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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

Nepal earthquake: a rapid review of the response and a few lessons learnt
François Grünewald & Anne Burlat

On 25 April 2015, Nepal was hit by an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude, its epicentre located 81 km North-West of the capital, which affected rural areas, towns and certain neighbourhoods of Kathmandu. Aftershocks continued for several months. In total, an estimated 8 million people were affected. Even though Nepal was one of the first countries in South Asia to establish laws and policies in the area of disaster management, numerous factors make the response to this type of disaster complex. This article describes some of the characteristics of the operational context and the response, a major concern of the aid sector having been to avoid the errors of the Haiti earthquake response. It presents the lessons learned, and the areas to improve and anticipate in managing similar disasters in the future.

 Nepal’s risk profile

Nepal is one of the 20 most disaster-prone countries in the world and has gone through many crises in the last 20 years, including a bloody civil war, and regular disasters of different kinds (floods, landslides, earthquakes, windstorms, hailstorms, fire, glacial lake outburst flood (GLOFs) and avalanches). Out of 200 countries, Nepal ranks 11th and 30th, respectively, with regard to relative vulnerability to earthquakes and floods (UNDP/BCPR, 2004). The physical vulnerability of Nepal is very high, with most buildings and infrastructures built without reference to hazard-resistant technology.

Kathmandu, the most populated district in Nepal, has been the subject of most attention in terms of “earthquake preparedness” for many years. Out of 21 cities worldwide that lie in similar seismic zones, Kathmandu is the most at risk in terms of impact on people. Moreover, rapid, haphazard urban development, including non-compliance with the building code, the failure to use qualified engineers or trained builders, the encroachment of buildings into open spaces and water table depletion, are increasing vulnerability at a significant rate. Kathmandu’s critical infrastructure and essential services are also extremely vulnerable.

However, due to its position on the slopes of the Himalayas, rural Nepal has also been a priority for the disaster risk reduction community, with several donors (ECHO, DFID, OFDA, etc.) investing massive amounts of resources in the development of risk reduction and management capacities, including through a flagship programme, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC), bringing together UN agencies and other DRR stakeholders [1] to work on earthquake and flood preparedness. Specific activities have been carried out to make the health system resilient to shocks and able to remain operational to deliver health services of all kinds after a high impact disaster. The programmes implemented have involved both rural and urban CBDRR and a number of specific programmes supported by USAID, DFID and DG ECHO have aimed to ensure that health services will function in the event of a high-impact earthquake both in the Kathmandu Valley and in other parts of the country.

Nepal was one of the first countries in South Asia to establish disaster risk management policies and laws through the 1982 Natural Calamity (Relief) Act. This document formalizes disaster response as a responsibility of the government to provide relief to the victims of disasters, and it designates authorities at the centre and district levels to coordinate the rescue and relief efforts of various response agencies. However, the experience of the past three decades has shown that this structure is only capable of coordinating small to medium level disasters.

Learning from the devastating 1988 Udayapur earthquake, the Nepali Government began drawing up the Nepal National Building Code, which was finally completed in 1994, and carried out several studies. The Building Code that was developed incorporated provisions for making buildings earthquake-resistant, and addressed the problems not only of buildings designed by engineers but also of houses in rural, semi-urban and urban areas that are mostly constructed without input from staff qualified in para-seismic construction. However, the building code was not enforced immediately. The Government only decided to make compliance with the building code mandatory in all government buildings in 2003 and encouraged its implementation in all municipal areas. It is widely recognized that it is not yet enforced by municipalities who do not have the capacity to do so.


[1] For more, see: F. Grünewald & S. Carpenter.; 2014; Urban Disaster preparedness in Katmandu, Nepal; British Red Cross and Groupe URD.