Rebuilding resilience 7 years laterNow that we are wrapping up reconstruction after 2015, we need to focus on building a disaster resilient Nepal
Commemorating a national tragedy like the 2015 earthquakes is a time to mourn the loss of lives of fellow citizens, but also a chance to ask ourselves how to avert such humanitarian crises in future.
As we mark the 7th anniversary of the earthquake for the first time after the completion of post-earthquake reconstruction, the question of saving lives and infrastructure from future disasters is even more urgent.
Let us rewind the clock to 25 April, 2015. It was a Saturday, so schools and offices were closed. At mid-day, most people were outside their houses. The monsoon had not arrived, and the ground was firm.
If it had not been a Saturday, hundreds of thousands of students would have been inside school buildings. If it was midnight, most of us would have been at home fast asleep.
Even worse, if the 2015 earthquake had struck us in the midst of a monsoon downpour, immediate and large-scale rescue and relief work could have been almost impossible. In villages of Sindhupalchok, where nearly 3,000 people were killed, thousands of survivors could have been left in the lurch for days.
It was our sheer luck that the earthquake hit us on a weekend. Yet, it claimed nearly 9,000 lives and injured over 22,000 people. The quake also damaged private houses, public buildings, schools, health facilities, heritage sites, and other critical infrastructure in as many as 32 districts, causing an estimated economic loss of $9 billion.
Thousands of families rendered homeless by the earthquake spent several monsoons and winters in makeshift shelters. Children resumed their studies in temporary learning centres. It was difficult to imagine how Nepal would carry out such a massive reconstruction campaign within a tight five plus one year deadline.
To be sure, the initial phase of post-earthquake reconstruction was slow. But the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) did a commendable job introducing frameworks, guidelines, and procedures necessary for allocating grants for reconstruction of private houses.
It prepared the Post Disaster Reconstruction Framework identified priority sectors and financing needs. The NRA coordinated with multiple government agencies, development partners, private sector, and communities in rebuilding schools, health facilities, heritage sites and other public infrastructure.
The NRA has set an example of planned and systematic reconstruction within a tight deadline. It was able to serve as an example despite the Covid-19 crisis that followed. Now that the NRA is dissolved, its remaining responsibility has been handed over to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA).
The creation of the NDRRMA is in itself a paradigm shift in Nepal's approach to disaster risk management: from being mostly response-centric to prioritisation of understanding risk, improved governance, financing, including preparedness for effective response, recovery and reconstruction.
The NDRRMA has not only taken on the NRA's remaining task of reconstruction, but also a responsibility to increase resilience during future disasters.
We as a nation seem to have short-term memory. We easily forget how narrowly we escaped death just a few years ago. A lot of things could have gone wrong on this day seven years ago. The 2015 earthquake was not as destructive as it could have been because of few favorable situations. We may not be as lucky next time.
We have some urgent tasks: strict implementation of proper building codes, introduction of insurance instruments for our houses and public property, training human resources for post-disaster rescue operations, establishment of effective multi-hazard early warning systems, and massive awareness campaigns about safety and preparedness.
Our municipal governments have designated jurisdictions to manage disaster risks. However, building codes are being implemented only in selected urban municipalities. We need to strictly implement these codes in rural municipalities as well. Adhering to the building codes is not only necessary for receiving bank loans, but it is also important to save our lives.
As part of the post-earthquake reconstruction campaign, we have built over 800,000 earthquake-resilient houses. We have also built over 7,000 earthquake-safe schools, over 750 health facilities, and over 650 government buildings. Such a massive scale of construction of earthquake-safe structures has increased earthquake resilience in 32 districts affected by the 2015 earthquakes.
But another mega earthquake could hit other parts of the country where most structures are not earthquake-proof and could collapse easily. Western Nepal has not been shaken by a mega earthquake in 500 years, and enough tectonic pressure has built up underneath this region. An earthquake as powerful as the 2015 quake could be far more catastrophic in this region because of the poor implementation of building codes there.
A disaster teaches us valuable lessons so we can prepare for future ones. But we have also learned the wrong lesson from the 2015 earthquake. When we saw mud-mortar houses collapsing in many old settlements even as concrete structures remained intact, we drew a false conclusion that concrete houses are stronger and safer.
A concrete house can withstand a huge earthquake only if it is built properly. A mud mortar house can be equally or stronger if there are adequate horizontal and vertical bands. So, when another mega earthquake hits cities like Kathmandu, we will likely see more concrete houses collapsing. In preparation, we are buying concrete cutter machines along with collapsed structure search and rescue equipment.
Now that we have wrapped up the post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction, we need to focus our attention on building a more resilient Nepal. This is possible but only if we shake up our complacent mindset and expect another mega earthquake to hit us at any time. Even while reading this article.
Anil Pokhrel is Chief Executive of National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA).