Local Disaster Impacts: Post-Earthquake Onsite Research in Nepal

Exploring preparedness, management, and recovery in Nepal five years after two major earthquakes

By Dr. Miriam Porter and Situ Chitrakar | Nov 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

Little research has been done to understand the preparedness, management, and impacts of disasters in developing countries. This study expands the breadth and deepens the knowledge of disaster impacts in those parts of the world. There are a multitude of resources available to carry out disaster mitigation elsewhere, but there is a pressing need for resources in developing countries. This research is the first step to explore the current preparedness, management, and recovery in Nepal after two major earthquakes struck the country in 2015. Five years have passed since the earthquakes, allowing for a more objective and reflective analysis of data and the evaluation and assessment of the disaster impact.


The devastating earthquake of 2015 killed 8,891 people, with 198 people reported missing. There were 22,303 people seriously injured and millions rendered homeless. More than 600,000 households were fully damaged and around 300,000 damaged partially.

Nepal has 77 districts and 14 zones (organized into seven provinces). These political divisions were designated in the new Nepal constitution, which was promulgated in September 2015. The 2015 earthquake severely affected 14 districts. Another 31 districts were affected to varying extents.

Nepal’s population has reached almost 30 million as of May. Nepal covers an area of 147,181 square kilometers (56,826 square miles), bordering China in the north and India on the other three sides. The livability in the hills and valleys is due to favorable climate and focused developmental activities that have concentrated the population in these areas. The vulnerability due to disasters has increased with the increase in population density in these regions.


Nepal is a developing country whose constitution was rewritten just a few years ago. The interpretation of the constitution to establish proper laws and guidelines is a work in progress. The model of government has changed from monarchy to democratic to a federal democratic republic in the latest phase. The government has been leading disaster-related organizations since the days of the monarchy. With the rise in the number and types of organizations working in the field of disasters and more varied and frequent disasters, there has been confusion and duplication of efforts during the planning, relief, and recovery phases. There are now platforms developed to keep organizational efforts under one umbrella. However, the process is still unfolding with the recent establishment of Nepal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, (NDRRMA) in 2017.

Our research has explored the institutional level of disaster preparedness, management, and recovery efforts after the earthquake of 2015 in Nepal. Interviews with organizations and four residents were conducted to identify specific areas of risk or areas of struggle. This research has shed light to better understand the existing conditions of disaster-prone areas of Nepal.

During the month of February 2020, our research team interviewed 21 individuals representing 16 institutions and four individuals impacted by the earthquake. Six institutions were governmental or governmental-related, four were nongovernmental organizations, three were international nongovernmental organizations, two were businesses, and one was an activist/documentarian. We studied the challenges faced by different government bodies, nongovernmental organizations, international nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and local residents. Interviewees noted that relief efforts in the field were different than the written policy. This often created uncertainty and confusion. In addition, diversity in geography, culture, religion, and beliefs add complicating factors to disaster mitigation in Nepal.

Economic factors play another important role in adequately addressing needs. For instance, financial support for proper planning is lacking even for the capital city. This is due in part to increasing population and rapid urbanization. Consideration to implement the best practices we have identified would strengthen Nepal’s preparation, management, and recovery from the ever-growing threat of disasters.

Questionnaire Part 1: Disasters in Nepal

The first part of the institutional questionnaire was related to identifying the disasters prevalent in different parts of Nepal. All interviewees identified earthquakes as a prevalent disaster. Other commonly occurring disasters frequently identified were floods, landslides, and road accidents. Two of the organizations, Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal and Pulchowk Campus, broadly categorized the disasters as urban and rural disasters. The urban disasters are road accidents, electrical shocks, fire, flashflood, and vector-borne diseases. Whereas, rural disasters are floods, landslides, glacier outbursts, avalanches, heat waves. Other notable disasters are epidemics and impact of climate change (heat waves, droughts, and torrential rain).

After the 2015 earthquake, most of the organizations have earthquakes as their major focus. Other annual disasters identified were floods, landslides, lightening, heavy rainfall, drought, avalanches, fire, storms, and flashfloods.

There was not a consensus among all the institutes regarding the location of disasters. Earthquakes can happen anywhere in Nepal, but the epicenter is observed to be more prone in the central part of the country, which falls primarily in the Gandaki province. But a detailed seismic hazard map has not been yet produced which can give predictions of tectonic stresses that are likely to be released based on the stresses at different points. According to the statistics provided by a Nepal Red Cross Society representative, earthquakes are more prevalent in the western and central part of Nepal. Another representative from the Nepal Red Cross Society highlighted a study conducted by Durham University, which identified Kathmandu Valley as the most vulnerable city for earthquakes in the world.

Questionnaire Part 2: Preparedness in Nepal

The second part of the questionnaire is focused on identifying preparedness plans to respond to disasters. Overall, all the government organizations stated they have plans and policies to address risk management and mitigate disaster that adhere to national policy. The first act to address disasters was the National Disaster Relief Act of 1989, which addressed post-disaster situations, such as rescue and relief after a disaster. The act was later amended to include preparatory as well as mitigating clauses to the rescue and relief clauses. The joint effort of many organizations brought forth the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (NDRRMA), 2017.

Organizations discussed the need for flexibility to meet the changing focus and goals of disaster management. Most organizations interviewed—like the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, Environment and Public Health Organization, OXFAM, Nepal Red Cross Society, Plan International and Department of Urban Development and Building Construction—were partners or advisors in preparing NDRRMA 2017, with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Environment and Public Health Organization and Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal are NGOs which are based on development and research respectfully and work on the ground level. Their focus is project-based and focuses on certain aspects of disaster management which fall within their mission. Environment and Public Health Organization focuses on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and have stockpiled WASH-related materials in case of emergency like chorine, hygiene kits, food supply, and toilet building materials. This stockpiling is done with the support of humanitarian organizations like OXFAM. OXFAM, on the other hand, has a contingency plan which is updated based on simulation exercises and research data that helps predict disasters.

Policies in all governmental and nongovernmental sectors are directed by the national government. The international nongovernmental organizations must adhere to the governmental policies, along with their organizational guidelines. Some organizations, like the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal, conduct site visits to gather information that becomes the basis for plan formulation. Nepalese nongovernmental organizations and international nongovernmental organizations are consulted for policy formulation, whereas municipalities and businesses have been excluded from this process. The policies are seen by local government and organizations as a top-down approach. The new Nepalese constitution enacted in 2015, however, has delegated more power to the local government according to the Nepal Red Cross Society’s executive director.

When asked about each organization’s preparedness for upcoming disasters, the organizations had different perspectives. While each organization viewed their preparation for disaster at various stages, all had a keen awareness of the need to be prepared.

Each organization interviewed except the private businesses said they provided a form of public education. Some of the organizations working on the national level provide education to the public through television, radio, street dramas, posters, and publications. Some work in certain districts or municipalities, so they provide localized emergency plans and training to locals or specific professionals. Some organizations working in specific institutions like schools, colleges, or hospitals educate their students or staff only in their own areas.

In order to achieve the goals of the organizations, they have partners among local, regional, or national government, NGOs, INGOs, community organizations, foreign governments, and foreign organizations. The government bodies are mostly governing and policy partners, INGOs are funding partners and NGOs are implementing partners. Business partnerships develop from their sense of corporate social responsibility. They are mostly financial partners for small scale projects related to disaster. Aside from funding, businesses at times supply equipment and resources such as water tanks, pharmaceuticals, and construction materials.

Every generation in Nepal, after the 2015 earthquake have now experienced at least one major disaster. This might be a reason why citizens demonstrate moderate to high concern when it comes to preparedness for disasters. However, as time passes, the citizens’ priority moves away from disaster planing into more day-to-day routines.

Questionnaire Part 3: Response in Nepal and Identified Best Practices

The third part of the institutional questionnaire was related to the actual response to events. When a disaster occurred, it was reported that residents came forward to help each other, which was often identified by interviewees as the culture of Nepal. Residents feel highly responsible for helping each other in times of need. Guthis —sociocultural and economic units in traditional settlements—have been crucial in organizing support for community members in times of crisis. The organizations were more positive toward citizens being responsive to disasters than the governmental agencies at the local or national level.

The government agencies interviewed opined that they are adequately or moderately responsive in a post-disaster situation. When a disaster occurs, information is passed on hierarchically to higher bodies and ultimately to the ministry level depending upon the scale of the disaster. The National Emergency Operation Center is an autonomous body for making decisions during emergencies and is activated if a large-scale disaster occurs. The instruction for reacting is then passed on to the agencies concerned to carry out their respective roles, which are predetermined at the national level.

There are many challenges that organizations working in the field of disaster management face. The most common challenge for most of the organizations is funding. Available funds, while often lacking, are allocated during the event, but very limited funds are available for research and planning. Only by understanding the nature and impact of a disaster can the effects be identified and mitigated.

Another common challenge is streamlining and integrating disaster management into projects and programs. This needs to be done within a comprehensive framework involving coordination between local governments and NGOs. Coordination reduces the communication gap, helps to identify people’s need to understand and prepare for disasters, creates enough stockpiling of rescue and relief materials, reduces black markets during emergencies, helps with training of professionals, and deters misappropriation of funds. A comprehensive framework can also streamline government permission to carry out projects and mitigate political influence.

Best Practices

The key question asked in this research was regarding the best practices to address risk and mitigate disasters. Most of the organizations have derived best practices from working through various kinds of disasters in recent years, especially the 2015 earthquake. The best practices identified vary depending on a convergence of factors, including different levels of policy-making, preparedness, infrastructure development, deployment mechanism, and reconstruction. The following are the most often cited best practices by the interviewees.

1. Education

Education about disaster preparedness was identified most often among organizations as a best practice. It is seen as most effective when taught to children in schools and communities so they can learn the lessons early in life and convey what they learned to the whole family. However, it is very important to deliver correct and thorough messaging to the students to avoid negative consequences during the actual event. A well-known case in point was when children were not instructed about different protocols between earthquakes experienced inside a building versus outside. They ran indoors during the earthquake to perform “duck, cover, and hold on” even if they were playing outdoors. They were taught this for indoors location, but due to having been taught incomplete information, many went inside and lost their lives when the building collapsed.

2. Construction Methods

Another best practice is construction of buildings that are resistant to earthquakes or floods by using traditional construction methods in conjunction with modern techniques to make eco-friendly and disaster-ready structures. With increasing demand in housing, the quality of construction necessary may be compromised, so oversight is important for safety.

3. Creating Awareness

A best practice also frequently cited was creating awareness of the need to prioritize disaster preparation among competing demands in the general public. People’s attention wanes over time. Therefore, it is important to develop campaigns to facilitate ongoing awareness.

4. Streamlined Response

Another best practice identified was coordination of resources for a streamlined response. That includes:

• Facilitating training in technical, professional, and social arenas to improve preparedness and recovery after a disaster.

• Consistency in teaching and knowledge delivery.

• A multi-hazard perspective for disaster approach.

• Standardization of plans and policies at the national level that recognizes local communities as first responders for swift and efficient response.

• Simulation exercises in organizations and communities.

• Sharing of technology and information between organizations to avoid repetition and cover larger geographic areas.

In addition, it is necessary to create an awareness of differences between rural and urban areas in their ability to respond to disasters. For instance, in rural areas people may readily move to open spaces during an earthquake, but in urban areas, open spaces must be identified and maintained for people to escape to.

5. Preparation

Preparation was a best practice often underscored as a top priority. This involves a comprehensive framework and coordination of efforts. It includes promoting cluster systems, which involves identified community members and organizations coming together at the ground level to evaluate needs after an event and take appropriate action. Strictly following the zoning plans with the support of local leadership and local government is a necessary part of mitigating the impact of disasters. This is accomplished in part by simplification of policies and acts so the general public can better understand them. Early warning systems for possible disasters like floods also help with preparation. A strategic plan for efficient placement of resources is a preparation measure that helps considerably with response Ensuring that necessary supplies and equipment are already in place.

6. Accountability

Without exception, a best practice identified was accountability. A public audit was recommended for transparency and to ensure government is acting responsibly in the best interest of the public. This would reassure the public that potential for government corruption is being monitored.

7. Nepalese Culture

Lastly, recognizing and applauding the Nepalese culture, which includes service and generous help to others in a time of need. This has been one of the most powerful best practices to help manage through and recover from a disaster in this developing county.


This research has helped to shed light on current disaster preparedness, management, and recovery in Nepal and to better understand the existing conditions of disaster-prone areas of Nepal. Examining these aspects can help us apply similar knowledge of disaster impacts to other developing countries to potentially lessen the impact on affected communities.

 DR. MIRIAM PORTER is a professor at the Institute of Urban and Regional Studies Institute, Department of Government, Mankato, Minnesota.


 SITU CHITRAKAR is an architect and urban planner in Lalitpur, Nepal, and former student at the Institute of Urban and Regional Studies Institute, Department of Government, Mankato, Minnesota.


Funding for this project was made possible by the ICMA Tranter-Leong Fellowship and Minnesota State University–Mankato Faculty Research Grant.


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