Lessons from Nepal's Earthquake Tragedy

Apr 27, 2015


imageBECAUSE NEPAL'S TOWNS AND CITIES ARE LOCATED ON OR NEAR FAULT ZONES IT REMAINS CRITICAL TO INVEST IN AND PRIORITIZE EARTHQUAKE-PROOF INFRASTRUCTURE. PHOTO: UNDP

by Jo Scheuer 

The numbers of those who have perished are still rising following Saturday's massive earthquake in Nepal. The quake -- the country's largest in 80 years -- hit a notoriously vulnerable area.

While our attention right now needs to focus on urgent relief and aid to the affected population, including livelihood support, very soon we must address the reality: that it was widely known that a major earthquake was going to strike Nepal. It is expected to happen again and we need to be prepared.

For those of us working in disaster risk reduction and recovery, the earthquake is no surprise. Nepal's Kathmandu Valley is densely populated, seismically active and struggling to cope with weak infrastructure. Some areas remain extremely hard to reach. Over the years, numerous studies, analyses and commentaries pieces have emphasised that a major disaster is highly probable in this very vulnerable region.

Risk-blind Development and Disasters

While brought on by a geological incident, the disaster in Nepal is very much the result of human action and development choices. Poor infrastructure, a lack of compliance with building codes, and high levels of poverty that have elevated vulnerabilities mean that the likelihood of an earthquake having devastating impact is significantly higher than in a similar context with stronger infrastructure and better socio-economic conditions. It is these factors that elevated risk levels in Nepal.

In this case, because the country's towns and cities are located on or near fault zones it remains critical to invest in and prioritize earthquake-proof infrastructure. We call this "risk-informed decision-making" and it is essential to long-term sustainability.

The government of Nepal is aware of this challenge and has been spearheading efforts to both strengthen existing infrastructure and tighten legislation around new developments. This has had many positive results, including retrofitting of critical facilities such as hospitals and schools, the construction of new private housing in accordance with building codes, training of masons in earthquake-proof building techniques for non-engineered buildings, and training for airport staff in Kathmandu to better prepare for emergency relief, which was organized by the United Nations Development Programme and shipping giant Deutsche Post DHL Group.

THE THOUSANDS OF BUILDINGS THAT ALREADY EXISTED IN KATHMANDU AND NEIGHBORING AREAS BEFORE THE GOVERNMENT TIGHTENED LEGISLATION HAVE BEEN TOO COSTLY TO RETROFIT AND HENCE, CONSTITUTED MUCH OF NEPAL'S DISASTER RISK LEVEL.
THE THOUSANDS OF BUILDINGS THAT ALREADY EXISTED IN KATHMANDU AND NEIGHBORING AREAS BEFORE THE GOVERNMENT TIGHTENED LEGISLATION HAVE BEEN TOO COSTLY TO RETROFIT AND HENCE, CONSTITUTED MUCH OF NEPAL'S DISASTER RISK LEVEL.

Likewise, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, a coalition of partners working in the field of disaster risk reduction (DRR), has been assisting the government to roll out an inter-connected set of key measures, and has helped pass legislation addressing vulnerabilities to natural hazards.

However, decades of substandard building practices and challenges in building code compliance are hard to overcome and cannot be undone or fixed overnight. The thousands of buildings that already existed in Kathmandu and neighboring areas before the government tightened legislation have been too costly to retrofit and hence, constituted much of Nepal's disaster risk level.

In recent years, the heavy influx of rural population to cities like Kathmandu also put enormous pressure on the housing sector, and resulted in a construction boom that more often than not cut corners in building standards to save time and money. These are issues that will require sustained commitment and funding, as well as political will and efforts to raise awareness.
 
Tying disaster risk reduction to development planning and building better infrastructure is a challenge for any country, but particularly so for the poorest and most vulnerable. In a country like Nepal, donor and partner support, as well as private sector investments, are necessary to complement public resources. Unfortunately, funding for disaster risk reduction remains insufficient across the globe, with much more going towards post-disaster relief than into pre-disaster risk reduction and readiness.

But there is hope and evidence this will change. Japan announced $4 billion for DRR initiatives at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in the central Japanese city of Sendai in March. And more and more country partners are calling for the inclusion of DRR targets in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals to be issued in September. As well, the international Financing for Development Forum, scheduled for July in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, will see numerous countries call for greater emphasis on aid funding for climate and disaster risk reduction.

What this disaster shows once again is the need for an urgent shift to ensure that development is risk-informed. Nepal is a country that desperately needs to invest in both risk reduction and sustainable development as one and the same thing.

Nepal's Short and Long-Term Needs

In Nepal, the obvious and most immediate need is to support the people most affected by the earthquake. Financial, human, and resource support is needed for the government and partners, who will be aiding those in need.

We must also be aware of so-called secondary disasters and indirect socio-economic impact that may cause death and suffering long after the initial event has occurred. The aftershocks of Saturday's event continue to threaten thousands of people whose houses have been weakened by the first shock wave and are no longer structurally sound.

At least 17 people died on Mount Everest due to an avalanche that occurred as a result of the earthquake, and there is increased risk of landslides in some parts of Nepal. The economic costs and impact on livelihoods (which in many areas are already fragile) are sure to be significant. For poor families without a social safety net, things will get a lot harder before they get better, unless timely support is provided.

Full economic and social recovery will take time, resources and careful planning. In the interim, early recovery operations can provide short-term employment, allowing temporary livelihood support. This will strengthen small businesses and plant the seeds for the longer term recovery.

As the lead agency in the Early Recovery Cluster of the UN system, and a partner (along with the World Bank and European Union) in long-term recovery planning and needs assessments, UNDP is already discussing with the Nepali government how it can support and help strengthen leadership for the recovery effort. The hope is that short-term measures, such as debris clearing, can generate income while clearing pathways to critical infrastructure. At the same time needs assessments (covering both economic and social losses) can be undertaken and help shape longer term recovery frameworks.

Above all else, investments have to be made now to address the vulnerabilities that led to the disaster in the first place, and to ensure that future earthquakes do not again lead to such devastation. This includes governance measures -- such as tightening regulations and ensuring compliance to existing building codes -- as well as investing in better, risk-informed development practices, especially important during the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase.

It is not a matter of "if" but "when" the next major earthquake will happen -- and we need to be ready. Now is the time to reflect on lessons learned and to come together in support of better risk-informed development. Like the Indonesian island of Aceh in 2004, Nepal can use the earthquake as a rallying point to conclude the peace process, come together and unite behind a common goal: a better, safer, more resilient future.

This article originally appeared in the Asian Nikkei Review on 28/04/15.

About the Author
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Jo Scheuer is Chief of Profession, Director, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction at UNDP's Bureau for Policy and Programme Support.

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