Nepal earthquake affected women more than men

Disadvantaged groups suffered greater death, injury and livelihood asset losses. Dr Bimala Rai Paudyal, Hon’ble Member Planning Commission of Nepal says it is possible to reduce this vulnerability.
A family beside a damaged house near Naglebhare, Nepal (Source :Asian Development Bank)
A family beside a damaged house near Naglebhare, Nepal (Source :Asian Development Bank)

April 25, 2015 dawned as any other ordinary day in Nepal. Until 11.56. Then, a massive earthquake of magnitude 7.9 rattled the country and shook its very foundation. The tremors travelled outwards from the epicentre at Barpak Gorkha district moving the earth, distorting buildings, causing convulsions on the ground and creating panic and mayhem all around. This ‘Gorkha Earthquake’ left a fatal trail. 

Four months into this devastating loss, help and aid has poured in but have we learned anything from it? In hindsight, is there anything that could have been handled better?

India Water Portal spoke to Dr Bimala Rai Paudyal, Hon’ble Member, Planning Commission of Nepal, on this tragedy. In a candid interview, she provides an insight into this catastrophic earthquake, the challenges faced and how we can learn from it.

Effects of the Nepal Earthquake (ICIMOD)

  • Total damage & loss to livelihoods of USD 284 million
  • Pushed an additional 700,000 people below poverty line
  • Over 5 million workers affected
  • About 135,200 tonnes of foodstuff, 16,399 large livestock, 36,819 small livestock, & 460,762 poultry animals lost
  • More than 3.5 million people are food insecure, and some 180,000 people engaged in tourism are extremely vulnerable
  • Agriculture sector suffered total damage and loss of USD 255 million

What were the losses in terms of lives, property in Nepal?

The destruction has been widespread with the death toll touching nearly 9000, with another 23,300 injured and more than half a million homes destroyed or damaged. Besides this there has been a considerable loss of infrastructure, productive sectors and means of livelihoods for many. 

What do you feel are the long term effects of this disaster?

The impacts of this tragedy will be felt for a long, long time. There have been the obvious human, social and economical losses, which are visible immediately. A damage, loss and needs assesment has been done across 23 sectors under 4 broad sectors--social, productive, infrastructure and cross cutting. It has been found out that the country's loss and damage is equivalent to USD 7 billion and our nations’ plan to graduate the country from LDCs (Least Developed Countries) to Developing Countries till 2022 may slow down.

Could the damages and losses have been reduced? 

Undoubtedly! We as an earthquake prone country, should have been better prepared for this eventuality. For example, we have building codes in the country that include recommendations for earthquake proofing of buildings. Sadly, these remain on paper and their enforcement remains a challenge for the government. In rural and unplanned urban expansion areas, this non compliance is more rampant. We should have been prepared at local levels with local organizations for rapid rescue, relief and rehabilitation. The response from a central level takes time to reach the remote villages especially in difficult geographical terrains. We had to prepare local people and community level organizations with necessary skills and equipment to respond quickly.

Why should the earthquake in Nepal worry India?

India and Nepal share a long border and a longer history. We meet at many fronts--cultural, religious, historical and geographical. The earthquake that shook our nation could have happened anywhere in this seismic- prone Himalayan ranges, where both the region and the particular fault have a history of damaging earthquakes. India has seen the devastating effect of this earthquake in its neighbour, and can both learn and ready itself in case of such a calamity in the future.

What would be impact of a similar magnitude earthquake in the Gangetic plains or in Delhi?

With a greater density of population and urbanisation, the effect will be more devastating. In the mountains, there may be larger landslides probably and also greater risk of floods in the plains as the vulnerablity and susceptibility of these densely populated regions will be much higher.

What in your opinion were the 3 things that hampered quick response and preliminary safety measures for the affected people?

Of course, it is easy to put things in perspective in hindsight, but the more important issues that I felt impeded immediate response were:

  1. No institutional mechanism was in place for a quick response at the local levels. We were not truly prepared and though we rallied quickly and had our first meeting of the Central Disaster Relief Committee within 2 hours, a laid down preparedness plan with a clear mandate and material/technical aid at the local level would have helped.   
  2. Lack of policy clarity and clarification of roles and responsibilities: Better coordination amongst the various actors and clearer guidance to district government line agencies and to non government actors could have streamlined the whole operation too.
  3. Media orientation: There was no clarity on their role. It was felt that their sensitivity was somewhere lost. Rather than focusing only on the negative damage taking place, they should have acted responsibly and played a greater role in creating awareness, informing people on rescue relief operations taking place, how to access the available relief, shared information on help camps and added to the people’s confidence.

Do you feel it is easier to provide relief in a routine manner, rather than plan a long term strategy for disaster mitigation?

When something of this large a scale occurs, there is an immediate outpour of concern in terms of food, medicines or monetary aid. Many individuals and organisations even volunteer their time and energy, helping the cause greatly. Unfortunately, as time passes or something bigger comes up, this help trickles down but the huge task of rehabilitation and recovery still remains. This increases the challenge even more.

Women and men experience disasters differently. Here too, poor women and disadvantaged groups suffered more in terms of death, injury and livelihood asset losses.

Did this earthquake affect women and girls more?

There is always a disproportionate impact of disasters on women and girls. Here too, nearly 55% of the deaths were those of women and girls. One reason was that women delayed escape, in an attempt to get their young children or families to safety. Mothers were found under the rubbles, clutching their babies. Another important factor is that the damage was more in rural villages than in cities, and poor and marginalized households were hit harder. Also, as there is migration of males to cities and abroad, this in turn means that there are more women in villages.

How does a disaster affect women differently?

A disaster, which is traumatic for everyone, can throw up gender issues with women and young girls facing the brunt on many fronts. Socially it may be loss of open spaces and privacy, broken health and birthing centres, increased school dropout rate, high risk of early marriage, and greater exposure to sexual harassment and even trafficking. As 70% of agriculture labor force are women, without documents they face challenges to get access to subsidy, relief package and loans. Women also face specific constraints of access to information and space to raise their voice and demand. This results in further vulnerability.

What can be done to make relief in a disaster such as this, gender responsive?

Men and women have specific needs, which become more prominent during disasters. A blanket approach of rescue, relief and rehabilitation will not be sufficient. Practical needs of women and girls that include security, shelter, food, clothes and reproductive health must be looked into. Women need to be seen not only as a group of beneficiaries but as an active agent for relief and rehabilitation and this requires their participation in decision making. Empowering women through skills, employment and as effective participants for reconstruction will all help improve gender equality.

What lessons can we learn from this tragedy?

The most important learning is of ‘being prepared.’ Another invaluable lesson is that all relief programs and practices must be contextual. What may be the solution in the west may not be the answer that we need in Nepal. During any large scale disaster, the infrastructure will be affected. The transport services may be hit and in many a place the roads may become completely inaccessible. Thus what needs to be strengthened are local institutions. We need more Self Help Groups that can understand and communicate better and faster. 

Any other thoughts that you would like share with our readers?

Not only are we are getting back on our feet, but we are also looking ahead positively. We are grateful that this tragedy occurred on a Saturday when the schools were on a holiday, so a lot of young lives were saved. It was daytime when most of the family members in rural areas were already out on farm. With the lessons from this earthquake, we need to be better prepared for more devastating disasters. We also look at this, especially the reconstruction as an opportunity to build better for the future. In our region, we contextualise the concept of 'Build Back Better'. We want to do reconstruction that is resistant to multiple hazards. In addition, we hope to be more inclusive in our policies and reconstruct the infrastructure and livelihoods in a way that meets the specific needs of people with disabilities, women and children, and bring them to the forefront.

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