In this blog entry we seek answers to the question about what a WASH project such as RWSSP-WN can do with regards to disasters: before, during, immediately after, and thereafter. We do have a lot of what it takes, but how and where can we best contribute? This blog text reflects the opinions of the authors, yet, it frames the topic for our next Annual Work Plan that will propose contributions for reconstruction.
In April 25, 2015, Nepal was shaken by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake with the epicentre in a village of Barpak in Gorkha district. This is our neighbouring district. It was followed by the magnitude 6.7 soon after, and in May 12, 2015, with another magnitude 7.4. In between these dates, there were hundreds of smaller aftershocks that added to the damage resulting in more landslides, landslips and avalanches. The earthquake appeared strongest in areas east of the epicentre, but even then, half of the RWSSP-WN present working districts were affected. ICIMOD provides imagery of landslides that are among the hazards that occur after an earthquake. See also UN OCHA and the Government of Nepal for updates.
The conditions that allow people to live with good health, dignity, comfort and security.
The above are all our working themes but we are not set up as a rapid response or emergency response unit. RWSSP-WN is a bilateral water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) development project. We aim at sustainable, long-term solutions. We are also embedded into the local governments who run our district programmes and are the employers of the field based staff. We cannot and we should not by-pass this setup. Our most significant contribution will be in the reconstruction phase. Yet, there is a lot we are doing already now.
Disasters are nothing new to rural Nepal where landslides and floods are annually occurring local disasters. Land use changes and erosion contribute to that even without extreme weather events. These can be localized events, practically invisible for the outside world. Nevertheless, they do cause equal misery and loss for those affected. Sanitation, hygiene and safe water supply are always critical and something truly urgent in any disaster. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies note how without sanitation there is a risk of a secondary disaster, in which the people who have survived the earthquake could succumb to preventable disease. It is also a security issue for women and children living in temporary shelters.
Substance wise, we do have what it takes, we can contribute in many ways:
1. Post-disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) is a Nepal government-led exercise, with integrated support from the United Nations, the European Commission, the World Bank and other national and international actors. A PDNA compiles information on the physical impacts of a disaster, the economic value of the damages and losses, the human impacts as experienced by the affected population, and the resulting early and long-term recovery needs and priorities. At the time of writing this blog, RWSSP-WN II has contributed a team of three Nepalese professionals with a vehicle & driver to support the PDNA. Our experience in preparing baselines, VDC-wide WASH plans, and mainstreaming of cross-cutting issues such as Gender and Social Inclusion principles in our work, have resulted in a team that can immediately answer many of the questions that are typically presented for WASH related check lists, such as SPHERE Water supply and sanitation initial needs assessment checklist in the Minimum standards in water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion (Appendix 8). The field presence means that this kind of information can be collected very quickly from the working VDCs and the adjoining areas. At any given time, any of the field based staff can answer 80% of the questions without any further need for orientation and mobilization. Most of the field-based staff being local, they are familiar with geographical and socio-cultural issues.
2. Sanitation and hygiene save lives. This is particularly relevant after disasters. Most of our working districts that were affected by the earthquake, have declared themselves as Open Defecation Free districts. Now many toilets have been lost together with the houses. For us, this is the testing time for how deep the sanitation behaviour change is: is it deep enough that the people who lost their houses feel sorry also for losing their latrines, and are equally eager to reconstruct these? The national drive and the spirit of the Nepal National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan is that there should be no subsidy for household toilet construction. Only the poorest of the poor should receive support, but even then their own contribution should be there. We must not undermine that, and our WASH partners in the districts should not do it either. Yet, what is the policy when somebody has already invested in the latrine that is now demolished, together with the house? Would they qualify for support (from the DDC/VDC/ Government) for both the house AND the toilet? In this, we need to follow the national policy, but if it is not given for sanitation from the central level, we think it should be given by the District WASH Coordination Committee in each district. Our approach to sanitation is also about environmental sanitation, which includes for example solid waste management, and is closely linked to Water Safety Plans.
3. Safe water supply is always critical: as reported by the field based staff in most of our working VDCs, there was less damage to water supply systems. Yet, there is a lot that we do not know: a lot of the attention is in the loss of houses and the urgent need to get shelter. Given that the toilets are damaged, there is an increased risk of feacal contamination. The urgent item is to protect the existing water sources, which is a part and parcel of our regular work and also an essential part in Water Safety Plans. Water quality testing and household water treatment are included in our regular training topics, and field based staff have the capacity to test for presence/absence of coliform bacteria. We can distribute water purification equipment and hygiene kits for immediate relief. Yet, there is obviously a difference in between solutions that respond to the immediate needs, and in solutions that aim to long term sustainable systems and services. The approach and technologies are different, and there are certain non-negotiable principles that we should follow, issues that call for time, participation and contributions from the communities themselves. Immediately after the disaster these are not entirely possible.
4. Resilience and capacity development: We work for community and local government level capacity development. Learning-by-doing backed up with a range of awareness raising and targeted training events are a factor in building resilience in the communities. These skills are useful for recovering and reconstructing after disasters. Our approach to Water Safety Plans and VDC (local government) wide planning pay attention to reducing disaster risks and vulnerabilities, usually in terms of landslides, water scarcity and other watershed related issues.
5. Availability of human resources: Each district (local government) WASH Unit has recruited professional field-based water, sanitation, health and technical experts. These VDC-based staff are an obvious asset during the early phases of the emergency but they must be trained and prepared for this. They would be available to respond to the immediate needs in other than their assigned working VDCs, and in our opinion they should be even available to assist the neighbouring districts if needed. This staff, their contacts and qualities, should be something to be included into the district disaster preparedness plans. However, we need to train and equip them in this; we need to include such training as “Emergency WASH” with basic search-and-rescue and related safety issues to their training agenda. At this time we should make it clear who are the individuals who can do this, both physically and mentally. Search-and-rescue during the crisis needs certain kind of mental qualities and stamina that we all may not have. Whoever is mobilized, must be sufficiently equipped to do so. These people should not become victims themselves, or burden for others providing any disaster response services. Obviously, the first concern for everyone is to ensure their own extended family is safe, only then they can help others.
RWSSP-WN’s role will be very important in recovery and reconstruction. Reconstruction, or rather, building back, indicates that families and communities must drive their own recovery, and that local governments must be empowered to manage recovery efforts. This can start once the relief operations – including the immediate life-saving and rescue activities – and the post-disaster needs assessment have been completed. As discussed above, as a district-based WASH project and with existing staff and funds we do have what it needs to support in recovery. Recovery must promote equity and aim at future risk reduction. We all have to stay responsible for the quality of recovery efforts and create partnerships – we are not working on this alone. At the same time, we need to stay accountable for the results and maintain transparency. If our present working areas are not in an immediate need, but the neighbouring VDCs are, each District Management Committee should be flexible in their mobilization.
Concluding issues to consider:
We do realize that reconstruction does not start from the scratch. We are not building new water supply schemes or registering new Water Users and Sanitation Committees (WUSCs), but instead working with the existing WUSCs to support them repair or rehabilitate their existing or rather, previous schemes. This is particularly relevant if we are to support the neighbouring districts that did have more damage (Gorkha and Lamjung). There are also a lot of global learnings and also learnings specifically for Nepal that we will need to take into account when moving ahead.