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2015 Nepal Earthquake: A vision for a more resilient future

By Kanmani Venkateswaran and Marcus Moench

Photos by Michelle F. Fox

The recent major earthquakes in Nepal and their devastating effects have sparked extensive international involvement and major fundraising initiatives. As disaster response and aid funds deplete in the coming months, it will become critical for Nepal to spend the remaining money in ways that maximize the recovery of the millions affected. A recent study conducted by ISET-International, ISET-Nepal, Practical Action Nepal and the Zurich Flood Resilience Programme on the 2014 Karnali floods indicates that the disaster management system in Nepal is weak. Recovery, in particular, is challenging as government-led recovery primarily focuses on physical infrastructure. People are left to recover on their own, often building back to more vulnerable and less resilient states due to economic loss and a lack of resources. While shelter is the most immediate need following the earthquake, most communities have already begun to identify drinking water, sanitation, micro irrigation, access to affordable energy and communications as bottlenecks to recovery.

Recovery should not be merely about building back to a previous, vulnerable state. Rather, it should be about building back in a better, more resilient way. This is especially important given that Nepal is extremely disaster prone, owing to unstable geologies, rapid urbanization, political instability, weak governance, and widespread socioeconomic vulnerability. Despite this, Nepal does have important, existing capacities that can be leveraged for resilient recovery. These capacities include strong relationships within families and communities and the flow of remittances to fund local, distributed recovery efforts.


Across the areas affected by the earthquake, shelter is the most urgent and pressing need. In many rural areas and small towns, construction prior to the earthquake was unreinforced masonry and brick. Much of this has collapsed leaving people with virtually no shelter for themselves, their livestock, and, critically, for the crops that are going to be harvested soon. Yet there is a false sense that “modern” building techniques—reinforced brick or concrete—are safe because many of those buildings survived. The survival of reinforced concrete columns and brick structures in Nepal was higher than is common in earthquakes of a similar magnitude, possibly due to the nature of the earthquake. The risk posed by current structures, and alternatives to those structures, need to be widely disseminated now, as decisions about reconstruction are being made.

Although shelter is the most immediate need, shelter alone will do little to contribute to recovery over the longer term. The distribution of critical services across the Nepalese population is insufficient. The water and sanitation systems, in particular, are poor. In Kathmandu, rapid urbanization, government instability, and poor regulation have resulted in heavily polluted surface waters and subsequent over-extraction and contamination of groundwater. Prior to the earthquakes, municipal water supplies in Kathmandu were only able to provide 100–155 million liters of low-quality water/day to a population that requires 320 million liters of water/day (KUKL, 2010); the earthquakes have further stressed an already poor public water supply. Wealthier households, unlike poorer ones, are able to buy additional water from private sources. Increasingly, communities are banding together to diversify their water sources and access cleaner water through community pumps, wells, and rainwater harvesting systems.

Above: A community-shared well in Patan, Lalitpur.

In this sense, Nepal’s strength lies in its’ families and communities. Governance at this level is strong. At the community level, forestry, medium and micro hydropower, local land and water management, and some highly professional farmer cooperatives have been successful in providing critical services that the government is unable to provide. At the household level, families are close and the traditional joint family structure remains important in many communities. The resilience of these more local structures will determine the pace of long-term recovery. Consequently, these structures and capacities at the local level are entry points for resilience-building interventions.

Above: Kids playing in Nagbahal in Patan, Lalitpur in one of the largest remaining community courtyards.

Local capacity to build resilience can be greatly strengthened by increasing access to electricity, information and knowledge. Such access will help develop other forms of economic activity that could support households and communities in the long-term. Communications and information access in many areas has improved over the years, particularly along tourist routes, but that has yet to translate to learning opportunities at the scale needed. As a result, Nepal’s largest export is that of unskilled labor. Thousands of young men each year travel to the Gulf and South East Asian countries on low-paying five-year contracts leaving women as the backbone of the local agricultural economy and the primary caretakers for children and the elderly. While detailed data are unavailable, in general a far higher proportion of the remittances sent home by skilled laborers are used to support education and other productive forms of investment, in comparison to remittances sent home by unskilled migrants.

People, mostly men, wait outside the passport office in Kathmandu to obtain passports so that they can migrate to other regions for work.

The importance of remittances in Nepal cannot be overstated. Over 60% of families in Nepal now receive remittances from family members working abroad. At a national level, remittance income exceeds agricultural income, tourism earnings and international aid. And, remittances flow directly to families. It is likely that migration for work will increase in the aftermath of the earthquake. Given the limited national and international funding for recovery, remittances will be the primary resource available to most families for recovery. Leveraging this and enabling families to easily access and effectively use remittances for building resilient shelter and livelihood systems is probably the fastest, most effective route towards sustainable recovery and longer-term development.

Focusing resilient recovery

Existing capacities such as access to and use of remittances and the strength of local communities need to be harnessed to address critical gaps that will constrain the evolution of resilient social, economic, infrastructural and ecological systems in the aftermath of the earthquake:

  • Shelter is the primary, essential, immediate need for communities in the earthquake affected areas; these shelters need to be earthquake and climate resilient.

  • Distributed power (micro-grids, solar, wind, micro-hydro) is a critical catalyst for the development of low cost communication and financial systems, and thus for resilient development.

  • Using distributed power generation, internet communications need to be developed to increase community connections with migrants and the remittances they send for recovery, transform community access to sources of information on resilient recovery, and contribute to the development of critical capacities that are of fundamental importance for Nepal to develop globally competitive livelihoods.

  • Access to water and sanitation need to be increased to ensure household water security and safeguard public health. Rooftop rainwater harvesting in Kathmandu has seen great success and should be more widely incorporated into new shelter construction.

If recovery interventions are to enable transformative changes towards a more resilient future, they need to be scalable, accessible, and distributed. The goal is not only to support the recovery of the millions of Nepalese impacted by the earthquakes, but to ensure that the Nepalese are able to thrive despite the threat of future shocks and disasters.

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