Advancing Disaster Risk Reduction

Advancing Disaster Risk Reduction

Nepal’s multilateral approach after a pair of megaquakes

Gen. Purna Chandra Thapa/Nepalese Army Photos by AFP/Getty Images

In today’s world, with the rapid technological innovation and climate changes, critical infrastructures and social structures are more threatened by natural and man-made disasters. Disasters have always been part and parcel of human existence. The world is witnessing more natural disasters than ever in terms of the frequency and intensity. The population of the Indo-Pacific region is five times more prone to being affected by a natural disaster than people in other regions. The Indo-Pacific, home to more than 61 percent of the world’s population, has accounted for 57 percent of deaths globally from natural disasters since 1970. 

However, not a single entity, sector or force by itself possesses the capacity to address such massive challenges that can impact human life and impose severe suffering. Collaboration and cooperation among various stakeholders structured across a multilateral approach is a leading option to minimize risk in complex disaster events.

Nepal’s Risk

Nepal is the world’s 20th-most disaster-prone country, and when it comes to seismic vulnerability, it ranks as the 11th most at-risk country in the world. In the past few years, Nepal faced at least three types of disasters: the massive Gorkha earthquakes of 2015, floods in the Southern plains of 2017 and the U.S.-Bangla Airlines crash of 2018. In the aftermath of the 7.8 magnitude and 7.5 magnitude temblors that struck the Gorkha region in April and May 2015, a multilateral approach and engagement with international partners were key factors for restoring normalcy. In the latter two disasters, Nepalese citizens and government forces — in particular, the Nepalese Army — were key responders in overcoming the crises after the floods killed more than 140 people and displaced 460,000, and the crash at the Kathmandu airport killed 51 passengers. 

However, a unilateral approach to resolve megadisasters may not always suffice. Instead, the situation may warrant that a nation opts for a multilateral framework for humanitarian aid and disaster relief as Nepal did after the Gorkha megaquakes that killed nearly 9,000 people, injured more than 20,000 more and destroyed 600,000 homes, displacing more than 650,000 families.

Indian and Nepalese servicemen and villagers unload relief supplies from an Indian Air Force helicopter in the village of Barpak in north central Nepal in April 2015, nine days after the first megaquake struck.

Nepal is party to various multilateral frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) and the earlier Hyogo Framework of Action (2005-2015). The National Risk Reduction Consortium and its five Flagships Programs, although not a multilateral approach, is a platform for disaster risk reduction supported by international stakeholders such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and donor agencies. The newly promulgated Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act as well as the National Disaster Response Framework offered a means for requesting foreign assistance when a country is overwhelmed by a disaster. The framework provided for a Multi-National Military Coordination Center (MNMCC) as a coordination platform within the Nepalese Army where foreign military and civil defense assets (MCDA) can report to render assistance. 

Nepal also is a member country of the Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT), a cooperative effort among 31 nations with Indo-Pacific interests, which aims to enhance multinational military response during a crisis. Using this platform as part of our disaster preparedness, the Nepalese Army organized several exercises in collaboration with United States Indo-Pacific Command. An important feature is the collaboration and coordination with stakeholders that turned out to be useful during the actual disaster. This was amply proven during the megaquakes when the high degree of cooperation among multinational agencies and the immediate establishment of MNMCC were ensured due to effective policies and various seminars held in the past. 

Multilateral Success Story

MNMCC was one of the remarkable platforms that helped integrate multilateral support. Within hours of disaster and the government’s appeal for foreign assistance, the Nepalese Army established the MNMCC. In total, 34 countries acting through 18 military and 16 nonmilitary entities became involved in MNMCC after the 2015 Gorkha earthquakes. Although this was the first time the Nepalese Army had integrated multilateral support, previous experiences from MPAT simulation exercises helped to quickly set up the MNMCC and systematically mobilize and coordinate the MCDA that arrived in Nepal. The Multinational Coordination Center model of Multinational Force Standing Operating Procedure was used as a reference to establish the MNMCC. 

The management of the airport and incoming flights was a herculean task due to the facility’s limited capacity and an influx of large-scale assistance and relief materials from Nepal’s international partners. For adequate management of the airport and smooth flow of relief materials, a separate dedicated airport management team and reception and departure center were established as part of MNMCC at the airport. 

Each team that reported to the center was given a temporary base and linked with MNMCC where they were mobilized based on their capability and specialization, available resources, personnel and situational demand. A Nepali liaison officer was attached to each foreign team, and a liaison officer from each foreign team was represented in the MNMCC for joint planning and sharing of information. The synchronization and interoperability was a major challenge to avoid duplication of effort and enhance effectiveness of relief measures.  

A joint aviation operation center at Tribhuwan International Airport and a medical command center were co-located and linked to MNMCC through an air liaison cell and a medical operation cell, respectively. The civil military coordination and collaboration with larger humanitarian actors and civilian counterparts was another important facet of MNMCC to help streamline multilateral support. The MNMCC collectively shouldered the brunt of the response. Search and rescue, medical support, air transportation, debris clearance and epidemic control were the major areas where multinational actors offered support. The assistance from MCDA was stopped as the demand for rescue and relief became within the reach of Nepal’s own resources. 

Overall, the multilateral framework for the Gorkha earthquakes was a crucial factor in responding to the disaster. Although the Nepalese citizens and the security agencies acted as first responders, unilateral effort was not sufficient to respond to the level of devastation, which required large-scale resources and relief materials. Establishment of the MNMCC was a major aspect in implementing a multilateral approach during the Gorkha earthquake of April 25, 2015.

Future Preparations

Nevertheless, a high degree of preparedness, awareness programming and planning are necessary for possible future disasters.

In every crisis or disaster, it is the people who are the first responders. Therefore, a citizen awareness program should be part of any preparedness program. This also helps build national capacity. During the flood in the Southern plains of Nepal, the people and local authorities responded and mobilized for rescue and relief efforts. After the U.S.-Bangla Airlines crash in March 2018 at Tribhuwan International Airport, the standby force of government agencies responded immediately, minimizing damage. Continuous joint training among the government and security agencies is required to respond in such incidents, and the training should be reinforced to ensure interoperability. Therefore, a preparedness mechanism must be developed to increase the national capacity and decrease reliance on foreign counterparts.

To coordinate with friendly foreign countries and national and international stakeholders, many simulation exercises have been organized. Some examples are the Disaster Response Exercise and Exchange and the MPAT Tempest Express and Table Top Exercises. These engagements helped to test civil-military coordination principles, create synergy, understand modalities and synchronize efforts to support disaster management and emergency response plans. The output can be framed in the form of standing operating procedures or guidelines for coordination and communication.

The Oslo guidelines, which have evolved since 1992, address the use of MCDA after a natural, technological or environmental emergency during times of peace. They provide a framework that can be used to improve the effectiveness of multinational agencies and MCDA in large disaster relief operations. Adherence to these guidelines also eases the process of integrating multilateral support. Furthermore, a broader strategy is needed for involving stakeholders and government agencies to establish a humanitarian military operations coordination center or joint coordination center and to formalize and implement procedures for mobilizing experts, skilled manpower and relief materials. An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats should be conducted. 

The nation must designate infrastructure to store relief materials before or during emergencies. Storage of essential resources can ease pressure in the immediate aftermath of disaster. For the smooth flow of relief materials from multinational agencies, joint training can prepare skilled manpower for communication and control of air and ground traffic. 

The unprecedented scale of disaster and the vulnerability of the region to disaster requires a country like Nepal to be vigilant and prepared for emergencies. Multilateral approaches to resolving such emergencies ensure division of effort, an increase in skilled manpower, increased synergies and provide immediate rescue and relief effort to affected areas. Multilateral approaches optimize resources, prevent duplication, strengthen relationships and promote coordination. Various multinational discussions, exercises and symposia need to be conducted to prepare effective multilateral approaches. 

The multinational response to the Gorkha earthquakes is testimony to the effectiveness of multilateral approaches. There were many lessons learned from that disaster, but the one that stands out is that all stakeholders need to address such challenges multilaterally to be prepared for future emergencies.