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‘Challenges of Nepal earthquake response were extraordinary’

‘Challenges of Nepal earthquake response were extraordinary’

2016-05-01, RSS

The WFP was able to provide food and cash assistance to 2.1 million people affected by the earthquake across 12 districts in a three-phased response. Around 20,000 metric tons of food support was distributed. We provided support with specialised nutritious food to more than 11,000 children aged under 2, and also assistance to pregnant women and nursing mothers.

The challenges of getting assistance to earthquake survivors in remote rural areas were extraordinary. We used helicopters, trucks and tractors to bring 10,300 truckloads (38,375 metric tons) of relief items to 14 districts between May 2015 and February 2016, on behalf of 164 humanitarian organisations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) transported more than 2,700 metric tons of essential cargo to more than 180 mountain locations, flying 4,850 trips between May and December 2015.

Reaching people in the most remote communities with crucial assistance involved the Remote Access Operation. Around 25,000 local porters and workers were employed to bring food assistance to the most remote areas in the USD 1.4 million operation, providing employment to a sector badly affected by the slump in tourism.  Through the WFP’s Remote Access Operation, 495 kilometres of trails have been rehabilitated, opening up access to more than 120,000 people living in remote mountainous terrain.

Many have criticised efforts toward rehabilitation of displaced people as snail-paced. Is there any role that the WFP could play to this effect?

Recovering from a disaster of this scale is not simple and all those involved in the response, including the UN, NGOs and the government, have been working in extraordinarily challenging circumstances to deliver assistance to earthquake survivors. The logistical challenges of Nepal’s terrain are just a factor that made the emergency response incredibly difficult.

The WFP assisted in expediting the pace of emergency response in two key areas. First, through emergency preparedness: a month before the earthquake, the WFP had established a Humanitarian Staging Area (HSA) next to the Kathmandu airport, which became the hub for emergency aid in the early response. It is estimated that this facility enabled survivors to receive emergency services, weeks faster than they would otherwise have been possible. The WFP plans to continue developing the HSA facility in Nepal together with other emergency preparedness measures. The WFP cannot afford not to invest in emergency preparedness. Disasters can strike Nepal any time, and we need to be ready.

Secondly, as a lead agency of the Logistics Cluster during the emergency, the WFP coordinated the transportation of relief materials for more than 160 organisations, from entry into the country to delivery by foot or mule to the remotest areas. The WFP is focusing on ‘building back better’ with its cash- and food-for-asset projects that have supported activities like debris clearing, rehabilitating irrigation systems, and fixing or building trails and roads in remote parts of the country.

One year after the quake, are you satisfied with the overall progress in the reconstruction and recovery front?

The WFP mandate is related to food security, so this is the area that we monitor for progress. We have seen an overall improvement in the food security situation of people living in quake-affected areas, compared to a year ago. This is in part due to the humanitarian assistance received and also due to people’s ability to access markets as trails and roads were rehabilitated. Pockets of food insecurity, however, do remain. The WFP will be focusing on the most vulnerable communities in its next programmes.

The WFP was dragged into controversy due to its supply of some substandard relief goods, including rice and lentils to the quake survivors. As its head, what lesson did you learn from this episode?  

First of all, let me reiterate that the WFP takes food safety extremely seriously, and that all the food that was distributed by the WFP to people in Nepal was safe for consumption. Food is a perishable good, unlike tarps or corrugated iron, and it can happen especially in the aftermath of a major disaster that the stocks can go damaged. We, however, have routine quality control tests in place all along the transportation and delivery process. If any spoiled food is identified, it is set aside and destroyed, according to national health regulations. The stocks are replaced with tested quality food. The actual amount that was found unsafe and was destroyed accounted for just 0.08 per cent of the overall amount distributed.

Having said that, we always strive to do better. We have made some changes to further strengthen our quality control system; for example: introducing a roving officer to make spot checks on our operations. We have also had discussions with suppliers to remind them of their contractual obligations to adhere to our high international quality standards. And we have strengthened our reporting mechanisms to ensure that key partners receive updates about the quality control process in a timely manner.

Another action we took was to set up a toll-free phone number – the “Namaste” hotline – where people could contact us to give feedback or ask questions. We wanted to hear firsthand if people had concerns about the quality or quantity of food they were receiving. We are now planning to expand this hotline to also serve other parts of the WFP’s programmes in Nepal.

Finally, the experience showed us that we needed to do a better job of providing information to media professionals about how we operate – and we have tried our utmost in the past year to do that. We are a voluntarily funded organisation and we want and need to be transparent about our work.

Is there any difference regarding mobilisation humanitarian aid in Nepal and other countries?

I have served as a humanitarian aid worker for many years in Africa and Asia, and what I have learned is that every emergency response is unique and has its own specific sets of challenges. In Nepal, without a doubt, the geographical terrain posed extreme logistical challenges – a land-locked country with the world’s highest peaks, and people in need of assistance scattered across remote mountain areas. It was clear that we would need a robust logistics operation in order to deliver, with trucks, helicopters, mules and porters. The result was being able to deliver food and cash assistance to some 2.1 million people.

 Do you have anything to say to the Government of Nepal and the international community for the quake-affected people?

The first thing to say on this sad anniversary is to again express our deepest sympathy for the lives lost and to commend the survivors – who were also the rescuers, salvagers and heroes of the tragedy. The WFP is proud of the role we have played in support of these people and the Government of Nepal over the past year and we will continue the course as the emergency response starts to shift to recovery and rebuilding.

Sadly, we have seen a spate of earthquakes across the globe in these past weeks, reminding us that disaster can strike at any time and that we have to be prepared.

Emergency preparedness is the key for a timely and efficient emergency response, and it is an area where investment can save time, money and ultimately, lives. This is already a pillar of the WFP’s work globally, and we will continue working in this area in Nepal with our partners.

Nepal earthquake

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