By Mandira Singh Shrestha
This year, monsoon preparedness activities in Nepal need to factor in the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well. With the approaching rainy season and the increasing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the low-lying, flood-prone Terai districts such as Mahottari, Dhanusha, Rautahat and Parsa of Province # 2 a double disaster is a real possibility, and the government must protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of both.
How prepared are we?
In the past, most disaster management efforts were limited to response and relief. However, in recent years, we have been witnessing a paradigm shift towards preparedness. In the new federal governance structure, Nepal has strengthened its disaster management systems at all levels: federal, provincial, and local. The National Disaster Management Authority was established in 2019 to conduct national disaster simulations, improve disaster response technologies, and put in place better risk governance through improved interactions among key ministries. The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (2017) has empowered local authorities to carry out disaster risk reduction at the local level. The limited capacity and resources of the local authorities, however, will remain a challenge in dealing with the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic and impending floods. At present, government agencies across Nepal are already stretched thin trying to manage the COVID-19 response. If the scale of the monsoon flooding this year is similar to 2017, then disaster management capacities across the country risk being overwhelmed.
What can be improved?
To minimize the adverse impacts of floods, the availability and access to early warning systems and timely disaster related information and risk assessments need to be increased. Early warning information must alert vulnerable communities to possible flood occurrence and communicate information on areas likely to be inundated and exposed in a language that they easily understand. Government action needs to shift towards impact-based forecasting, mapping hydrometeorological impacts along with COVID-19 hotspots for better risk management. Province #2 for instance is a COVID-19 hotspot and also prone to floods.
The Government of Nepal must now continue with its flood preparedness efforts and adopt a multi-hazard approach while ensuring COVID-19 containment. Past experiences have shown that shortcomings in effective disaster risk communication hinder early response on the ground. Proper risk communication protocols need to be developed to avoid misinformation and provide clear instructions for protective action. Youth networks, grassroots and media mobilization can help disseminate reliable and timely information to vulnerable communities regarding the dual threat. Strategies need to consider pandemic-related mobility restrictions and social distancing requirements for safe evacuations and sheltering during floods. Community-led awareness and preparation, infrastructure provisions, and response mechanisms need to be prioritized along with effective monitoring and management of evacuation shelters. Access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities are a challenge during flood disasters, and even more now given the additional challenge of this pandemic.
Shrestha is program coordinator and water resources specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)
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