Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Observe disaster conventions for green democracy, crisis preparedness and vulnerability reduction


Jivesh Jha


Undoubtedly, no country, whether developed or developing, has been able to develop total protection mechanism against disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, epidemic, flood, or snowfall that have been claiming the lives across the world.

Still, a state can adopt crisis preparedness and risk reduction mechanisms to minimize the loss. International cooperation, coordination and collaboration could be crucial in disaster risk reduction and management.

The Coronavirus pandemic is also a disaster. Ever since the deadly Coronavirus commenced its journey from Wuhan in Hubei province of China in December 2019, a global war is being waged against the pandemic that has changed the world. Thousands of people have already lost their lives and the death tally surging up by the hour.

In the case of DeVito v. Wolf, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on April 13, 2020 held that COVID-19 pandemic is, by all definitions, a natural disaster and a catastrophe of massive proportions.

While invoking its Kings Bench jurisdiction, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote: The specific disasters in the definition of ‘natural disaster’ themselves lack commonality, as while some are weather-related (e.g., hurricane, tornado, storm), several others are not (tidal wave, earthquake, fire, explosion). . . . the only commonality among the disparate types of specific disasters referenced is that they all involve “substantial damage to property, hardship, suffering or possible loss of life.”

The court emphasized that the current COVID-19 outbreak is a natural disaster and the state should practice social distancing in order to curb the transmission.

Still, has the court relied on any scientific study to reach to that conclusion? Neither there is any research to support the court’s judgment, nor do studies rule out the role of China in spread of COVID-19. In fact, the nature—whether manmade or natural—of a pandemic cannot be studied at the floor of court but at the science labs.

Importantly, nearly two months after the first case of the virus was reported, Chinese authorities announced their 'first steps for a quarantine of Wuhan.’ By this time, a significant number of Chinese citizens had travelled abroad as "asymptomatic, oblivious carriers.

The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRR&M) Act, 2017 defines pandemic as a disaster. The Act aims to create mechanisms like council for management of disaster risk reduction under the leadership of the Prime Minister, an executive body under the chairmanship of Home Minister, and the similar bodies at provincial levels. But these authorities are yet to be formed.

An efficient domestic law regime is imperative for disaster management. The aims and objectives of domestic laws relating to disaster management have to be emboldened with international commitments and principles. Expressing solidarity with international commitments, Nepal has actively participated in scores of international disaster risk reduction and management activities.

International conventions

The Yokohama Convention: The first World Conference on Natural Disasters in Yokohama, Japan held from May 23 to 27, 1994 that adopted the Yokohama Strategy for a safer world, opines that sustainable economic growth and sustainable development cannot be achieved without adequate measures to reduce disaster losses. There are close linkages between disaster losses and environmental degradation. Together, the two forms a global challenge.

The Convention establishes 10 principles for its strategy, a plan of action and a follow-up. The principles provide guidelines for natural disaster prevention and preparedness. These guidelines include: risk assessment; disaster prevention and preparedness; dissemination of information relating to early warnings of impending disaster; sustainable development; environmental protection; poverty alleviation; and strong political determination.

Sustainable development and poverty alleviation with strong political commitment could act as catalysts for crisis preparedness and risk reduction mechanisms. Moreover, in countries with weak institutions and legacies of political instability, pandemics can increase political stresses and tensions too.

The Government of Nepal has prepared "National Action Plan on Disaster Management in 1996" incorporating all disaster management cycle and the Yokohama Strategy.

The second world conference on disaster risk reduction was held in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan from 18 to 22 January 2005. Integration of disaster risk reduction into sustainable development; development and strengthening of institutions to build resilience to hazards and emergency preparedness; capacity building; crisis preparedness; and vulnerability reduction and response and recovery programs are the major goals of Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA).

If the message of this convention is acknowledged in letter and spirit, the vulnerable citizens, including daily wagers and informal sector labourers, would have an opportunity to claim compensations for the loss due to unprecedented Coronavirus lockdown. Also, the state would succeed to capitalize sustainable development policies, crisis preparedness and vulnerability reduction mechanisms against disaster-like situations.

A welfare state cannot turn a deaf ear to the needs and aspirations of its vulnerable citizens. But, the state is yet to enact a comprehensive disaster/pandemic law incorporating these celebrated principles.

Deaths due to hunger and loss of employment of thousands of daily wagers and underprivileged citizens due to lockdown and their struggle for relief paints an scary picture that the governmental response towards the challenges are not promising.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) 2015-2030, which was adopted in Sendai, Japan, on March 18, 2015, adopted four priorities for action: Understanding disaster risk; strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk; investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience; and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

While the COVID-19 outbreak and its deadly impacts are on the rise, the international community could adopt a unanimous disaster/pandemic risk governance system to enable disaster preparedness and risk reduction mechanisms.

The underlying principles of “Build Back Better” cannot be realized unless we have a robust mechanism to compensate the victims of a pandemic/disaster.

The government of Nepal has prepared Disaster Risk Reduction National Strategic Action Plan (NSAP) (2018-2030) in which disaster risk reduction activities have been prioritized corresponding to the four priorities of the SFDRR.

There are other instruments as well which deals with disaster management. Some of them are: the Sustainable Development Goals; the Global Platform 2017; Paris Agreement on Climate Change; Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA); Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) 2016 and Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) 2018.

[caption id="attachment_14391" align="aligncenter" width="760"]Coronav-Environment Image credit: The New Yorker[/caption]

What next

These is a consensus that pandemic is the result of human activities, especially the non-compliance of sustainable development principles. While celebrating the World Environment Day today (June 5), the government and non-government actors should take a pledge to curb environmental hazards and adopt sustainable development practices in true sense. By returning to sustainable development lifestyles, we may succeed an inch in containing crisis.

Recently, Pakistan government has announced that the daily wagers and construction workers, who have lost their job due to COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown, would be engaged in planting billions of trees across the country to deal with climate change threats. This is a step ahead in right direction.

It's advisable that the government of Nepal too adopt such best international practices for generating employment opportunities and also for the cause of green democracy.

We should realize that a state whose relation to its subjects is primarily punitive rather than caring cannot expect to erect a cooperative and progressive democracy. We are rich with punitive provisions (for punishing the lockdown or quarantine law violators) but poor with welfare provisions (to compensate the victims of crisis).

There is a dire need of evolving pandemic jurisprudence to address the entire issues associated with outbreaks. Striking a balance between rights of the citizens and obligations of the state is the need of hour. The international commitments expressed under Yokohama, Hyogo conference or Sendai conference or Agenda 21 could act as a lamppost in this direction. A comprehensive pandemic law is of immense importance in a country like Nepal where access to justice is being denied by social and economic constraints, it is necessary to democratize legal remedies, and remove technical barriers against easy accessibility of justice.

The author is former Lecturer of Environmental Law at Kathmandu University School of Law.

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Published on 5 June 2020