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Ambassador’s Remarks to Youth on Reducing Disaster Risk

May 30, 2012

As prepared for delivery

Good morning.  I would like to begin by thanking the organizers of this event, in particular, Gaurav Kandel, Pravina Thapa, and the others at the UN Youth & Students Association (UNYSA) who have worked tirelessly to bring this event from an idea to reality. I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the United Nations who have been key partners over the past two years.

I am so pleased to be with you this morning to talk about an issue that is close to my heart – disaster risk reduction.  We all know a massive and destructive earthquake in Nepal is inevitable and today you will learn more about the causes and implications of this disaster.  It is human nature to not want to think about the devastation a catastrophic earthquake will cause.  Who wants to think about the tens of thousands of people who will die, possibly including some in this room today?  Who wants to confront the challenges posed by a million or more homeless people trying to find shelter, food and water?  Who wants to grapple with the public health issues or the management of dead bodies?  Who wants to worry about the complex problems inherent in rebuilding not only a city but a society devastated by a disaster?

It would be easy to say, “an earthquake won’t happen tomorrow” or “why waste time on something that may not take place in the next five years ” or “I’m just one person, what difference can I make?” With so much else happening here, it would be easy to ignore the topic and not prepare.   

But the fact that you are here today tells me that you have a different perspective and I applaud you, as the future leaders of Nepal, for understanding that an earthquake could happen at any moment, and that each day that passes without an earthquake is a gift which should be used to better prepare yourselves and your loved ones. Tackling such a serious and complex topic demonstrates foresight, maturity and, most importantly, leadership, on your part.  Thank you.   

As Youth, You must Lead on DRR

There is a proverb that says, “Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”  I think this is true.  I also truly believe that not just tomorrow, but the future of Nepal, –is in the hands of your generation.  The question is, are you prepared to shape the future of this nation?  The older generation is often slow to change, I think you know that.  So it is up to you to urge your parents and your neighbors to adopt the risk reduction measures that are the focus of today’s discussions. You must also insist that your leaders take this issue seriously and devote as much time and effort to addressing this unrelenting threat to the nation’s future as they do to their political struggles.  In my view, it is you, Nepal’s youth and Nepal’s future, who must take the lead on turning words into action.    

As some of you may know, my time in Nepal is growing short, and this may be one of the last opportunities I have to talk about disaster risk reduction—one of my top priorities since arriving over two years ago.  Working on disaster risk reduction has been rewarding for a number of reasons.  First, I see real progress by the Government, private sector, civil society, and donors to focus more on this issue. These collective actions will save lives and reduce human suffering, and that’s something to feel good about.  Second, it is an issue that affects everyone - and everyone, therefore, can make a difference--from security forces and the civil servants in government, to community leaders and private sector. Everyone has a role to play--young or old, rich or poor, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Working together, I am confident Nepalis can make progress and reverse the risk equation. 

Building on DRR Progress in Nepal

Let me first talk about the impressive progress the Government of Nepal is making to reduce the risk of disasters.  Throughout the institutions of government, disaster risk reduction is becoming an important priority.  For example, the National Planning Commission has started to weave disaster risk management into its development plans. The Ministry of Finance has allocated funds to ministries for life-saving programs like school retrofitting, regional food warehouses, and hospital preparedness. The Ministry of Home Affairs has been the leader in disaster response efforts and has helped to advance the agenda throughout Nepal.  The Home Ministry’s New Emergency Operations Center, opened in December 2010, has been instrumental in coordinating information for recent disasters, and the Ministry is finalizing a Framework for Disaster Response which will delineate roles, responsibilities, and standard operating procedures for responders. The Ministry of Local Development is mandating that Disaster Risk Management features in all local development plans, so change will be felt at the community-level.  And, I can’t forget Nepal’s security forces, with whom we have had an excellent relationship and who are most often the first-responders when outside help is needed.

The private sector is also playing a larger role in disaster risk reduction. Last December, the Banking Association and Nepal-USA Chamber of Commerce, mobilized the leaders in the banking and insurance sectors to think about better business plans to ensure employees are safe. They explored ways that businesses can continue to function in the aftermath of a disaster, so they can contribute to the recovery effort, rather than ending up as victims. Several banks have also been working with my staff to place disaster awareness messages on cash machines—next time you go to an ATM see if the message is there. I suspect we will see the private sector continue to get more and more involved in supporting awareness campaigns and building disaster risk reduction measures into their business models -- both because they care about Nepal and because it just makes good business sense.

Nepalis overseas are also acutely aware of the need for disaster preparedness. I’ve been encouraged by the interest of the Nepali diaspora in the United States which has made Earthquake Preparedness, one of its top priorities.  To help prepare the country for a disaster, the Computer Association of Nepal – USA branch – has committed to establishing an emergency communication system with ham radios across Nepal within the next few years. I am proud of these fellow Americans who are bringing their skills and talents back to Nepal to help prepare for disasters.

USG Support for DRR

Nepalis must lead the work on disaster risk reduction if it is to be successful but, the United States is proud to be a partner in their efforts, encouraging and contributing to the efforts underway.  My colleagues and I, working for the U.S. Government in diplomacy, development and defense will continue to work with Nepal to help lessen the impact when disaster strikes. For our part, over the last two years Disaster Risk Reduction has become a focus for the US Embassy. We even created a new office dedicated to disaster preparedness that works with others focused on this issue. The UN Youth & Student Association is one such organization and that is why I’m here today—to encourage you, the youth leaders, to take up this cause and ensure the brightest future for this country.  Here are just a few examples of the work we’ve been doing on disaster risk reduction:

  • To plan for the inevitable disaster, we’ve collaborated with the Government of Nepal security forces, UN Cluster system, and the Nepal Red Cross to develop joint earthquake response plans. By synchronizing civilian plans with those of the military, everyone will be able to do their job as part of a coordinated response. Most importantly, we have worked together to exercise those plans, so when disaster strikes, everyone will have an understanding of how the response will unfold.  
  • We have also worked with the Government to identify key infrastructure that will be instrumental for a humanitarian response. Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), for example, is likely to be the life-line for the country, particularly if landslides block the roads leading in/out of the Valley. Working with the Civil Aviation Authority and with TIA management, we have completed studies to estimate the possible damage to the airport and runway in the event of an earthquake, and developed solutions to get the airport up and running as quickly as possible. In addition, we also recently signed an agreement with the Teaching Hospital to establish a blood bank to help secure the blood supply. And we’re working with the Ministry of Home Affairs and UNDP to see if we can help establish Regional Emergency Operations Centers. 
  • Since 1998, the US Government has been training First Responders. And we continue to do so under the Program for Enhancement of Emergency Response or “PEER” program.  PEER assists local, regional, and national disaster management agencies in organizing and conducting standardized training in medical first response, collapsed structure search and rescue, and hospital preparedness.  As part of this program, we have trained 71 instructors and 467 responders.  This coming September, the U.S. military will also partner with the Nepal Army, the Ministry of Health and Population, and WHO to conduct a mass casualty simulation in which three major hospitals in Nepal will test their systems to respond to the needs of people in Kathmandu following a large earthquake. 
  • Because reducing disaster risk in Nepal is a long-term effort, we are also integrating disaster risk reduction efforts into the development programs operated by USAID.  Through our water and sanitation, health, climate change, democracy and governance, agriculture, and economic growth programs, we want to build resilient communities capable of withstanding and recovering from any shock—large or small.  We are doing this because it makes sense, but also because it safeguards our investments and protects the tremendous progress that Nepal has achieved over the past half century.  
  • One of the most important things we are trying to do is to incorporate awareness messages across all our programs so that all Nepalis are aware of their risks and understand that there are ways to protect themselves. In most places, the real first responders are not those who emerge from military helicopters, but that mom or dad who knows emergency first aid, or the teenager who advises the family what to do in the event of an earthquake, so everyone is as safe as they can be. We are also working on a larger-scale public awareness campaign with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the UN. In early July, you will see the launching of a new Disaster Risk Reduction mascot that will be used by all stakeholders supporting disaster awareness messages.  
  • Lastly, all of our efforts are closely coordinated and support the Government’s Flagship Program.  We are proud to say that we were the first bilateral donor to join the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium—and are happy to see the UK, Australia, European Commission, and Japan also join the team. The Flagship program focuses on: school and hospital safety, emergency response, flood management, integrated community based disaster risk management, and policy and institutional support.  All US Government activities related to Disaster Risk Reduction contribute to the Flagship program.  

I am extremely proud of these accomplishments over the past two years, and I expect our current efforts to continue and grow.  

More Needs to be Done; Youth can play a key role in fostering change

As you can see, the Government of Nepal and its partners are deeply committed to disaster risk reduction – and much has been accomplished -- but it’s not enough. Just as each day that passes without an earthquake is a gift, I fear that Nepal becomes more vulnerable each day as unsafe buildings rise throughout Kathmandu Valley. And when a big earthquake happens – and it will, the increasing risk profile means more people will suffer. We can and must do more to ensure the number of victims is minimized. In California, every child knows what to do when the ground starts shaking, but unfortunately, I don’t think the same is true for the children of Nepal. And disaster risk reduction does not mean only preparing for an earthquake.  Even with fires, more people need to know how to reduce their risks and prevent large-scale fires like the ones that devastated Siraha and Banke Districts earlier this month. Fuel efficient cook-stoves and better building practices might have made a difference in those communities. 

Each of you has the power to help shift the risk equation, so that your country becomes safer each day. As a consumer, you can patronize those businesses that adopt safe building practices and that support public awareness campaigns. For those of you who are home owners, you can ensure your homes are as safe as they can be. And for those of you who will build a house in the future, you can also ensure that it is built to be earthquake resistant. When it comes to safety remember that earthquakes don’t kill people but collapsing buildings and unsafe houses do.   I’ve been told that each year the building stock in Kathmandu Valley increases by 5% year.  Just think how different Kathmandu would be if all those new buildings adhered to building codes and were constructed in accordance with sound urban planning guidelines.  Within years we would have an ever-growing pool of new, earthquake safe buildings; I fear instead that too many new buildings are not compliant with building codes and are not built to be earthquake resistant; adding to the risks that all citizens face.  As citizens of Nepal you should encourage the government to not only keep up the excellent work they’re doing, but to broaden and deepen these efforts. I know there are many pressing issues facing Nepal at this time – but disaster risk reduction must be a priority.  This is not merely a question of allocating more money; it also means being smarter, more focused, and more strategic about where you place limited resources.  

Passing the long-stalled Disaster Management Act that has bounced between the Cabinet and parliament for years could make a big difference in these efforts. Even in the absence of legislation, developing a supra-ministerial body on disasters could enhance coordination across all ministries—like many other regional countries like India and Pakistan have done.   Setting up the new directorate in the Nepal Army that focuses on DRR will be another important step in disaster management and, as I noted in February this year, the US Government will contribute over $2million to help train and equip these new disaster responders.

As I close, I’d like to leave each of you with a challenge.  Pass on the knowledge you gain today about how to prepare and why it is important.  When it comes time for elections in Nepal, vote!  And when you vote, tell your elected leaders that preparing for an earthquake and other major disasters is important, important to you and important for the country.  One person can make a tremendous difference but it will take many families, many communities, many districts and many leaders to prepare Nepal. Be part of that effort.   

As John F. Kennedy once said, “There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”  Today you are taking an important first step in the right direction.  Challenge yourselves, set high expectations and strive to make them a reality, and, although it may be hard, make that choice to forsake “comfortable inaction” for a program of action and commitment that can change your country and your lives. 

Thank you.