Drawing lessons from the 2010 Haiti earthquake – Part 2

Earthquake Lessons for Nepal Series – #2.2

The physically affected areas of an earthquake exercise an almost hypnotic effect on relief organizations.  The needs are so glaringly obvious and overwhelming that it seems something of a diversion to look at non-affected areas.  But in the case of a disaster hitting the capital or major city, there are repercussions for the whole country. Central government administrative and other service delivery is inevitably weakened. Below are some recommendations and lessons for Nepal from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.

(This is Part 2 of the article. Click here for Part 1)

Displacement and Decentralization

One of the main lessons from Haiti was that, in the days following the quake, some 600,000 people fled the capital for their hometowns or other areas they considered safe.  These figures (unlike many others) are reliable as they are based on the data from the main cell-phone provider who could track the movement of the phones.  There should therefore be a plan, with the main cell-phone providers in Nepal to provide a similar service. The capital is vastly overpopulated and simply does not have the infrastructure to support the current population.  With infrastructure remaining insufficient in the capital city even before the quake, donors and humanitarians should have targeted host families and communities to give them the support to allow those who left the capital to stay there.  Instead nearly all aid went to areas physically affected by the quake.  This would otherwise have been a major step towards decentralization of which there is much talk but little action.

As in Haiti, it is likely that all international relief efforts will target exclusively the physically affected areas.  Pre-disaster sensitization should have been carried out with relief/humanitarian organizations to actively ensure support to host families and communities to delay return to the capital, which will have limited capacity and infrastructure to receive them.  This could range from basic emergency food aid to more durable solutions such as the provision of health, education and even job creation, thus decreasing pressure on the capital’s failing infrastructure.

Geographical relocation of the displaced is, to a significant degree, determined by the policies of humanitarian relief providers.  For many relief providers, distribution is simplest if the displaced are gathered in large camps, reducing the number of distribution points. The methodology adopted by the humanitarian community is therefore influential in the creation of camps.  This however often tends to lead to dependency on aid along with many other social problems as these camps have a tendency to become semi-permanent.  If large-scale camps are seen as undesirable, what measures/incentives can be implemented to either keep people outside the capital, i.e. in their place of first relocation? In a situation where there are large numbers of IDPs, large-scale secondary and tertiary relocations are sure to take place.  For example, if there are a number of IDP camps set up, a family may disperse its members to receive assistance in more than one location (this was a major factor in the over-counting of IDPs in Haiti), or a family that has fled to the provinces may send back one or more breadwinners to the capital to rejoin the informal economy if there is insufficient incentive to remain in their new location. Such policies should therefore be developed prior to the disaster.

Given the high-rise, high-density housing in most of Kathmandu, it should be borne in mind that the erection of temporary shelters on collapsed property is contingent on the removal of rubble. Also, for the interim period, these sites will only be able to provide shelter of one storey, so not all the residents can be housed on the site of their previous multi-family dwellings.

Registeing and Assessing Internally Displaced Persons

The registration of a dispersed population of around one million people in over 1,000 camps proved to be practically impossible to achieve in Haiti in a reliable and timely fashion, which would have provided data for planning and policy-making.  In a situation of this scale, it would perhaps be more useful to devise some method of sampling, which would provide a predetermined data set without a futile attempt to do comprehensive registration.  If the registration process takes much longer than a month, the data becomes redundant due to secondary and tertiary relocations. At the same time, it would be useful to define the key information required to obtain a profile of the make up of the IDPs as part of the design of incentives and remedies.

Linked to this is the development of a common core set of assessment priorities with a shared/agreed methodology (this probably could be based on existing methodologies such as UNDAC etc).  At the same time, it is crucial to carry out a rapid, commonly accepted, survey of vulnerability to allow prioritization of target groups particularly in case of secondary disasters—monsoon, disease etc.

Supporting Host Communities and Families

Many families flee the site of an earthquake returning to areas where they can count on extended family links though also often just to an area perceived to be safe. Those who leave the site of the quake become almost entirely dependent on host families and communities which often have few spare resources and whose coping mechanisms are rapidly exhausted.  It is in the overall interest of the recovery effort to keep these people in their new locations at least until infrastructure problems at the quake site have been resolved.

Support to these groups requires rapid identification of movement (best done through mobile phone records).  In the case of Nepal, Chief District Offices (CDO) and Local Development Offices (LDO) should be in a position to provide reasonably reliable data, though self-interest will often lead to the provision of inflated figures in an attempt to maximize resource mobilization. Support to host communities and to smaller camps at the quake site, require a humanitarian response with a mobile capacity to allow as many distribution points as possible.

Avoid Organized Mass Relocation

Despite the logistical attractions of large camps (a corollary of which is the temptation to set up large new sites to receive large numbers of vulnerable groups), the Haiti experience suggests that smaller camps, near to the place of origin of the displaced, are often a preferable solution.  In the short term, if communities are broadly kept together, there is a reduced risk of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) other forms of violence. In the medium term, these smaller more cohesive units are more likely to lead to recovery based on a neighborhood-based approach.  It should also be easier to reestablish basic services, including education, if a community/neighborhood approach is adopted.  These services are important for immediate survival but also to speed a return to ‘normality’, notably, for example, the return to regular schooling.

Temporary or Transitional Shelter Provisions

The last year in Haiti has seen a lively, on-going debate on shelter options.  While a uniform policy on the provision of shelter would be optimal, it is notable that even the various national sections of the International Federation of the Red Cross present in Haiti all offer different shelter options.  The general view is that t-shelters (temporary or transitional) are the best option though others point out that ‘permanent’ solutions cost little more than temporary shelters.  It should also be kept in mind that funding will reduce year on year as donor fatigue sets in.  This is already the case in Haiti where the November 2010 UN appeal for funds to combat the cholera outbreak has had great difficulty in fund raising despite high-level UN support for the appeal.

Managing Donor Institutional Imperatives

Donor and NGO expectations need to be managed.  Their institutional imperatives push them to spend the funds raised for a specific disaster in a timely fashion.  This maybe a contributory factor in the transition from emergency response to reconstruction, in that relief efforts offer ways of disbursing funds at a time when the lack of a clear government or international community policies leads to a dearth of opportunities for spending on medium to long-term solutions.  One major agency has been trying to disburse large sums through direct and unconditional cash transfers to avoid accusations of failure to spend funds raised, a move that was widely opposed by the international community and government who preferred such measures to be linked to return to safe housing or registration of children in schools.

Considering Potential Political Impact

Most large-scale disasters have political impacts which are difficult to predict.  In Aceh the Tsunami clearly contributed to the peace-making process whereas it is arguable that the same disaster contributed to a return to conflict in Sri Lanka as both sides sought to use the inflow of massive amounts of international relief aid to their own political advantage.  Given that an earthquake has occurred in the polarized political context of today’s Nepal, any aid effort needs to understand and take into account the political dynamics and should not use the issue of humanitarian neutrality to justify an ignorance of the political and cultural context.

Magnitude and Impact on Relief Planning

One key lesson from the immediate aftermath of the Haitian quake is that its magnitude made planning and policy-making extremely difficult.  The same applies for Nepal as emergency relief targeting proved to be extremely difficult.  Much planning and targeting for a disaster therefore needs to be done prior to its occurrence.  Given the endless variables in a disaster, all parties involved need to know more or less what they are going to do in the days following the quake and adapt the ‘standard operational procedures’, individually or as organizations, in the light to the actual event.

Explaining What “Packages” the Affected Population Can Expect

In a post-disaster period, decision-making of the affected population is in part determined by their anticipation of aid packages or incentives to relocate, either to their places of origin or to a new site. The arrival of numerous NGOs offering aid creates a great deal of expectation, some, but not all, reasonable.  These expectations are exacerbated by the communications vacuum which is almost inevitable in the days following a quake.  This creates a context in which rumors are generated about what assistance or ‘compensation’ will become available.   In the Haitian case, with no basis, many in IDP camps still expect to benefit from land titles.  The anticipation of significant financial packages or the distribution of land titles has been a pull factor to keep people in the IDP camps, even many whose houses were only marginally damaged or required little repair.  One sector which requires special attention is renters.  Often landlords take the opportunity to raise rents after a crisis making them possibly unaffordable to previous tenants.

Land Registration and Legal Context

The Haiti experience showcases the negative effect on reconstruction planning due to poor and incomplete land registration processes and the widespread existence of property disputes.  This additionally slows down and complicates emergency reconstruction planning processes. One of the main impediments to reconstruction in Haiti has been the unfavorable legal context– the land register covers only a small percentage of land ownership and much of it is contested.  The government was slow to carry out compulsory purchase (eminent domain) on land which could be use for new settlements.

It would be useful in Kathmandu to identify available land for potential emergency settlements and to verify its status.  This would be a register of potentially useable land, and would include unused, or land currently used for agriculture. Another recommendation if possible would be to preposition essential infrastructure, such as sanitation, water, electricity, access roads etc. or planning towards how these would be organized post-disaster.

Dealing with Rubble

Although it is obvious that earthquakes produce rubble there are some lessons to be learnt from Haiti.  For example, the sheer scale of the quantity of rubble produced, though predictable, is still overwhelming! Oxfam and OCHA recently reported that in the first 12 months, only 5% was been removed.  The main point is that rubble prevents other activities and it is therefore urgent priority to identify which rubble is the most obstructive and remove it.

Planning should also consider the legal provisions that are needed for rubble clearance teams to work on destroyed buildings, and how permission for demolition or rubble removal will be obtained. Even a flattened building is owned by someone and nearly all rubble has an “owner.”

In Haiti, there were great difficulties in identifying sites for rubble dumping.  Much time was lost in identifying the best technology for rubble crushing, and no preparatory work was done to look at the challenges of recycling rubble such whether it could be used for other purposes such as river control, flood avoidance, road building etc.

Dumping sites need to be identified and a decision has to be made about if and how rubble can serve a useful purpose?  Any decisions on rubble recycling however, depend on a determination of whether or not it is toxic?  The most appropriate technology for the rubble disposal needs to be decided as quickly as possible. The removal plans for rubble have to take into account that the ‘production’ of rubble is an on-going process.  Only a small proportion of buildings damaged beyond repair on 12 January 2010 were ‘destroyed’ and the demolition, largely by hand, of damaged buildings is far from complete one year after the quake.  It is predictable that ongoing demolition will be creating more rubble for years to come.

Cash for Work Policy

How will cash for work be used given the lessons learnt from Haiti?  Large-scale funds have been dedicated to cash and/or food for work.  Certainly in the initial period after the quake the objectives and criteria for these programmes was hard to perceive.  This is clearly a useful instrument but it would be worth carrying out a rigorous evaluation of the various initiatives.  It is obviously a good way of getting some cash into the hard hit economy via some of the poorest in the community.  However, the selection of the participants and the tasks they are set are often unclear.  A year on, it is common to see groups of several dozen ‘cash for workers’ clearing roadside drains or similar.  They are easy to spot in their branded t-shirts but usually it appears that fewer than 10% are actually working at any given time.

In the Nepal case, it would be important to decide in advance who would qualify to take part, what an appropriate remuneration is, how to manage the work teams (they require some management and coordination) and how to avoid the oft-reported phenomenon in Haiti of gangs taking control of cash for work programmes and creaming off significant sums.  In the Nepali case this would probably be the case of political party appropriation rather than gang or other criminal organization.  It would be worth reviewing previous experiences of cash transfers and cash/food for work in Nepal.  I imagine the key example would be the Koshi flooding of a few years back.

It might be worth researching traditional forms of community cooperation and working patterns to see if ‘cash for work’ programmes could be adapted to local custom and practice.  It is certainly necessary to ensure that these programmes are ‘purposeful’ rather than ‘make work’ programmes.  One obvious way to do this is to take a neighborhood approach with groups of residents paid to carry out initial recovery/reconstruction work even if it is as basic as rubble removal or latrine building.

NGO Transparency and Coordination

The Haiti quake provides a useful insight into the problems of coordination of relief. The sheer quantity of NGOs and other organizations who pitched up, many with no contextual knowledge of Haiti, much less experience of work there, made coordination extremely challenging. Many of the NGOs simply do not want to be coordinated.

With many new NGOs establishing operations in a country during a time of crisis, and given the volume of aid being channeled it is also essential to establish transparency.  Anecdotal evidence in Haiti suggests that NGOs can prove to be very reluctant to act with transparency with national and local authorities. In the case of Nepal, it would be worth investigating whether there is any way of predicting which NGOs will be present after a quake.  Related to this is the issue of potentially pre-assigning either thematic tasks or geographical responsibilities in advance.  There should also be a pre-agreed policy on NGO ‘registration’ and what that might consist of.

It is also important to develop incentives for relief organizations to participate in coordination.  would ideally come about by leadership on information management.  However, it has to be realized that many organizations have their own institutional interests and will target groups and areas which feed back into their fundraising base. In the case of Haiti, for example, it has been a clearly more attractive option for organizations to work with obviously vulnerable groups in live-saving work rather than, say, working on essential but ‘boring’ issues such as rubble removal.

Click here for Part 1 of this article.