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The Nepal Earthquake: Could SAARC have been Effective?

Nihar R Nayak is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 02, 2015

    While the international community extended help for the rescue and relief operations immediately after the earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April, SAARC as a regional organization was conspicuous by its absence. Interestingly, Nepal, as the current Chair of the SAARC and its Secretariat which is moreover at present headed by a Nepali national, could have utilized its position to activate the regional organisation and provide it with a leading role in disaster management.

    That this did not happen is all the more surprising because SAARC countries have recognised the challenge posed by recurring natural disasters in the region and the consequent imperative of a joint approach in relief, rescue and rehabilitation. For instance, the 2014 Summit at Kathmandu had reemphasized on “the relevant bodies/mechanisms for effective implementation of SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, SAARC Convention on Cooperation on Environment and Thimpu Statement on Climate Change, including taking into account the existential threats posed by climate change to some SAARC member states.” SAARC leaders also agreed “to establish the SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre,” although they had failed to set up a dedicated SAARC disaster management rapid action force (SDMRAF) – a necessity that was acutely felt during the recent Nepal earthquake.

    The devastating April 2015 earthquake has posed a major challenge not only to Nepal but also raised questions on the preparedness of the countries of the region to meet such challenges in the future. In spite of SAARC having a SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC), which was set up in October 2006 and is functioning at the premises of the National Institute of Disaster Management in New Delhi, the Nepal earthquake brought to the fore the difficulties faced by this organization and its failure to rise to the occasion.

    At present, the activities of the SDMC appear to be more that of a consulting organization whose mandate is to coordinate with National Focal Points (NFP) in the member countries in the normal course. Its charter of responsibilities include information dissemination on natural calamities in the region, organizing workshops and conferences on related issues, sharing of information with other countries, engaging in capacity building programmes such as organizing join training camps for disaster management officials and expert groups of member countries, and, research and data analysis on disasters of the region. The SDMC does not have any operations wing or field activities during crises. When the Nepal earthquake happened, despite having spent large sums of money on research and documentation, the SDMC only circulated a brief composed of information from media sources and details of Nepalese agencies involved in disaster management. It did not have any visible role in coordinating between the NFPs of member countries and others for smooth rescue and rehabilitation operations.

    Even four years after the Thimpu Declaration, SAARC members have failed to set up regional disaster centres because Afghanistan has not ratified the resolution so far. Due to a weak mechanism, SAARC as an organization could not respond immediately to the earthquake in Nepal. All countries responded individually. India sent rescue and relief teams within six hours of the earthquake and was the first country to reach in Nepal with 16 National Disaster Response Force rescue teams and relief materials. Under ‘Operation Maitri’, India sent 520 tonnes of materials by 32 air force flights, 18 medical and 18 army engineering teams. Eight Indian Mi-17 and five ALH helicopters were also used in evacuation and supply of relief materials under the command of the Nepalese Army.

    Other SAARC countries sent their rescue teams and relief materials on April 26. Pakistan sent four Air Force aircraft with rescue and relief assistance, including a 30-bed mobile hospital. Sri Lanka dispatched a contingent of 160 personnel including four civil medical consultants to assist in relief efforts. In addition to sending six medical teams and necessary relief materials to Nepal, Bangladesh also declared its intention to provide 100,000 tonnes of rice and other relief materials including drinking water. Bhutan’s Prime Minister personally led a 63-member medical assistance team to Nepal on April 27 and donated USD one million. The Maldives government donated USD 50,000 to aid recovery efforts on April 28; its police force donated another 1.3 million Nepalese Rupees.

    Unfortunately, some media houses and Kathmandu-based elites suspected India’s intention behind its deployment of NDRF and employment of the Indian military in rescue operations. Had there been a SAARC mechanism to deal with the situation, then the needless controversy over India’s role could have been easily avoided.

    The United Nations has estimated that USD 423 million would be needed for providing relief to some two million survivors for three months. As of May 25, only USD 92.4 million has been raised – 22 per cent of the required funds – by the various organizations. Although the international community has voluntarily promised to donate, the money generated might be inadequate to meet Nepal’s requirements. Therefore, Nepal has planned to hold an international donors conference on June 25 in Kathmandu to raise funds for reconstruction. Had there been a SAARC disaster relief/reconstruction fund, Nepal’s dependence on other countries would have been minimized.

    SAARC’s failure to respond to the Nepal tragedy reflects the absence of a collective response mechanism to mitigate common threats to the region. Consequently, the dominant narrative in South Asia has been that SAARC is a lost cause and cannot rise to the occasion even during a natural disaster. Nepal has good relations with other SAARC members. Instead of blaming India and Pakistan for SAARC’s failure, Nepal could have set an example by providing leadership to charter an effective role for SAARC in disaster management. The relevance of a regional organization becomes evident when it stands with member countries during crises. It is therefore desirable to establish a SAARC disaster management corps for prompt action during natural disasters in the South Asian region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India