Frontlines Online Edition
Democracy, Human Rights & Governance
January/February 2012

Preparing for the "Big One" in Nepal

A student from Shree Janaudaya Lower Secondary School in Kathmandu, Nepal, demonstrates how to take cover during an earthquake. A student from Shree Janaudaya Lower Secondary School in Kathmandu, Nepal, demonstrates how to take cover during an earthquake. CREDIT: GARI MAYBERRY, USAID
The United States is helping reduce disaster risks in one of the earth’s most disaster-prone corners, increasing the Nepalese Government’s resilience and strengthening its capacity to respond to its citizens.

Perched atop the Himalayas, Nepal faces multiple natural hazards, including annual floods, landslides, and avalanches, as well as periodic droughts, forest fires and disease epidemics. However, for the 28 million people of Nepal, the risk of earthquakes is what looms largest, in particular, the proverbial “big one”—an earthquake impacting urban areas that would eclipse those of recent memory.

Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, with an estimated population between 3 million and 5 million, has not experienced a major earthquake in more than 75 years, and there is concern among seismologists that the city could be struck by an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or greater—at least 10 times as powerful as the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.

Similar to Haiti, Nepal is situated in a seismic zone that is capable of generating catastrophic earthquakes, and like Port-au-Prince, Kathmandu has experienced rapid urban development, including widespread construction of buildings considered too weak to withstand a powerful quake.

The importance of disaster risk reduction (DRR) programs is clearly evident in Nepal. These programs are used to prevent or decrease the impact of a disaster on a population, or to increase the ability of a community to withstand the disaster so it can recover more rapidly after the event. Since Nepal faces a number of hazards, an integrated U.S. Government approach to DRR, based on more than a decade of USAID engagement and now encompassing a “whole-of-government” effort, is being used to demonstrate best practices in disaster preparedness and mitigation. There is consensus among international donor agencies that a concerted emphasis on disaster risk reduction is a necessary and cost-effective investment, empowering communities to reduce and mitigate disaster risk, increasing their resilience to disaster events and strengthening government capacity to respond.

The international community generally accepts that national governments themselves should play a key role in the design and support of DRR programs. Not only do they have a duty to ensure the safety of their citizens, but they also can help to implement the programs and create the necessary policies and frameworks to maintain them.

“Unless we act now,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for disaster preparedness, “we will see more and more disasters due to unplanned urbanization and environmental degradation … Disaster risk reduction … is a strategic and technical tool for helping national and local governments to fulfill their responsibilities to citizens.”

DRR efforts can mean the difference between rains causing minor damage or mudslides and flooding that destroys lives and livelihoods.

USAID has focused on risk reduction and preparedness in Nepal for years. A pilot project in Nepal known as Total Disaster Risk Management, implemented through the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in the early 2000s, first introduced the concept of DRR in Asia. USAID has also supported the Program for the Enhancement of Emergency Response (PEER) in Nepal, through which hundreds of emergency responders have been trained in collapsed structure search and rescue and medical first response.

In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, USAID has sponsored training for Nepal Government officials in the Incident Command System—a management framework designed to integrate personnel, equipment, procedures, facilities, and communications during complex events, enabling more effective response operations within a common organizational structure.

Integration and Leverage

U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Scott H. DeLisi has made DRR a top priority, building on USAID’s work and promoting a whole-of-government approach to address the high risk of a catastrophic earthquake faced by Nepal’s population.

Recognizing there would be few new resources in a tight budget environment, DeLisi developed an integrated U.S. Government approach to strategically target human and financial resources, and leverage investments from the Government of Nepal, donors, and the private sector. The upshot: an interagency DRR office led by a USAID Foreign Service Officer.

In September 2011, an interagency team conducted a broad-based, multi-hazard assessment. The end product was the “Five-Year DRR Strategic Framework” with clear objectives for U.S. Government DRR engagement in Nepal coupled with indicators to measure and evaluate performance and outcomes.

Currently, USAID is building resilient communities by mainstreaming DRR throughout its development programs, developing first-responder capability and engaging the private sector on solutions to reduce risk.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has taken the lead on developing joint disaster response plans with the Nepal Army. Defense’s ongoing engagement focuses on building response capacity through training, exercising disaster plans and synchronizing them with civilian plans, and investing in infrastructure to mitigate risk and increase response effectiveness. Reinforcing these efforts is the State Department’s diplomatic engagement of the Nepalese Government and other public and private actors to put more focus on DRR, as well as integrating DRR into ongoing training and exchange programs through the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu.

Disasters cross international borders, and the United States is also taking a regional perspective, engaging India, China, and SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) members in these disaster mitigation activities. Regional assets and cooperation will be necessary in any major disaster, particularly since Nepal is a landlocked country with extremely challenging geography and infrastructure that can complicate a major humanitarian response.

Increasing Seismic Safety

One of USAID’s most enduring DRR partnerships in Asia has been with the Kathmandu-based National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET). Established in 1993, NSET’s mission is to reduce the risks associated with earthquakes in Nepal. USAID’s partnership with NSET began in 1997. Since that time, USAID has provided more than $8 million in support of NSET’s activities, helping it evolve into one of the world’s leading organizations on earthquake preparedness and mitigation.

Says Amod Mani Dixit, executive director of NSET: “With [USAID's] support, Nepal has become earthquake-safer not only because of increased earthquake awareness or school buildings retrofitted or numerous masons trained. The support has helped Nepal to institutionalize disaster reduction processes through improved building construction, improved emergency preparedness in schools and hospitals, and a better understanding of the need to create to a culture of safety.”

In 2005, USAID provided funding to NSET for the Nepal Earthquake Risk Management Program, which was recently renewed for an additional three years. NSET has improved the seismic safety of public schools, residences, hospitals, and other public structures in the Kathmandu Valley, and trained engineers and masons on proper building techniques. The ongoing school safety program retrofits schools while also training local masons by using the actual retrofitting as hands-on instruction and practice. As masons are responsible for the construction of 95 percent of the buildings in Nepal, their education is vital.

NSET has also conducted workshops, seminars, and conferences on earthquake safety and preparation for wide swaths of Nepal’s citizenry, including students, and has supported capacity building of local government authorities through awareness programs.

The second phase of the program aims to coordinate long-term earthquake risk reduction planning among governmental and non-governmental entities, as well as to continue to increase earthquake awareness and preparedness among Nepal’s population through initiatives including media campaigns, publications, and training programs.

Follow the Leader

Strong U.S. Government leadership on DRR has spurred accelerated action by the Government of Nepal and other donor engagement. The Nepalese Government has begun including DRR in its planning and budgeting and for the first time has included resources to retrofit schools. The Australians and British have followed the United States’ lead as the first bilateral donor to join the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, and the U.K. Department for International Development has pledged $30 million in new resources for Nepal’s DRR over the next four years.

The Nepali Diaspora, through the Non-Resident Nepali (NRN) association, has focused on disaster preparedness, and three NRN professional societies are working on medical, communication, and engineering disaster preparedness measures.

Recently, the Government of India has indicated its willingness to engage on this issue through its military and development programs—a breakthrough for regional cooperation.

In addition, a number of USAID programs in Nepal now serve as global models. This includes the Hospital Emergency Response Program and the School Earthquake Safety Program, through which existing buildings are retrofitted, earthquake preparedness plans are devised, and teachers and students are trained in earthquake response. Likewise, the U.S. Government’s integrated approach in Nepal is being explored by the British and Nepalese.

“Our fundamental policy interests in fostering stability and prosperity in Nepal are a critical factor in compelling our engagement on disaster risk reduction,” DeLisi said during a recent event in Kathmandu. “[W]hat is more destabilizing to a nation, and potentially to its neighbors, than a catastrophic event of the magnitude we envision will occur in Nepal?

“Equally, as we support Nepal’s efforts to build a stable, functional, and democratic nation, we are also investing considerable sums in the country’s development. I believe that if we are not prepared to protect that investment, through efforts to mitigate the impact of the disaster and shorten the recovery time, we are, in essence, just throwing away our development dollars.”