‘The most important aspect is to utilise the lessons of the past disasters’

It is nearly two years since the devastating earthquake of April 25, 2015, however, progress in post-earthquake reconstruction work has been dismal. The National Reconstruction Authority has set a target to complete entire reconstruction of quake ravaged structures by 2020. There are several challenges to expedite reconstruction work like in other regular development projects.NRA as a coordinating agency is working with various ministries to accelerate reconstruction work. Development partners have pledged a huge amount for post-quake reconstruction and government has signed agreements worth $3.1 billion with development partners to mobilise their support in reconstruction work. Many countries have a unique experience in restoring normal life after the devastation caused by natural calamities within a very short period of time and Japan is one of them. The government of Japan has also pledged $260 million for Nepal’s post-quake reconstruction through Japan International Cooperation Agency. Pushpa Raj Acharya of The Himalayan Times spoke to Jun Sakuma, Chief Representative of JICA Nepal Office, on overall progress made in reconstruction work, what needs to be done to accelerate it and about the challenges and lessons Nepal can learn from Japan in post-quake reconstruction. Excerpts:

It has been two years since the devastating earthquake. How will you assess the progress made in post-quake reconstruction work?

I understand that there has been a lot of criticism regarding the slow pace of reconstruction activities. One major reason for this is the delay in establishing National Reconstruction Authority. Currently, the related ministries have been working hard to speed up reconstruction work though their institutional capacity but this is not sufficient as they are facing many difficulties on the ground. Hence, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is providing support not only for reconstruction work itself but also to develop the capacity of those institutions by working closely with them. For a smooth reconstruction process, it is necessary to keep securing enough budget and have sufficient manpower. Strong coordination among concerned authorities, careful planning and implementation of the plans are also a must. With such strong commitment and persistent policy of the government, reconstruction process can be accelerated.

Do you think it is possible to meet the target set by the government to complete all reconstruction work by 2020?

It is too early to answer that question. I think the government will keep this target in mind and further accelerate reconstruction process according to it. Hence, JICA would like to continue providing its support to any efforts that the government initiates even in the future.

JICA itself is engaged in reconstruction of schools, heritage sites and hospitals along with restoration of drinking water supply projects. How many projects have been completed so far?

Regarding schools, we have already completed rehabilitation of 184 classrooms in three districts — Gorkha, Dhading and Nuwakot. In addition, we have been supporting reconstruction of about 300 secondary schools in six districts. As for the other public facilities such as hospitals and local government offices, many of them are under construction and will be completed within two years. The reconstruction of Paropakar Maternity Hospital and Bir Hospital under JICA’s assistance will start after the monsoon this year and will be completed within 18 months. Many other structures that we are working on will be completed by next year.

What are the other possible areas where JICA can extend its support to accelerate reconstruction work?

As I said, capacity development of those concerned at both the central level and on the ground is quite important for the smooth implementation of reconstruction process. We are thus examining the possibility of another technical cooperation project for it in addition to the existing support.

One school of thought believes that any rebuilding effort after any disaster needs to go hand in hand with sustainable development. How is JICA planning to support Nepal in this area?

I quite agree with that opinion. Basically reconstruction should be done through initiatives of affected people themselves. Therefore, we think it is essential to empower the people in affected communities and involve them in the reconstruction process. For this purpose, we have carried out livelihood training for affected farmers and women’s groups, and safe house awareness training for affected households and masons, among others in our target districts.

JICA is said to have introduced special programmes for women empowerment to help quake survivors get back on their feet. Could you please elaborate?

Through the post-earthquake needs analysis we found that women’s empowerment is significant, particularly in remote areas where women play an essential role both economically and socially while many men are out of the country as migrant workers. Thus, we have provided livelihood training such as goat farming, vegetable farming, quality seeds production, among others focusing on women’s groups. So far over 1,100 people have participated in the training programmes of which 78 per cent were women.

JICA is also involved in designing safe building codes for individual houses. However, many quake victims are unaware about the codes. Is there any programme planned to disseminate this information to quake survivors?

For raising awareness among people regarding safe houses we have developed ‘Safer Building Handbooks’ and conducted training for houseowners, masons, engineers and site inspectors by using those handbooks. In total, more than 10,000 have undertaken this training in our target areas. Besides this, mobile teams headed by Japanese consultants have also visited many sites to raise awareness. We will continue with these activities.

Lack of trained masons is a major constraint to accelerate house reconstruction by abiding to the safe building codes. Does JICA have any plan to conduct mason training further?

We have provided training for safe house construction and over 2,200 masons have participated in the training so far. Availability of enough number of trained masons is critical for the construction of safe houses. To further raise awareness we will again conduct refresher training programmes for masons who have already participated in the training earlier.

JICA was involved in designing safe building codes for individual houses. But the locals in rural areas say that the government’s grant is not enough to abide to all the standards while reconstructing houses. It is also reported that one-third of the houses that have been rebuilt so far do not comply with safe building codes. How can this challenge be addressed?

The safe building codes have been designed to build safe houses so that not only the structures but also human lives can be saved even during big earthquakes. Beneficiaries of the government grant should abide to the safe building codes without compromising on it because it is related to their personal safety.

Japan restored all the structures in Kobe and Fukushima that were devastated by earthquakes in a very short period of time. How was it possible?

Though there are several reasons, the most significant one is that in Japan we have learnt to utilise the lessons that we learnt during the past disasters as much as possible. As a result, preparedness of the government, communities and individuals to disasters is very high in Japan. For example, not only the central government but every local government has its own disaster operation manuals and they act according to it in case of a disaster. National building code has been repeatedly revised after some massive earthquakes and subsidy has been provided to promote construction of houses which meet such compliance. Earthquake insurance is also common. Moreover in every school and community evacuation drills and disaster risk education are periodically conducted. Thus by utilising the lessons of the past, Japan has built a resilient society and this is the ‘Build Back Better’ concept.

Japan has developed modern technology to cope with various disasters. What could Nepal learn from the Japanese experience?

Like I mentioned earlier the most important aspect is to utilise the lessons of the past disasters and make efforts to move ahead as a resilient society. It is not easy for me to say which Japanese technology is applicable to Nepal. However, there are many which Nepal can introduce for its preparedness. For example, periodical implementation of evacuation drills and disaster risk education in schools and communities will be quite effective even in Nepal.

JICA is also engaged in two mega projects — Kathmandu-Nagdhunga tunnel and Pokhara drinking water supply project. How much progress have these projects made?

The work regarding Nagdhunga tunnel project has proceeded quickly after the signing of the loan agreement at the end of December last year. The consultant was already selected and now the detailed design survey is under preparation. The Nagdhunga project is expected to be completed in 2022. As for the Pokhara water supply project which was signed in February this year, it is under the process of consultant selection. We expect to start delivering safe drinking water to more than 657,000 residents and tourists in Pokhara in 2020.

What are the major areas of cooperation with Nepal in the days ahead?

JICA’s overall goal in Nepal is to support balanced socio-economic development of the country. For this purpose we have provided various types of support under four pillars. They are infrastructure and institution development, support for democratisation and federalisation, rural poverty reduction, and post-earthquake reconstruction.