Will task of rebuilding Nepal help heal wounds of civil war?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 8 May 2015 09:15 GMT

A man holding a Nepalese flag walks by a collapsed temple at Bashantapur Durbar Square, a UNESCO world heritage site, after the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu, May 7, 2015. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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Experts argue that aid should be used to build social cohesion if possible and avoid division at the very least

For the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), putting efforts to make schools safer on hold because of a 10-year civil war and ensuing political instability in the Himalayan nation was never an option.

Ramesh Guragain, NSET's deputy executive director, said it's impossible to know how much more could have been achieved if Nepal had had a stable political system over the past two decades. But "we are proud that we did quite good even if we didn't have that system," he told me from Kathmandu.

NSET started small, and has been providing technical advice on protecting school buildings from earthquakes for 20 years. It was only last year that this initiative became a better-funded, government-led programme.

When Nepal was rattled by a powerful earthquake on April 25, the 350 to 400 schools that had been retrofitted did not collapse, according to Guragain.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education has reported that over 14,500 classrooms were destroyed and more than 9,000 damaged - so school protection has a long way to go.

Guragain hopes the disaster will galvanise the government to do more. 

"Now I think is the right time to have a good policy and institutional set-up in place that looks not only for reconstruction and rehabilitation but for long-term programmes ... to make the whole of Nepal safer from disasters," he said.

Nepal's royalist government and Maoist rebels signed a peace accord in 2006, ending a decade-long civil war that killed 13,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The Maoists emerged as the largest parliamentary party after elections in April 2008, and the monarchy was abolished soon after. But the former insurgents were defeated in 2013 polls won by the Nepali Congress. 

LIMITED PROGRESS

Even amid the political instability of the post-war period, Nepal has managed to make some progress in strengthening its governance structure for dealing with disasters.

A National Strategy on Disaster Risk Management was adopted in 2009, allocating roles to various ministries, and the national five-year plan includes disaster preparedness, response and recovery priorities.

The Home Affairs Ministry set up a National Emergency Operation Centre in 2010, as well as district centres. And Nepal's efforts are supported by a risk reduction consortium of international donors and agencies created in 2009. 

Still, things might have progressed faster had the government not been distracted by political infighting and the process of drafting a new constitution.

For example, new disaster management legislation that would guide institutional duties and actions is waiting to be passed.

It's not that work isn't being done, but it is being constrained by political factors, according to Margareta Wahlström, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). 

"That is why many actors feel it is frustrating because they are in an environment that recognises all these things, and yet it is a bit gridlocked," she said.

'DELICATE' SITUATION

Experts say it is too early to tell if the recent earthquake will be a unifying factor bringing Nepal's divided factions closer together - as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was credited with doing in the Indonesian province of Aceh.  

So far, the signs aren't positive. Three days after the quake, the opposition Unified Communist Party accused the government of moving too slowly and said it would ramp up its large volunteer network to take relief to people yet to receive it, Reuters reported.

Then, in a briefing to the diplomatic community early this week, the foreign affairs ministry warned that the situation was "quite delicate" because the process of drafting a new constitution is "in the final phase". 

And U.N. agencies have noted that local partners are reporting allegations of misuse and inappropriate distribution of aid - though they did not elaborate.

"If Nepal's history is any guide, we know that people with connections and power have access to most of the resources, especially during times of crisis," wrote Ravi Kumar, co-founder of Code for Nepal, a digital literacy and open data initiative, on the Time Ideas website. 

Katie Peters, a specialist in disaster risk management and conflict with the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said the "bare minimum" for humanitarian agencies working in Nepal now is to ensure their aid doesn't worsen existing tensions or create new ones.

Resources should be directed through local and national agencies that have a history of working on the ground and understand the political sensitivities and complexities, she added.

"It is so important to use post-disaster aid ... to try and help bridge traditional divides, and use that aid to rebuild in a way that will support social cohesion," she explained.

CONFLICT-BLIND DISASTER DEAL

Fragile political environments like that in Nepal now are the reason why many experts and some governments pushed hard for a new global disasters framework, agreed in Japan in March, to list conflict as an "underlying driver" of disaster risk.

Opposition from some states meant it was sacrificed in the final stages of the talks, to the disappointment of Peters and others.

"Weak governance, conflict, insecurity ... influence the way you can do risk reduction before a disaster, and ... how you should be doing relief and reconstruction in the aftermath of a disaster," she said.

That is likely to be highlighted in the coming months as quake-hit Nepalese communities struggle to get back on their feet.

"Let's hope the adversity ... is an opportunity for the people to bury the hatchet and refocus on what needs to be done in terms of building a safer, more resilient Nepal," said Marcus Oxley of the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction.  

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Tim Pearce)

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