International response to Nepal earthquake

Madhuraman Acharya

Initial international response to April 25 Nepal earthquake was overwhelming. Many friendly governments dispatched disaster response teams. The Indian Government dispatched its Air Force with rescue teams within minutes of the mighty tremor that rocked the Nepal Himalayas. India also sent 1,000 strong National Disaster Response Force, 13 military transport planes and six Mi-17 helicopters, three army field hospitals together with tons relief and rescue supplies including blankets, food and medicine. China also sent search and rescue teams and offered helicopters. The United States provided a Disaster Response Preparedness Team consisting of US marines, aircraft and helicopters and logistical support. The United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, Malaysia and many foreign governments also dispatched relief and rescue teams to Nepal. As many as 4,000 rescue workers from three dozen countries were flown into Nepal after the disaster.

The massive flow of relief and rescue teams and materials posed a serious coordination challenge to Nepal’s disaster response mechanism. The Nepal Emergency Operation Centre struggled to coordinate various aid workers and flights coming to Nepal with relief and rescue supplies. The airport was clogged with cargo and people parachuting from all over.  In some instances, foreign military personnel and aid arrived even before clearance from the government. In future, Nepal needs to establish a pre-designed procedure for receiving humanitarian aid workers, military personnel and materials during disasters.

Many governments also pledged to provide economic aid to support the humanitarian crisis in Nepal. The United States pledged a relief aid of $ 10 million and the United Kingdom announced $ 6.7 million. China promised $ 3.3 million and Australia announced $ 3.9 million. EU is providing $ 3 million. Bhutan’s prime minister came to Nepal with cash aid. Multilaterally,  the Asian Development Bank pledged $200 million rehabilitation aid. The UN pledged an initial $ 15 million in emergency relief. But very little of this money is going to the Government’s relief fund.

Though the initial international response to the Nepal earthquake was overwhelming, yet the donor pledge to funding the massive recovery needs is inadequate and not transparent enough to work through the government. Nepal’s donors must strengthen the Government’s mechanism for relief, recovery and reconstruction, not insist on going on their own.

But Nepal’s donors and foreign governments were reluctant to providing  emergency humanitarian aid through the United Nations. In response to an appeal launched by the United Nations a week after the disaster, donors pledged a paltry $ 22 million, which is miniscule given the nature of damage and need for the scale of devastation that has occurred in Nepal. The UN had launched an appeal to raise $ 415 million for emergency response during the first three months of the disasters. That does not even cover Nepal’s needs for reconstruction and rebuilding post-earthquake. Nepal’s government has yet to bring out a detailed damage assessment and reconstruction needs, though an initial estimate suggests the loss to be around $ 10 billion. That is nearly half of the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product of $ 19 billion. That does not even include a damage to the invaluable cultural heritage that the earthquake has wrecked. It is certain that the quake has put a heavy economic toll to an already weak Nepalese economy, including on the country’s tourism, investment and domestic production. This might even push by a few years Nepal’s pledge to graduate from the least developed country status by 2022.

The reluctance to pledge required humanitarian aid has also to do with the donor’s suspicion of Nepal’s capacity to manage huge recovery and reconstruction needs in such calamities and with their desire to doing on their own. Though the competence of national governments in times like these can be crippled, the donors and INGOs should rather stick to the established procedure channeling their aid through the government. In accordance with the Hyogo Framework for Action adopted in 2005, the aid agencies and INGOs have an obligation to work with the national and local level disaster management committees to ensure better coordination and to avoid duplication in relief and recovery phase of the disaster. The Hyogo Framework seeks to bring all partners in disaster management, including the donors, national governments, aid agencies, INGOs, disaster experts and others into a common system of coordination for disaster risk reduction and by that count for disaster response. This has been reiterated in the Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) adopted recently in the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan, from 14 to 18 March 2015. In absence of core international treaty on disaster response such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions application in the case international humanitarian law, the INGOs and aid agencies are supposed to follow a loose Code of Conduct and non-binding resolutions in disaster relief and recovery response, which requires that they coordinate with the national and local agencies. The national governments are also supposed to facilitate the smooth flow of humanitarian aid during post-disaster emergencies.

Nepal’s earthquake was one of the world’s most predicted yet least prepared disasters. The same aid agencies which were predicting a Kathmandu Valley earthquake of even bigger magnitude and scale for years, struggled to pick up threads of assistance when the May 25 tremor hit the country. They themselves and their own staff were affected. Many kept guessing s to what the Government would do next, instead of activating whatever response mechanism they had in place. None could reach out to the affected remote areas for days after the disaster, also because none had helicopters available and the road network was also affected.

Though the scale of devastation is below the predictions, the death toll of over 8,000, thousands of injured and 8 million people affected is a huge disaster for Nepal to handle on its own. As a least developed country emerging out of a domestic conflict, it is beyond Nepal’s capacity to manage. By definition, disasters demands international response. An event is called a disaster when it is beyond the coping capacity of the local communities and the nation. In that sense, international support in the devastation of that scale was a must, as Nepal did not have the kind of preparedness and capacity to reach out to the millions of people affected by the earthquake. But some of the international role was of patronizing nature. In some cases, relief agencies were taking the earthquake as an opportunity to gain foothold in Nepal. A few foreign missionaries and charities were reported to be seeking religious conversions during their relief missions taking advantage of the weak rescue and relief effort the Nepalese themselves had put in place. The role of foreign media in highlighting the plight of the people affected by the disaster was commendable, though a few Indian media were criticized for “insensitive reporting”, which prompted Nepali social media to ask them going home instead. They were even blamed for undoing what the Indian government was doing in Nepal after the big quake.

Foreign military personnel and their equipment was crucial in meeting the immediate rescue needs after the earthquake. But in some instances, the role of foreign military presence was beyond the comprehension of many Nepalis. For instance, the Indian military role was criticized to be that of highhandedness, including for alleged the control of Nepal’s only international the airport and rejection of aircrafts of other countries from entering Nepal and conducting rescue and relief without coordinating with the local disaster relief committees. Little has been done to dispel these myths, except for a muted Indian Embassy press denial on these allegations. Two weeks after the disaster, the United States is also intending to bringing several additional military officials, with “no other intentions”, as the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Mr. Peter Bodde, was quoted as justifying in an interview in the local media. He also clarified that the US military role in Nepal’s disaster response was in accordance with a bilateral agreement between the US and the Nepalese governments, the text of which is not yet disclosed. There are already reports of the Chinese concerns of the activities of the Indian and US military officials in the bordering Himalayan areas of Nepal which are the most affected ones by the tectonic shift.

Despite good intentions, such issues can have psychological impact in the Nepalese mindset already wrecked by the disaster. Nepal is located in a strategic zone in which neighbouring countries and big powers are seeking strategic space of their own. The last thing Nepal wants after the disaster is to manage the foreign military presence and to be dealing with the strategic completion in Nepal among major powers.

Nepal needs a better system of requesting and managing the foreign military assistance in humanitarian emergencies, perhaps signing a MoU with neighbouring countries and activating a regional disaster response mechanism to this effect. 

Perhaps, Nepal needs to sign bilateral MoUs with friendly governments, including the neighbouring countries India and China, on the modality of military cooperation in the event of such disasters. That must include a provision that foreign military personnel should enter the Nepalese territory only upon Nepal’s request and that such presence can be limited to a short period and that they should leave as soon as the task is completed or earlier when Nepal asks them to do so.

Despite having signed a regional agreement in 2011, it is a pity that the SAARC disaster response mechanism could not be activated in the case of Nepal’s earthquake, as the agreement is yet to be ratified by one member state. Regional mechanisms could play important role in response to disasters of this scale and magnitude. The SAARC mechanism provides that such regional assistance would come upon the request of the affected country’s government. It would have been lot more easier for Nepal to have SAARC mechanism activated, including for the foreign military presence on the ground for disaster response as collective regional response rather than having to handle sensitive big power military presence without a framework bilateral agreement to this effect.


(Acharya is a former foreign secretary of the Nepal government and former Permanent Representative to the United Nations based in New York)

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