Prevention is better

Published On: June 18, 2017 01:00 AM NPT By: Dr Rajib Subba

Dr Rajib Subba

Dr Rajib Subba

The contributor for Republica.

Linking disaster management with the national development framework has always been a big challenge here in Nepal

Disaster management narratives traditionally revolve around emergency management authorities and their responses are based mainly on logistics and human resource management. However, Humanitarian Assistance (HA) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) require 3Cs—cooperation, collaboration and coordination—which is hard to come by when multiple agencies are involved.  Emergency responders can sit for hours designing crisis response plans but, in the absence of real-time information, what actually happens in the field turns out to be different.

Enabling 3Cs among multiple stakeholders, on the other hand, is also challenging. Emergency Response Organizations need to make effective and efficient risk analysis and decide on appropriate actions, which can be greatly enhanced by cross-sectional integration of information. During disasters, information comes from various sources. Most countries use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for collecting, processing and disseminating disaster information. Those who don’t find it difficult to aggregate information, hindering multiple sector collaboration and coordination. Lack of modern technologies, incompatible systems, unstandardized data, insecure system and lack of real-time data can make the situation worse.

Nepal’s case

Nepal has recognized the importance of effective Disaster Management Information System (DMIS), particularly after the devastating earthquakes of 2015. After this tragedy, Nepal established a DRR Portal, owned by the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC), a national umbrella organization, which handles national disasters under aegis of Ministry of Home Affairs. The DRR portal provides information on policy, strategies, agencies, human resources and logistics. 

The operation center is supported by national and international agencies.  SAHANA information system and GeoPortal are supported by UNDP and World Bank and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is currently working on NepalAWARE, an all-hazard warning, analysis, and risk evaluation platform.  NEOC has also linkages with various other information systems including damage report system of Ministry of Finance, Flood Mapping system of Ministry of Population and Environment and seismic data information system developed by Department of Seismology.  

However, there are challenges in the current national disaster information framework. Language barrier at the data entry level is one big issue. Discrepancies in data format at various levels of DMIS also hinder data management. Similarly, lack of understanding on use of DMIS is another pressing issue. Lack of real time data, shortage of human resources and limits of existing HR also hamper information management. Linking disaster management with the national development framework has also been a big challenge in Nepal.

A national DMIS framework needs to focus on three situations. Pre-disaster, Emergency Response Organizations should collect base-line data for assessment of vulnerabilities. Equally important is real-time data on Rehabilitation, Response and Reconstruction post-disaster. In between, they need to work on immediate emergency response including situational awareness, evacuation, damage assessment, etc. 

The common denominator of all the disaster response and prevention activities is information. Information should come on time, be up-to-date and accurate. The type of information required is related to different levels of disaster management planning (from operational to strategic) and situations they face. Emergency response organizations may have conflicting information. DMIS with extensive monitoring and tracking capabilities not only provide effective technology but also help coordinate with other stakeholders. Real-time hazard mapping with full access to all the agencies involved in disaster operations is helpful in this. 

Key components

Assessment of hazards and vulnerability in visually presentable mapping is one component of DMIS. This helps with preparedness and mitigation strategies. Demographic distribution, infrastructure, lifelines and critical facilities, logistics and transport, human and material resources for response, etc, are other components. Nepal’s disaster management lacks many of these components.

In times of crises—natural or human-made—social media sites work as “digital habitats” where users converge to gather information and resources. Netizens had used the microblogging site Twitter for updates during events like the Australian floods (2010-11), the Japanese tsunami (2011), the Chilen earthquakes (2014) and the Nepali earthquakes (2015). Even police organizations are using social media to communicate with the public. Nepal Police, for example, extensively used social media during and after 2015 earthquakes. But such initiatives are few and most government controlled DMIS initiatives don’t include general public.  

Way forward

An immediate intervention is needed to strengthen the NEOC. The current DRR portal can be developed as a one-stop national DMIS database portal with decentralized access to stakeholders. This has to be an interactive internet-based system accessible in all parts of the country. This system will help government and other agencies coordinate use of available resources for DRR activities. The main idea is to save lives, reduce human suffering, make communities safer and reduce losses.

The current SAHANA information system at NEOC could be developed as DMIS backend. It has many features like alert system, logistic management, document management, person finder and disaster victim identification. However, more HR personnel need to be hired and trained in the system as well as at database entry level. SAHANA’s local language capability must be enhanced. Hazard mapping needs to be upgraded.  It may be costly for NEOC to start its own mapping system. It could thus build an alliance with other government agencies working in GIS mapping. 

An innovative approach in the Disaster Management is to work with NGOs and INGOs. Organizing cross-functional interactions like a hackathon involving IT, Communication, Robotics, Health, Food, security sectors would help improve emergency operations. 
The DMIS framework promotes a holistic approach to disaster management and will create a national DRR/DMIS discourse, paving the way for linking DRR with national development.

The author is Deputy Inspector General of Police and works as Director of 
Communication Directorate at Nepal Police Headquarters

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