25 April 2016 | Marita Swain

Nepal: one year after the earthquakes, an end to displacement is still years away

One year after the April and May 2015 earthquakes and aftershocks, there remains a long road ahead to finding sustainable solutions for more than 2.6 million people displaced. Experience shows that recovery from such large-scale disasters in any country is a lengthy process that can take at least three to five years. Weak governance and institutions, together with a high level of corruption in Nepal, are factors that can be expected to hold back the reconstruction progress even more.


Why were the 2015 earthquakes so devastating? Why is displacement so high?

At the boundary of two tectonic plates, the Indo-Australian and Asian plates, Nepal is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. The Kathmandu Valley is estimated to have the greatest risk per capita of earthquake lethality potential.  For years, people have been talking about ‘the big one’, and millions of dollars have been poured into preparing Kathmandu for an inevitable future earthquake disaster. As bad as they were, the two April and May 2015 earthquakes were not the ‘big one’ expected, however. They struck in the high mountain ranges, which are far more sparsely populated than the Kathmandu Valley, but where people were arguably less prepared and more isolated. 

As with all earthquakes, the scale and ultimate human impact in both urban and rural areas is closely related to the poor construction quality of buildings and infrastructure. As the earth shakes, buildings topple and anyone inside or nearby is at risk. The time of day, and day of the week when an earthquake hits can therefore have a big impact on the particularly high death tolls associated with earthquakes.

Nepal adopted a National Building code in 2003, but only a quarter of the country’s 191 municipalities had started implementing it by the time the earthquakes struck. Implementation is costly, time consuming and requires technical expertise and close government oversight.

For these reasons, the devastation wrought by the two major earthquakes was huge. The death toll of 8,700 people is a sombre reminder that quality construction is worth every penny. In addition, over 22,000 people were wounded and somehow among the rubble and wreckage, grief-stricken Nepal has had no choice but to pick itself up again.

The seismic activity and the ensuing landslides damaged or destroyed more than half a million houses, and many of them were in the spectacular, yet remote high mountainous regions that are not easily reached by road. IDMC estimates that there are 2.6 million people still displaced by the earthquakes as of April 2016, including those living only in makeshift shelters near to their damaged or destroyed homes.

The risk of future earthquake disasters will remain until every single dwelling is retro-fitted or built anew to meet seismic building standards.  No one knows when and where the next earthquake will strike, but what is certain is that the most vulnerable will be adversely affected.

No quick fixes

The Government of Nepal has identified over 600,000 houses which must be rebuilt and has to administer the distribution of over $ 4.1 billion in aid. To facilitate this process, Nepal has adopted a law providing for the creation of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) which has a five year mandate, with an extra one year buffer, to manage the reconstruction works.

It took nine months to get the NRA off the ground and now, one year after the earthquakes hit, reconstruction grants to eligible land owners have just begun. Many people are uncertain about eligibility as large numbers are without land ownership documents and many are concerned that the cash grant per household is simply inadequate.

The sheer scale of rebuilding requires a formidable number of technical experts to carry out damage assessments and trained masons to build according to safety regulations. With a limited budget and shortage of skilled labour, reconstruction will be slow, too slow. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of families must withstand more monsoons and harsh winters at high altitude protected only by tents, makeshift wooden or corrugated iron shelters.

IDMC’s monitoring of protracted displacement following disasters such as the impact of Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) in the Philippines in 2013 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake shows that finding durable solutions for many thousands of people in the wake of a disaster well exceeds envisaged time frames. For those displaced, this often leads to situations of chronic vulnerability and impoverishment.

The odds are not in Nepal’s favour, but the aftermath of this major disaster may provide an opportunity to focus investment in rebuilding, repairing and retrofitting existing buildings to minimise the impact of future earthquakes while providing long-term solutions for the displaced.

IDMC’ upcoming 2016 Global Report on Internal Displacement, to be published in early May 2016, will have a more detailed spotlight on some of the obstacles to protection and recovery for those displaced by the 2015 Nepal earthquake disaster.


Next: The people behind the dams, mines, riverfront ‘development’ projects
Previous: Five years on for Fukushima’s IDPs: Life with radiological risk and without a community safety net