Disaster governance: Regional framework needed

The regional framework for disaster governance should not be limited to bureaucratic organisations like SAARC and BIMSTEC. An independent agency and new digital systems should be allowed to handle the regional alerting system

The 2019 monsoon floods and landslides in various parts of Nepal and India have resulted in 240 fatalities, displacing thousands of citizens in both countries. Over 28 eastern districts of Nepal have been affected, amongst which human and economic loss in Siraha, Sarlahi, Saptari, Mahottari and Rautahat districts in province 2 and Udayapur, Morang and Sunsari of province 1 has been recorded the highest.

Similarly, various parts of Bihar and northeast India have also been affected. In Assam alone, 53.5 lakh-plus people are under threat, and over 4,408,142 people affected due to this monsoon misery. The loss of life and property caused by these disasters is shared by India and Nepal. However, the public blame game in these two regions is deteriorating the relationship between the two countries. Any government or intergovernmental initiative has also been deemed ineffective in combatting the issue. These recurrent modern-day disasters are beyond the control of a single institution or a state. The heavily impacted flood-prone areas of Nepal and India are at relatively extreme risks of disaster.

These areas are highly populated, making them vulnerable due to extreme poverty and fragile infrastructure. The inundation by the floods in these regions is mainly due to the three river basins—namely Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna. Nepal’s three biggest river systems—the Koshi, Gandaki and Karnali that originate in the mountain glaciers ultimately connect to the Ganga and other major systems in India.

A 2019 ADB survey in just five of the many flood-prone communities has found that 90% of rural households have suffered significant loss of life and asset damages from floods in the last decade. The ADB states that financial recovery in these areas is three times slower when compared to urban households.

The Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) is another such frequently occurring disaster in the mountainous regions. The Tibet Autonomous Region’s (TAR) Poiqu watershed is highly prone to GLOFs. The Poiqu River’s extension into Nepal is known as the Bhote Koshi. Half a dozen big-scale GOLF events have been reported in this watershed since 1935. In 2016, heavy rains in the Bhote Koshi River and across the border in the TAR, China wreaked havoc and caused huge destruction in both Nepal and China.

The traditional approach to disaster governance is limited within local, state and national frameworks that no longer serve to minimise impacts of disasters. If there were intergovernmental, real-time data sharing and early warning mechanisms in TAR, it could have sent out information prior to a disaster, initiating the evacuation of the vulnerable communities. As should be evident, using science to develop such safety measures is essential when dealing with such trans-boundary weather events.

New technological methods, such as data collection, advancement of multi-hazard early warning system, information sharing among people and use of other cutting-edge technologies like drones, geographic information systems and robotics for humanitarian response can save many lives. The development and use of such tools cannot be left to a single state. Therefore, a regional framework that uses existing technological infrastructures like radio, television networks, wireless communication, smart phones, crowd sourcing, open-source and internet connectivity can be helpful in bridging the existing divide and make disaster governance effective in the region. The regional framework for disaster governance, however, should not be limited to the same bureaucratic organisations as SAARC, BIMSTEC and the like. An independent agency with the help of existing communication infrastructure and the capacity to use newer digital systems should be tasked with handling the regional alerting system.

The regional framework can use the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to disseminate information through radio and TV to the public while the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system can be used to reach mobile phone users. This cell broadcasting technology can be used in all areas without congesting and hampering the effective functioning of existing cell networks. It is a location-based alert system that requires no apps, sign-up, subscriptions or other tracking devices. System-generated information that works even when the phone is in airplane mode can be delivered to the public. This tech-based multi-sector and multi-disciplinary regional framework will be instrumental in bolstering disaster governance and in closing existing information gaps in public disaster alerts.

The existing inter-governmental organisations like the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) or the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) are some of the few active in the sector at the regional level. However, the regional level work from these organisations does not seem to be effective in retrospect. Although, it could also be true that the complex bureaucracy is posing issues for these organisations in their effort to remain proactive. Either the restructuring of these existing organisations or the creation of an entirely new entity might be required to implement a civic tech-based disaster governance framework in this region.

Khatiwada is the executive director at Youth Innovation Lab