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The safety of millions of people in the earthquake affected districts is of concern in view of the approaching monsoon and loosened mountain slopes with widespread cracks on the ground. Many settlements are said to be extremely vulnerable and may not stand a chance when the monsoon rains arrive –they may just get washed down by landslides. Therefore, while relief, recovery and construction of makeshift shelters are on, the government has also started sending technical teams to assess the situation in the ground. The Ministry of Home has formed a technical team of geologists and other experts to conduct a preliminary ground assessment and recommend possible measures so that the government can take necessary steps possibly in the following key areas.

  • Identifying extremely vulnerable areas from where people must be relocated to safe places before the monsoon begins.
  • Identifying some ‘quick and dirty’ measures, if any, to reduce vulnerability in areas where hazards can be reduced to ensure safety of the people.
  • Identifying possible measures to ensure smooth functioning of the infrastructures including the roads, the highways and the power plants.

Similarly, the Ministry of Environment has formed another committee with support from the WWF to study in detail its one point agenda – the damages caused by the earthquake to the environment.

Ministry of agriculture has already assessed the damage caused by the earthquake to the agriculture sector and has developed plans to distribute seeds and fertilizer for summer crop. It is believed that the farmers have lost their paddy seeds when the houses collapsed.

Though, it has not come out in the news yet, it can be assumed that other technical departments have also assessed or are in the process of assessing the damages to their area of interest.

The point that needs to be emphasized is, though these initiatives are important as they bring valuable information, it is unclear how and who will pull them together to develop an understanding of the overall impact of the earthquake and formulate plan of actions that needs to be done in a coordinated manner. This brings us to the issue of the structural shortcoming that we have unwittingly become victim to.

The weakness of the sectoral ministerial system is that there are no agencies to address cross cutting issues. The ministries are not interested in areas outside their official area of concern. The core area of ministry’s interest is even reflected in naming the ministry. The classic case in hand is the changing of the name of the Ministry of Environment several times, from Ministry of Population and Environment (MoPE),  to Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology (MoEST), to the current name of Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MoSTE). It only shows the intention of reinforcing the boundary of its scope.

In principle, the role of the planning commission is to coordinate the development activities among the ministries and monitor their progress. Since, it strictly goes by the ministry, the commission has no role either to influence in the area not represented by ministry. This is one of the reasons that the government creates a new ministry if it is deemed necessary to emphasize particular area. Ministry of Poverty is another classic example created three years ago to lay emphasis on poverty alleviation, while the issue should have been (and in an informal way it probably is) at  the focus of all ministries.

Now, coming back to the impacts of earthquake, I believe that the most critical of all the impacts will be that on water sources, which will then impact the other areas of concerns.  Because, when the picture of local water regime changes; when the local water cycle changes; when the availability of water at local sources changes;  it will have tremendous and lasting impacts on the environment, agriculture, economy, health and sanitation, energy, and the overall living condition at local level. But there is no way we will have sufficient information about impacts on water sources, simply because there is no responsible ministry to emphasize the study of earthquake impact on water sector. The Ministry of Water Resources has now been split into Ministry of Irrigation and Ministry of Energy. The role of Water and Energy Commission seems important, but not sure what it is doing. At present, it looks like ‘water’ is not a priority.

With support from Irene Upadhya

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