Reviewing lessons of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake

The earthquake struck at 11:56 on 25 April 2015, just as 50 young people were donating blood inside Kasthmandap. Eleven of those who were trying to save the lives of others lost theirs.

Nepalis faced panic for few hours, but soon, families, communities and the nation came together in the time of great need. Some of those lessons are relevant five years later, as we face another disaster of the pandemic.

There was no call from the government to help affected people, Nepalis rose spontaneously and voluntarily – just like they are now helping the thousands who are trekking for days from Kathmandu to reach their homes in a lockdown, without anyone asking them to.

Nepal’s diaspora also came up with generous help for the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction phases. Nepal’s culture of community-based organisations like guthi, cooperatives, mother’s groups are the foundations of our social cohesiveness.

Reconstruction activities revived the traditional labour barter system in many rural areas. The task of rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction was led by the government with financial, material,  knowledge and moral support of countries near and far, multilateral institutions, private sector, and many non-profits.

The mammoth job was coordinated in the beginning by the government and a Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) report was prepared by the National Planning Commission (NPC) with support from 500 national and international experts.

Reconstruction activities were later led by the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). Ministries and departments had to learn to work together in a more integrated way to manage rescue, relief and reconstruction and to support each other. The level of synchronisation needed has set a base for managing future disasters.

Nepal faces many types of disasters and has also learnt from the experience of India, China and Pakistan which also suffered deadly earthquakes. The Gujarat owner-build model for reconstruction proved valuable for Nepal, especially in home reconstruction.  

The government provides technical services and grants in an installment basis, and the survivors take leadership to build own house. Nepal’s own lessons learnt can now be replicated and adapted in other countries.

The 2015 earthquake provided experience to community-based organisations, local governments and national level policy makers. The NPC, departments and ministries which lead the rescue, rehabilitation and reconstruction now have precious institutional memory.

If a coordinating leadership emerges during the aftermath of a disaster, our institutions inside government and outside proved that they can deliver services with upgraded knowledge and capacity.

The experience gained by engineers, planners, masons, workers in the heritage sector will also be valuable. Many women contractors emerged from the reconstruction process, as women entered professions they were not in before, including masonry and carpentry.

We now have very good stock of skillsets required for similar reconstruction, and also in transferring knowledge about retrofitting buildings in other parts of the country.

Another important achievement after the disaster was that a system was created that can now be regular part of business of our bureaucratic machinery. Building Codes have been upgraded and implemented in urban centres. Planning criteria for local governments and real estate have been introduced.

Structure analysis of any proposed building now has to ensure seismic resistance from not just earthquakes nearby but also bigger ones in the region. This spillover effect is ultimately helping Nepali in not-affected areas to have resilient public as well as private infrastructure.

The earthquake was an opportunity to revive traditional woodcraft and temple architecture, public buildings and even homes built in the traditional style – all this will help revive tourism into the future.

Learning from Nepal's past to rebuild its future, Prakriti Kandel

Whether in relief packages in kind or government grants, poorer families received more than better off households. Tens of thousands of households who did not have bank accounts now have access to the banking system.

The NRA also decided that landless and people living in disaster prone areas are entitled to have additional grants to buy land nearby in safer areas. The property also had to be registered in the names of both the husband and wife. Similarly, marginalised communities, single women, the elderly were allowed to receive additional grant through non-governmental organisations to support rebuilding.

To be sure, there were a lot of things that could have gone better, faster, smoother. The ‘integrated settlement’ for rural areas, which could have reduced public expenditure for water supply, rural access road, electricity supply system, for example, could not be implemented. This was because we adopted the owner build model for private housing.

Affected communities were given this option with some incentives in land planning and registration cost and funding for public infrastructure. However, because of social and other reasons very few people opted for integrated settlements.

Although policy decision not to lease any government and semi-government institution’s land to private parties was taken, the management of more open areas for city dwellers was not initiated during reconstruction.

Traditional architecture could not be preserved in private homes and public buildings. Designs that followed traditional styles and training for masons were completely ignored, as people opted for reinforced concrete frames.

People lost not only lives and homes but also livelihoods. There was too much focus on physical reconstruction and not enough on getting people back on their feet by engaging small and medium enterprises.

Despite all these weaknesses, the pace of reconstruction in Nepal is satisfactory, compared to other countries in the region that have suffered disasters on a similar scale. The experience and opportunities have been used to move the country towards a more resilient path.

Read also: 

Bhaktapur shows the way by rebuilding itself, Suyog Prajapati

Nepal's Traditional seismic resistant designs, Sheilin Teo

Govind Raj Pokharel, PhD, was the first head of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) in 2015.

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