Political Transition and Earthquake Recovery in Nepal

Published on August 14, 2019

A couple of months ago, when a colleague asked a group of disaster-management experts what Nepal’s 2015 earthquake will be remembered for several years from now, one particular answer bubbled to the surface: The 2015 earthquake will be remembered for the lessons it taught us by striking during Nepal’s profound political and social transition.

Photo: Skanda Gautam / Himalayan Times. Used by permission.

When the earthquake struck, on April 25, 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people and damaging or destroying over half a million homes and buildings, Nepal was in the midst of its postconflict political transition. Nepal’s second Constituent Assembly was concluding debate on a new constitution with a new federal structure, and the country hadn’t held local elections in nearly 20 years. The political turmoil continued in the years of post-quake reconstruction, as troubled relations with India triggered a six-month border blockade, anger in the Terai over provisions in the constitution led to violent protests, and local elections were finally carried out in 2017. The hiccups from this political transition achieved in the face of natural disaster continue to this day.

This article is the first of a three-part series that will consider lessons from the recovery and the concurrent transition to federalism in Nepal. These lessons are drawn primarily from The Asia Foundation’s academic engagement with the Nepal Administrative Staff College, the Democracy Resource Center Nepal, and Inter Disciplinary Analysts.

Lesson one: Natural disasters aren’t just natural. A recent study by The Asia Foundation, Political Economy Analysis of Post-Earthquake Reconstruction in Nepal, observes that a disaster occurs at the interface of nature, society, and politics, and Nepal has shown us that existing socioeconomic structures often perpetuate or even exacerbate the vulnerabilities of victims. The National Reconstruction Authority, for example, mandated that banks and financial institutions make reconstruction loans only to victims with documented ownership of their property and proof of their ability to repay. Many victims in rural, agricultural areas could not show the required income because of seasonal or inadequate employment, and many are living in temporary shelters to this day.

Skanda Gautam / Himalayan Times. Used by permission.

Restoring communities to their predisaster state without paying heed to the conditions that made them vulnerable can aggravate preexisting inequality and marginalization. Rebuilding and reshaping the physical, social, economic, and natural environment must consider all the contributing factors, including the particular circumstances of different populations. Although an earthquake is a natural occurrence, a “disaster” can be as political as it is natural.

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Lesson two: Better communication between the federal government and local authorities is still urgently needed for earthquake recovery. The national project of post-quake reconstruction has created a unique opportunity for the newly created local governments to establish their effectiveness. As the new point of first contact between citizens and the state, local governments have become the public face of disaster governance, lending them the legitimacy even to sometimes challenge the hegemony of the central authorities.

Local governments have successfully managed several aspects of the reconstruction process. With government experts now present at the ward level, functions such as building inspections and construction permits, required for cash reconstruction grants, have become more responsive and efficient. In particular, the process for challenging assessments and grant-beneficiary lists has become much easier, as people who once had to travel to district headquarters can now register their complaints at the local ward.

Skanda Gautam / Himalayan Times. Used by permission.

But while some local agencies have worked vigorously, at times even exceeding their mandate, most have been slow to seize the reins of local reconstruction, according to a recent study, The Roles of Local Governments in Disaster Management and Earthquake Reconstruction. The rural municipality of Tamakoshi allocated USD 150k for social services in the current fiscal year, of which USD 10k was designated to buy land for landless earthquake-affected households. But several other localities visited for the same study still seemed to be waiting for central authorities to decide the landless-and-vulnerable cases. Without better local-federal coordination, a unique opportunity to legitimize Nepal’s new local governments will be lost.

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Lesson three: The Nepali people are worried about floods, not earthquakes. Five years on, Nepalis seem less wary of earthquakes than one would expect. In the Foundation’s A Survey of the Nepali People 2018, natural disasters in general stand out as an important issue, but they rank only fifth in public perception of the nation’s 10 biggest problems. When asked about local problems, Nepalis overall rank natural disasters as the second-biggest threat to local security, but those who do are predominantly from districts unaffected by earthquakes, which suggests that earthquakes are not the disasters they’re worried about.

Skanda Gautam / Himalayan Times. Used by permission.

Nepalis seem to be more fearful of floods than of earthquakes. Karnali Province and Sudur Paschim Province, which suffer annual floods, had the highest proportion of respondents who felt unsafe due to natural disasters, whereas respondents from earthquake-affected areas like Province 3 and Province 4 identified crime, theft, and gangs as the greatest threats to their safety.

With local governments now in place, Nepal may complete an effective recovery in the coming years, but disaster risk reduction—especially earthquake preparedness—is a dwindling concern for the average Nepali. Preparedness for the next earthquake will therefore depend largely on the plans and procedures of local governments, and building their risk-management capacity should be a major priority.

Skanda Gautam / Himalayan Times. Used by permission.

Conclusion: The 2015 earthquake was a tragedy for Nepal, which was struggling at the time to put a functional system of governance in place. On the other hand, it became a learning opportunity for the future management of catastrophes. This essay has argued that (1) natural disasters are not just natural, and government missteps have caused additional suffering for many earthquake-stricken Nepalis; (2) the disaster-recovery process could help legitimize Nepal’s new local governments, but without better local-federal coordination this opportunity could be lost; and (3) Nepalis seem to fear natural disasters such as floods more than earthquakes, raising concerns over future earthquake preparedness.

Originally published on asiafoundation.org.