Nepal floods highlight need for disaster preparedness

by Khem Aryal in Delhi and Kedar Babu Dhungana in Kathmandu
Since monsoon rains began in early June, floods and landslides have left at least 244 people dead in Nepal, and 44 missing. Nepal is no stranger to such catastrophes -- in 2002, at least 500 people perished in the floodwaters. Many of those left homeless this year were also affected by last year's floods.

But successive disasters have helped to strengthen the Nepalese Red Cross Society's (NRCS) capacity to respond to such emergencies, with resources being channelled into disaster preparedness programmes.

"Last year's disaster was bigger, but it does not mean that this year we have had fewer catastrophes. The main difference is that we have built a stronger network and mechanism to cope up with disasters," says NRCS Secretary General Dev Ratna Dhakhwa.

"Disaster preparedness has made it possible for us to work on our own even if more districts are affected by disasters this year," he adds.

The monsoon flooding, landslides, and thunderstorms have hit 54 of the country's 75 districts this year. In addition to the human toll, hundreds of cattle have been lost and hundreds of acres of crops swept away.

Mobilising local resources

As the country's leading relief agency, the NRCS has been actively involved in rescue and relief services, mobilising local resources. Its district branches have sent assessment teams with relief materials to the affected areas, while the national headquarters dispatched relief materials to warehouses located at strategic points.

The people of Jagatpur village, in Chitwan district, had hardly recovered from the trauma of the last year's flood that killed more than 60 of its inhabitants, when more floods struck, sweeping away their new homes, built with the support of various organizations.

But some of those who got the Red Cross houses are content. "This year we had no fear of flooding. We are living in a new house," says Masina Rana Magar who is one of the beneficiaries of a NRCS rehabilitation programme, funded by a Federation emergency appeal last year. But thousands more were less fortunate.

Heaviest rains for 30 years

Over 9,000 families have been badly affected throughout the country, and over 4,000 houses destroyed or damaged. Thousands of people have been forced to live out in the open.

The monsoon began on 10 June, but heavy rains between 30 July and 2 August caused further floods and landslides. According to Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, these later rains were the heaviest in the past three decades, exceeding last year's record.

There has been an increased incidence of diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and encephalitis in affected districts, while Morang district, hundreds of people -- most of them children - have been affected by eye disease caused by polluted water. In many remote villages, patients have died because they have not been able to get access to medical services.

Transportation has been severely disrupted as major highways -- including the main road out of the capital, Kathmandu, and the one linking the kingdom with Tibet - have been damaged and in many places swept away.

Water services have also been disrupted, forcing many people to fetch water from contaminated local brooks. Moreover, there has been a scarcity of drinking water in lowland towns since their usual underground sources have been submerged in floodwater. The spectre of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and typhoid is never far away.

Honing preparedness skills

But the NRCS has been able to mitigate some of the effects of the floods, thanks to pre-positioning of relief material and improving disaster preparedness skills.

"The warehouses have 50 per cent more stock than usual, and two trucks acquired from last year's appeal money have been of great support in transporting the relief goods," says NRCS Executive Director Badri Khanal. "So, though thousands of families are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, the Nepal Red Cross has till now been able to cope with the present situation."

As the days pass and the rain continues, bigger disasters are anticipated. The Nepal Red Cross is in high alert position to reach the needy people with humanitarian assistance.