When natural calamities strike, death and destruction follows. They leave a negative impact on the economy of a country and the lives of its citizens. But such calamities can also present an opportunity to a nation to rethink its future. Hopefully, Nepal will do that once it enters the post-earthquake reconstruction phase. On April 25, when the mega earthquake struck, everyone knew things would not be the same ever again. The chaos that followed showed where the nation stands when it comes to tackling disasters. Over the years, disaster preparedness in this country has become a big business with bilateral and multilateral agencies spending huge money on redevelopment work.
Here are some steps that the Nepal government needs to take to ensure that the country is back on track very soon:
First, Nepal needs political stability. The government is yet to provide a sense of stability to the people even though the country voted for its second Constituent Assembly in November 2013, hoping for a new constitution by January 2015. Unfortunately, the polarised discourse between the political parties has not brought stability. Further, the frequent changes in bureaucracy and key political appointments have created further problems. The economy and investment environment has been impacted negatively and this natural calamity will only make things more difficult for the country. If the country manages to handle its post disaster management well, it can convey to the international investors that it can perform better than expected.
The earthquake will hit the poor badly. Nepal has always got good support from neighbouring countries and the international community in times of disasters. However, in the past, this support has not reached the poor. This time, the government must manage relief better. For instance, there is already a scarcity of plastic sheets and tarpaulin in the markets. Just ensuring a good supply of these two things can help thousands of people who have lost their homes. Nepali businesses must not be allowed to hoard products and charge exorbitant prices for these basic commodities. Managing efficient supply of essential commodities will be a major challenge.
Second, the natural calamity will hit the country’s tourism industry hard. The rebuilding of heritage sites and centuries-old structures will pose an enormous challenge but the Nepal government must make best efforts to ensure tourists come back to the country in near future.
There will be no dearth of funds for rebuilding these structures, but again this should not be seen an opportunity to make money. This is a chance to highlight that Nepal does take its tourism sector seriously. Similarly, it is also time to rethink the tourism strategy and keep politics out of it. The Nepal Tourism Board is a public-private partnership body but has been without a CEO for the past four years. This is a chance to streamline the tourism machinery and implement fresh ideas. Nepal is dependent on tourism and so has to focus on this sector more than ever now.
Third, every event in Nepal shows that the country is Kathmandu-centric with the capital being synonymous with the country. Disaster response often becomes limited to the capital city as political leaders, influential power brokers and key bureaucrats are all stationed here. Therefore, the disaster management resources are also often cornered by the powerful. This must stop.
If Nepal had strong local bodies, the response to disaster would have been efficient. After the dissolution of the local bodies in 2001, local issues have been run by syndicates of political parties that have been economically beneficial to the parties. Many do not want to push the issue of local elections as it would be a departure from the lucrative syndicate business where local budgets and resources can be deployed through discretion rather than systems.
To bring in efficiency to disaster preparedness and management in the future, it will be important to have elected local bodies as soon as possible. Equitable economic growth will only be possible when economic development and growth moves beyond Kathmandu.
Finally, this is an opportunity for political parties to set aside their difference and focus on restoring normalcy with the help of communities. Every country that faces major natural calamities uses them as an opportunity to rejig their priorities and push the country towards a new phase of economic growth. Positive change is the only hope.
Sujeev Shakya is an economic analyst and chair, Nepal Economic Forum
The views expressed by the author are personal