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Still Recovering from the Earthquake, Nepal Faces Covid-19

April 15, 2020

By Lena Michaels

The pandemic crisis currently derailing lives across the globe may have a familiar feel for Nepalis. It was just five years ago that Nepal was reeling from a massive earthquake that killed and injured thousands and destroyed crucial infrastructure, followed by a blockade of the border to neighboring India that cut off large parts of the population from essential goods and services. While the Covid-19 pandemic poses stark new challenges for Nepal, it is a reminder of the recent struggles of the Nepali people and their resilience in time of crisis.

The magnitude 7.8 Gorkha earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, followed by a major aftershock on May 12, killing nearly 9,000 people, injuring tens of thousands, and badly damaging more than half a million houses. Taking stock of the damage and people’s immediate needs was a pressing priority, but the full scale of a disaster only becomes clear over time.

A house destroyed during the 2015 earthquake and never rebuilt. (Photo: Prabhat R. Jha / The Asia Foundation)

During the reconstruction that followed, The Asia Foundation launched a social-impacts monitoring project to develop an accurate picture of long-term disaster effects, recovery patterns, and evolving needs. The DFID-funded Independent Impacts and Recovery Monitoring Project (IRM) has collected data from thousands of earthquake-affected households over five years, making it possible to paint a detailed and evolving portrait of the nation’s recovery and the challenges that remain. Here are some key findings.

Progress of reconstruction

Earthquake reconstruction was slow for the first two years, with many people lodged in temporary shelters or damaged houses as they waited for clarity on government assistance and financial aid. As the government’s housing reconstruction program gained traction, however, progress began to accelerate. By late 2019, four years after the temblors, three-quarters of affected households said they were living in a fully repaired or rebuilt house or in a second house undamaged by the earthquake, and many more were in the process of rebuilding.

A man in Sindhupalchok rebuilds his house after receiving a first installment from the government’s earthquake relief fund. (Photo: Prabhat R. Jha / The Asia Foundation)

Access to finance

The Nepal government’s reconstruction program has provided grants of roughly $3,000 to households that comply with earthquake-resilient building codes. Retrofitting assistance of $1,000 per household was introduced later in the reconstruction process. The government has made some low-interest loans available through the banking system, but access has been extremely limited, and most earthquake-affected borrowers have had to find other sources, often at high interest rates. The IRM project found that the number of new loans, the amounts borrowed, and total household indebtedness have all increased significantly since the earthquakes. Facing this rising debt burden, a small but growing number of households have had to sell land and other assets. How this will affect their long-term resilience is not yet fully understood.

Size of newly built houses

While most householders have rebuilt or repaired their homes, many of them consider their new houses inadequate. More than half of households that completed reconstruction built just one- or two-room houses, largely because they couldn’t afford more. Because the new houses are small, many people still use their old, damaged houses for sleeping, cooking, storage, or livestock. Others, who did not rebuild, made improvised repairs, often by removing upper floors so that only a small, one-story house remains. Few have taken advantage of available retrofitting support, and the structural safety of these repaired older houses is unknown.

Many Nepalis who did not rebuild have made improvised repairs, often without following government building codes. (Photo: Prabhat R. Jha / The Asia Foundation)

Urban and less-affected areas

The housing reconstruction program focused initially on rural areas with high levels of destruction. Less-affected parts of the country (though often containing pockets of severe devastation) and urban areas received less attention, and the needs of people there were not as thoroughly assessed or understood. Many have still not repaired or rebuilt their homes, and they may still need financial assistance or new public policies to make a recovery.

Vulnerable groups

The government has made reconstruction and retrofitting assistance equally available to all who are eligible. The emphasis on equal—rather than equitable—distribution means that there has been little additional support for especially vulnerable households, although the government has announced that it will make another $500 available to single women, the elderly, the disabled, and minors. The IRM project has documented that vulnerable, poor, and marginalized households have had more difficulty recovering, and that many of them will need special support to avoid new set-backs. Some, for example, continue to live in damaged houses or temporary shelters. While just 4 percent of the population still lives in shelters, many of them are elderly, landless, or ineligible for aid because they lack proof of ownership of their property. They generally say they feel stuck and do not know if they will ever again live in a proper house. Others have lost their livelihoods and have had to repeatedly borrow money at high interest rates to cover daily expenses, leaving them vulnerable to debt traps.

Aaitamaya B. K., a single Dalit woman in front of her temporary shelter (Photo: Prabhat R. Jha / The Asia Foundation)

Disaster response, governance, and the current scenario

The disaster hit during a period of postconflict political transition in Nepal that is still ongoing. The country adopted a new constitution less than six months after the earthquakes and held local elections for the first time in 20 years in the midst of reconstruction.

The IRM project found that poor coordination between central and local levels of government prior to federalism hindered government effectiveness. The earthquake response was at first highly centralized, but some responsibilities have since been devolved to local bodies, and provincial and local governments have been tasked with drafting their own disaster response plans. The IRM and a related study found that they’ve been slow to do so, however, and there is still frustration with “centralized leadership” and the unclear division of authority.

This all has implications for future disasters. In addition to earthquakes, Nepal is vulnerable to floods during the annual monsoons, yearly outbreaks of dengue fever in some parts of the country, and the looming effects of climate change. The Nepali people have shown they are resilient, but the coming monsoons may prove particularly challenging amidst the global pandemic. A combined disaster—perhaps heavy flooding and a dengue fever outbreak—could pose unprecedented dangers, overwhelming Nepal’s disaster response infrastructure and erasing the hard-won progress of households still recovering from the earthquakes. As the government’s federal project continues, efficiency and accountability must not fall by the way.

A one-room house, built after the earthquake, currently not used by the owner. It is unclear whether this house was built with the government housing grant. (Photo: Prabhat R. Jha / The Asia Foundation)

The importance of social-impacts monitoring

The Covid-19 pandemic is introducing new and serious uncertainties into an already fragile landscape, a wild card that could upend even the best-laid plans for the next disaster. In this fluid situation, planners need the best evidence they can get on long-term impacts and the factors shaping recovery. Social-impacts monitoring provides information that is vital for short-term disaster response, long-term recovery, and future preparedness. It should be part of emergency-response toolkits worldwide.

This article is the second in a series examining lessons from Nepal’s recovery and the transition to federalism. The first can be found here. More about the findings of the IRM study can be found here. Preliminary findings from the most recent round are available here, and an overview of the project’s timelines and methodology can be found here.

Lena Michaels is a consultant to The Asia Foundation’s IRM project in Nepal. She can be reached at lena.michaels@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Nepal
Related topics: Covid-19, Disaster Management

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