Rebuilding five years after 2015 quake


On 15 March, a 5 magnitude earthquake struck Lumle near Pokhara. The National Seismological Centre said this was not the usual aftershock of the 2015 earthquake, but a main shock. Although the tremor went largely unnoticed elsewhere in Nepal, for seismologists it was a grim reminder of tectonic forces beneath western Nepal that are on a hair trigger.

There is no accurate way of predicting an earthquake, but scientists can determine the ‘seismic gap’ in a region where a megaquake has not happened for some time, and determine the probability of it happening.

For instance, western Nepal has not experienced an earthquake more than 8 magnitude since 1205, a event that created the debris field from a cataclysmic flood on which Pokhara is situated today, and even killed the king in Kathmandu. Seismologists say another major earthquake in the region between Pokhara and Dadeldhura is long overdue.

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“There has been no major earthquake in western Nepal for 600 years, and there is a lot of stress accumulation and the energy will have to be released at some point,” warns Surya Narayan Shrestha of the group National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET).

The far west of Nepal, and indeed the country, is ill-equipped to handle another earthquake, especially a disaster on such a massive scale. But preparing for it will be the responsibility of the newly-formed Natural Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Authority which is supposed to take over from the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) set up after the 2015 earthquake.

The NRA has got mixed reviews for its reconstruction work in the 14 districts in Central Nepal that were affected by the 2015 disaster. Critics said it bungled the Rs300,000 reconstruction grant with conflicting criteria, and the new houses did not meet acceptable standards.

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But NRA’s defenders say the agency was a victim of political wrangling with the government change following the Indian blockade in late 2015. The agency got Rs4.1 billion which it first spent on rescue, relief and emergency operations, and the remaining for reconstruction with main focus on private housing, public buildings, health facilities and schools.

Even critics of the government admit that despite the politicisation of the NRA and initial delays due to the frequent change in its leadership, it has managed to catch up with reconstruction work and has achieved more than what Pakistan and India have done after earthquakes there.

The first head of the NRA was the UML-appointee Sushil Gyewali, who replaced his Nepali Congress-backed predecessor Govinda Raj Pokharel. Gyewali was reappointed in 2018 after Prime Minister Oli assumed office.

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“Despite the lack of budget and political interruptions, the NRA has made its best effort to do a better job at reconstruction and at least provide shelter to those who have lost their homes in the 2015 earthquake,” Gyewali told Nepali Times in an interview.

However, the agency has been criticised for approving construction that do not meet basic living as requirements, and its handling of the way public grievances. At a conference in January, the NRA faced criticism for creating model villages in haste, neglecting marginalised groups and not giving enough priority to heritage reconstruction in Kathmandu Valley.

“We were proposed to give the survivors cash-in-hand but we wanted it to be as transparent as possible and opted for the banking system, which delayed the reconstruction process,” Gyewali added. “But thankfully we have completed distributing all three tranches and we have signed agreements with most beneficiaries.” Most have received the first tranche, while 82% have got the second, and 70% have collected the third installment of their housing grants.

“Our number one priority was to provide shelter to those who have lost their homes, second to rebuild health and educational institutions and third cultural heritage, but having said that all these components are important to all us,” Gyewali added.

NRA data shows that nearly 500,000 private houses have so far been rebuilt, which is over 60% of those damaged or destroyed. Another 190,000 or so are under construction. NRA has also managed to reconstruct 360 of the 415 public buildings, and slightly over half the health facilities have been rebuilt. Nearly 80% of schools have been rebuilt.

According to NRA’s CEO Gyewali, the authority plans to complete at least the construction of private housings before the end of the tenure by December 2020.

“By the time the NRA winds down in December, we will finish most of the reconstruction. We want to ensure the quality of work we deliver and focus on earthquake resistant buildings keeping in mind future earthquakes,” said Gyewali.

Whatever is not finished, and also the task of preparing a disaster management plan for a future western Nepal quake will be the work of the National Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Authority (DMA). Anil Pokhrel has been appointed CEO of the Authority which falls under the Home Ministry.

The DMA will be tasked with coordinating all ministries and departments and come up with emergency guidelines to reduce risk from all types of disasters from floods, earthquakes to even coronavirus. Recognising the special risk of a megaquake in western Nepal, the Authority is working with municipalities in Province 5 and 6 on preparedness.

Explained Pokhrel: “We cannot avoid the danger, but we can be prepared by spreading awareness and take best of our efforts to manage exposure and vulnerability in those regions.”

Disaster Management Authority tackles its first disaster: COVID-19

The National Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Authority (DMA) was only formed in January 2020 to deal with floods and earthquakes. But it plunged headlong into a disaster no one could have predicted: the coronavirus pandemic. 

Even though its office still has not got all its furniture and equipment, the DMA has its hands full dealing with mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic from affecting Nepal. Under-staffed and still not fully functional, it has been thrown off the deep end to create an emergency response plan involving various agencies of government.

“Currently, we are working on scenario based planning, and our role is to coordinate with other departments and assist them with an emergency response,” says Anil Pokhrel, CEO of the Authority.

The DMA has been getting advice and other assistance from the World Health Organisation to deal with the pandemic. After not taking the epidemic seriously at first, the high-level committee chaired by Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel this week banned all air travel from Europe and West Asia to Nepal, postponed the high school exams, and banned gatherings of more than 25 people.

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Said Pokhrel: “It is good news that in Nepal the virus still has not caused a big turmoil and because of that we have had time to learn the do’s and don'ts looking at other countries, I think we are now ready to fight the virus.”

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