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What role can a flood resilience programme play in the COVID-19 response?

By Bikram Rana, Project Manager, Practical Action On 23.04.2020 CoronavirusBlog

The tragedy caused by COVID-19 is immediate, real, and unfolding before our eyes, in Nepal as across the globe. At Practical Action our resilience work is almost exclusively focused on supporting people and communities facing climate change and natural hazards. The pandemic is teaching us new lessons about biological hazards, while encouraging us to adapt our work and reflect on the ways our ingenious approach to resilience building can be applied in this new reality.

What does the Nepalese COVID-19 response look like?

A message from the Ministry of Health and Population and the phone service provider Ncell: Frequent effective hand wash protects you from coronavirus. Maintain social distance, stay at home and avoid crowds. Cover your nose and mouth with your elbow at times when you sneeze. Greet with Namaste not with hugs and handshakes. If you suffer from fever and cough be alert and visit nearest health centre.

Nepal, like most countries, are in a state of lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. While I find this frustrating, and miss my family who have left Kathmandu for the more rural and hopefully safer Kanchanpur, I am also aware of how lucky I am to be able to do my job from home. Most of the time the internet connection is good enough for virtual meetings with colleagues here in Nepal and across the globe.

Friends of mine who run their own businesses have gone out of work while doing their best to continue paying salaries to their employees using savings. The situation is hardest for those workers surviving only on what they can earn that day as the lockdown deprives them of their daily wage. These individuals are forced to balance the very real risk of their families starving with that of catching COVID-19.

Some local governments, for example Rajapur municipality where the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance works, are using emergency funds to provide food items to poor and vulnerable families. The local government identified people without farms, who are dependent on daily wages and are distributing ration package (rice, lintels, oil, and salt). Local governments are worried that they won’t be able to meet this need if the lockdown is prolonged, as food and funds run out. They are therefore seeking support agencies and projects; an opportunity for Practical Action to redirect some resources to assist local governments and support those most vulnerable.

Nepal has well-functioning risk communication systems developed to provide early warning of floods, giving communities and individuals opportunity to take action to save lives and livelihoods. These early warnings are often disseminated via mobile phones, an approach that has been adopted to provide people with advice and information about COVID-19; how to reduce the risk of catching and spreading it, and what restrictions on daily lives are being imposed. These messages are sent via SMS, automated phone calls, and the regular beep one might hear while making a call has been replaced with instructions about hand washing and social distancing.

Similar advice is being communicated via radio, loud speakers, and in pamphlets distributed by security forces while patrolling communities to ensure lockdown is adhered to. These are attempts to reach as much of the population as possible with vital communication.

How is Practical Action’s Flood Resilience Programme contributing to Nepal’s COVID-19 response?

Many people who usually work abroad or elsewhere in Nepal are forced to return home as they’ve lost their jobs. These leaflets are handed out to migrant workers to inform them on action to take to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to their home community.

Practical Action is continuing to work together with local governments, now through virtual meetings. These regular catch ups keep us informed about what is already being done, allows us to share our experience and expertise where relevant, and spot opportunities for us to contribute where local government is over-stretched.

Practical Action, particularly our work as part of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, is extending support to local governments via our partner Centre for Social Development and Research (CSDR). Responding to request from local government, we have assisted in publishing information, education, and communication materials developed by local government.

The role of Community Disaster Management Committees in coping with COVID-19

Community Disaster Management Committees (CDMC) are in place in communities where Practical Action work to build resilience against floods. They are made up of community members who receive disaster risk management training and play a vital role in coordinating preparation against and response to hazards.

During the pandemic Practical Action is communicating with CDMC leaders to ensure that the communities we work closely with are able to cope, and to offer support and advice where needed, even though we are unable to visit communities as a result of the lockdown. One such catch-up with Ram Prasad Chaudhary who chairs the Bangaun CDMC in Tikapur reassured us that the community currently have no problems following the imposed lockdown rules.

CDMCs across the country are working with local government to ensure community members receive advice and information to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, and that social distancing measures are followed. They also support by providing local governments with information about community members who might be in need of food assistance and households that lack soap or hand sanitiser so emergency funds can be used to meet these needs. They also help identify people who have returned from India to ensure they can be quarantined and not risk spreading the virus in rural communities.

Not every aspect of life can stop during the pandemic. In many communities the harvesting of wheat has begun. The CDMCs are supporting the community during the harvest, ensuring that social distancing, hand washing and other precautions are available and adhered to while farmers carry out their work.



The Community Disaster Management Committee in Nangapur Village.

It is heart-warming to hear evidence of the resilience shown in the face of this unprecedented challenge, and to know that Practical Action has played a role in this.

What will happen when Monsoon season hits during the pandemic?

June to September is monsoon season in Nepal. It is likely that the rain will come while we are still fighting COVID-19. One of the big challenges faced will be that of safe shelter versus social distancing. How will we ensure that people, including the most vulnerable, are able to shelter from floods without exacerbating the risk of them contracting COVID-19?

We support the government in developing the clear guidelines needed for coping with impending multi-hazard disasters. Once these exist we will assist in ensuring that the communities we work with have plans in place and will use the annual mock flood exercise on 5 June to practice these with communities.