The WB suggests a three-layered mapping-approach that can precisely inform policy so it is capable of mitigate vulnerabilities of the affected effectively. Hazard, exposure, and vulnerability mapping are useful information for policy makers and individuals affected. This underscores the need for an integrated a robust digital infrastructure where information between governments are shared transparently.

Inspired from World Bank’s risk identification framework (World Bank 2012)

Policy implications

Due to the inherent landscape of the South Asian region, floods have a deterministic element to them. The magnitude of effect of climate change on recent torrential monsoon is debatable, but rapid retreat of the Himalayan glaciers (referred to as the ‘water tower of Asia’ that feeds 1.3 billion people) can be attributed to rising global temperatures, which will bring more floods in the Ganges basin. If policy is primarily geared towards finding ingenious ways to mitigate vulnerabilities of the distressed during disasters, populations are known to be resilient in the long run to improve their own life outcomes. There may not be a better way to mitigate vulnerabilities than cross-border collaboration with digital infrastructure at the heart to promote better data and risk sharing mechanisms, early warning systems, and harmonized national and regional planning. When the problem at hand is cross-border in nature, it is only logical that South Asian governments avoid working in silos.

References

  1. Acemoglu, Daron, and James A Robinson. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. 1st ed. New York: Crown.
  2. Amhed, Farid. 2017. South Asia Faces Fury of Floods. IPS. Retrieved from http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/08/south-asia-faces-fury-floods/
  3. Anwar. 2009. “Impact of Recurring Natural Disasters on Chronic Poverty.” Societies Without Borders, 285-301. Retrieved from https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/swb/vol3/iss2/5/
  4. Dasgupta, Amrita. 2007. “Floods and Poverty Traps: Evidence from Bangladesh.” Economic and Political Weekly 42 (No. 30): 3166- 3171.
  5. Gelb, Alan, and Julia Clark. n.d. “Identi cation for Development: The Biometrics Revolution.”
  6. George, Steve. 2017. A third of Bangladesh under water as flood devastation widens. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/01/asia/bangladesh-south-asia-floods/index.html
  7. Gettlemanaug, Jeffrey. 2017. More Than 1,000 Died in South Asia Floods This Summer.Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/29/world/asia/floods-south-asia-india-bangladesh-nepal-houston.html
  8. Iceland, Charles, and Betsy Otto. 2017. What Does Water Have to Do with National Security? Accessed from http://www.wri.org/blog/2017/02/what-does-water-have-do-national-security
  9. Johnson, Gordon. 2016. A changing climate throws water out of balance in Asia and the Pacific. Accessed from http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2016/11/3/A-changing-climate-throws-water-out-of-balance-in-Asia-and-the-Pacific-.html
  10. Muthayya, Sumithra, and Jonathan Sugimoto. 2014. “An overview of global rice production, supply, trade, and consumption.” ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES.
  11. Raj, Suhasini, and Jeffrey Gettleman. 2017. They Thought the Monsoons Were Calm. Then Came the Deadly Floods. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/world/asia/bihar-india-monsoon-floods.html
  12. Surie, M.D. 2014. Desecuritizing Transboundary Water in South Asia. 17 September . Accessed from https://asiafoundation.org/2014/09/17/desecuritizing-transboundary-water-in-south-asia/
  13. UNICEF. 2017. 16 million children affected by massive flooding in South Asia, with millions more at risk. 02 September . Accessed from https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/media_100719.html
  14. World Bank. 2012. Disaster Risk Management in South Asia: A Regional Overview. The World Bank, South Asia Region Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Unit. Accessed from http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/648281468170977802/Disaster-risk-management-in-South-Asia-regional-overview
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NDV0002 – State of Urban Population in South Asia

As per the World Bank’s 2018 data, urban population (as percentage of total population) in South Asian economies varies a lot. Among the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member countries, Bhutan has the highest proportion of population living in urban areas (41%) and Sri Lanka has the lowest (18%). SAARC Region’s proportion of urban population (34%) still lags behind by a large margin as compared to that of the global proportion (55.27%).

Research Commentaries

NRC0010 – Nepal Earthquake 2015 at 4: Lessons and Recommendations for Developing South and Southeast Asia

Nepal Earthquake 2015 at 4: Lessons and Recommendations for Developing South and Southeast Asia

Hao Nan

Synopsis

It has been a little more than four years since the massive 7.8 Richter Scale Earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, 2015. Concerted efforts have moved to post-disaster reconstruction phase which, however, is not progressing smoothly. A series of lessons and recommendations can be drawn from Nepal’s experiences for the developing South and Southeast Asian countries that, to a large extent, share the vulnerability to disasters and face the similar potentiality of the problems.

Introduction

On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Gorkha, Nepal, followed by a 7.3 magnitude aftershock, resulting in death of more than 8,800 lives and injury of thousands of people. The earthquake also damaged over 800,000 buildings and monuments, amounting the loss of staggering USD 7 billion. After the immediate relief, concerted efforts moved to the post-earthquake reconstruction, marked by the establishment of National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) and Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC).

Given the fact that developing South and Southeast Asia are regions in Asia where disasters often occur including tsunami, earthquake and volcanic eruptions among others, it would be relevant to look at Nepal’s case in the post-earthquake reconstruction in which the bottlenecks are putting the concerted efforts in dilemma and the resulting lessons, I think, are useful for concerned developing countries across the Region.

Bottlenecks
A. Governance Dilemma: Weak Local Government vs Strong Reconstruction Demand

In general, a local government plays critical roles in post-disaster reconstruction by means of its strength in resource management, information dissemination, collaboration, coordination and balancing related agenda.

However, Nepal has long been suffering from unstable domestic politics. Prior to the 2017 local election, Nepal had major such election in in 1999 and was disrupted by the decade-long Maoist Insurgency that left the local levels with governance vacuum and accountability deficit for two decades. While the local government system was still in the building and was unable to provide enough local information, international humanitarian organizations find it hard to fulfill reconstruction tasks as they have to collaborate with the local government for all related works. Therefore, the reconstruction plan was substantially delayed and caused secondary harms to victims. Such ineffectiveness with an image of corruption also created distrust between the government and the citizens, and also between the government and donors that generated undesirable political and social obstacles.

B. Capacity Dilemma: Lagged-behind Local Capacity vs Impermanent Advanced International Support

Local capacity is important for the long-term and sustainable post-disaster reconstruction, given the humanitarian work normally focuses on the immediate and middle terms, as mandated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN’s designated coordinator for international disaster reduction.

However, Nepal, even though it has over 30 million population, does not have sufficient qualified human resources. This is due to the fact that over 2.2 million skilled Nepali youths are employed outside Nepal and the reconstruction demands some 10,000 skilled manpower that includes engineers, foremen, masons, and carpenters and another 40,000 semiskilled workers, of which only 20% can be met by the existing human capacity and the available resources. Knowledge gap is also huge, given earthquake-resistance has never been part of Nepal’s general engineering education. Meanwhile, few active international humanitarian workers, with insufficient indigenous assistance, had to stay longer and couldn’t effectively reach and serve the most vulnerable groups. Their presence also caused a big amount of donations to be spent in administration and coordination without directly benefiting the victims.

Lessons
A. Reconstruction without Retrofit

In the developing South Asia and Southeast Asia, informal housing is common and even accommodates many more people than the formal housing does. Therefore, reconstruction should be together with retrofit so to be inclusive for the vulnerable victims.

In Nepal, 80% of settlements were referred as “informal”. However, in the reconstruction, those informal housing residents who did not own land and bore loss of housing were locked out from the reconstruction support. Instead, the government spent much time and resources in works that involved reconstructing the fully damaged 600,000 buildings but failed due to the unbearable cost. In fact, many traditionally informal housings stood after the earthquake, protecting lives and properties, though possessing risks of collapsing. The government did not immediately shift to retrofitting, which substantially delayed the shelter provision to victims.

B. Data-lacking Reconstruction

Big data opens a new door for post-disaster reconstruction because of the possibilities it provides in visualizing, analysing, and predicting natural disasters. However, this brings challenges to the developing South and Southeast Asia in terms of collecting, storing and analysing data due insufficient regular capacity of professionals and resources.

In Nepal’s reconstruction, the long-time absence of the effective local government led to the missing of the basic data about demographics, geography and households. The low levels of electrification and electronization caused from frequent load-shedding also constraints the maximal usage of the data in the process. Without the guiding data, a phenomenon appeared that humanitarian organizations intensively worked in the most accessible regions where they even started to build hotels, and meanwhile, left the less accessible area stranded.

C. Non-localised Reconstruction

Disasters are catalysts for change as they are increasingly recognized as opportunities to direct and navigate change towards aspired outcomes, such as sustainable development goals. Even though Nepal government published a vision, “well-planned resilient settlements and a prosperous society”, for the reconstruction, the country failed to leverage the reconstruction and rather use it as an opportunity to bring about needed changes across disaster affected communities.

Due to the insufficient number of required skilled professionals and also ineffective mobilisation of local personnel, many of the humanitarian donations didn’t reach the real victims. Rather, it was spent on salaries, accommodation and transport for the I/NGO expatriates themselves. Nepal Red Cross Society had spent USD 2.5 billion by 2018 in devastated districts, but the noticeable results of those investments are yet to be seen. Without employing local communities (people) and services, thus spent money cannot be recycled in the local economic system, and therefore cannot boom the local economy.

Policy Recommendations

The policy recommendations proposed below prioritize the works related to knowledge creation and sharing, planning with local communities and building synergy with the partners’ strengths, so to focus more on demand-driven humanitarian efforts that are in line with today’s New Humanitarianism movement.

In short term, reconstruction process should involve local people and services. Moreover, this work should involve the local service providers so as to complement reconstruction works with indigenous knowledge, needs, perceptions, behavioural patterns. Then, the stakeholders should come up with local-oriented, people-centered and disaster-resistant plan and design the overall implementation plan. This plan should prioritise the basic needs of the local people – such as shelters and food. This participatory process can mobilise the ordinary victims to proactively recover from the post-disaster traumas through employment and mutual help, and avoid relying too much on the pre-existing power structure to mis-prioritize the less vulnerable over the most. Meanwhile, an effective government and judicial system should be recovered first, in order to maintain the social order, dissimilate information and deliver the service.

For mid-term activities, reconstruction process should employ data-collection and employment of technologies and equipment to better monitor, analyse and implement the reconstruction works. These should be done after the approval and proactive support of the local stakeholders while also following the compliance requirements of respective local governments’ existing laws and regulations. A disaster-resistant code of building should also be strictly implemented in the rebuilding process, with prioritization of retrofitting the standing buildings. Meanwhile, the technology and equipment transfer and capacity building should be started that ensures creation a sustainable and self-reliant reconstruction system and the process.

In the long term, disaster-resistance and -prevention should be integrated within local school and college curriculums – General subjects and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Also, a more holistic and inclusive awareness campaign should be developed and put in place. In addition, a few disaster risk reduction teams comprising professionals from across professions and sectors should be formed autonomously from the government system with regular international channels for exchange and cooperation. This will help the concerned stakeholders to put aside their political differences and prioritize work on disasters and the related events. This, in a way, helps to avoid the potential negative impacts of local policy and political instability. Finally, a comprehensive contingency plan – that involves key people from the local governments, local communities, technocrats and the disaster experts – should be established and updated regularly, together with contingency reserve resources.

References
  1. Brundiers, K.; Eakin, H. C. (2018). “Leveraging Post-Disaster Windows of Opportunities for Change towards Sustainability: A Framework.” Sustainability 10, no. 5: 1390.
  2. Dobai, A. & Kanta Kafle, S. (2017, October 08). Mid Term Review of Nepal Earthquake Recovery Operation. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Retrieved from https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/MTR%20Nepal%20EQ%20final%20report.pdf
  3. Johnson, L. A. and Olshansky, R. B. (2013, July) The Road to Recovery: Governing Post-Disaster Reconstruction, Land Lines. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Retrieved from https://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/articles/road-recovery
  4. Arslan, M. Roxin, A.M., Cruz, C. and Ginhac, D. (2017). A Review on Applications of Big Data for Disaster Management. 13th International Conference on Signal-Image Technology & Internet-Based Systems (SITIS), Jaipur, India, IEEE, 4-7 Dec. 2017. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3263/8/5/165/pdf-vor
  5. Adhikari, N. (2017, April 25). Nepal’s earthquake disaster: Two years and $4.1bn later, Opinion: Nepal. Aljazeera. Retrieved from ttps://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/04/nepal-earthquake-disaster-years-41bn-170412110550808.html
  6. National Planning Commission of Nepal. (2015). Nepal earthquake 2015: post disaster needs assessment. Retrieved from https://www.nepalhousingreconstruction.org/sites/nuh/files/2017-03/PDNA%20Volume%20A%20Final.pdf
  7. Meding, J.V., Shrestha, H. D., Kabir, H. and Ahmed, I. (2017, November 24). Nepal earthquake reconstruction won’t succeed until the vulnerability of survivors is addressed. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/nepal-earthquake-reconstruction-wont-succeed-until-the-vulnerability-of-survivors-is-addressed-87335
  8. Sharma, K., KC, A., Subedi, M. & Pokharel, B. (2018). Challenges for reconstruction after Mw7.8 Gorkha earthquake: a study on a devastated area of Nepal, Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 9:1, 760-790, DOI: 10.1080/19475705.2018.1480535
  9. Pokharel, T., Manandhar, M.D., Dahal, A., Chalise, B., Bhandari, R. & Kharel, TP. (2018). Political Analysis of Post-Earthquake Reconstruction in Nepal: An Assessment of Emerging Role of Local Governments. Kathmandu: Nepal Administrative Staff College and The Asia Foundation
  10. Sharma, K., KC, A., Subedi, M., & Pokharel, B. (2018). Post Disaster Reconstruction after 2015 Gorkha Earthquake: Challenges and Influencing Factors. Journal of the Institute of Engineering, 14(1), 52-63. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3126/jie.v14i1.20068
  11. Schorno, S. (2004 November). Why humanitarian assistance is not a long-term solution in the OPT. Humanitarian Practice Network. Retrieved from https://odihpn.org/magazine/why-humanitarian-assistance-is-not-a-long-term-solution-in-the-opt/
  12. Ostermann, S. (2018). Nepal in 2017: Democracy’s Festive Return, Asian Survey, Vol. 58 No. 1, January/February 2018; (pp. 134-137) DOI: 10.1525/as.2018.58.1.134
Publisher’s Note: The Nepal Institute for Policy Research (NIPoRe) publishes occasional well-researched research commentaries on policy issues representing Nepal and countries in South and Southeast Asia authored by researchers around the world to inform and generate policy debates among concerned professionals and stakeholders in Asia.