Nepal earthquake offers lessons for climate disaster planning

Lack of rules and regulations meant earthquake warnings were ignored, say experts, leaving communities vulnerable 

The ancient Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Nepal (Pic: Brandon/Flickr)

The ancient Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Nepal (Pic: Brandon/Flickr)

By Leo Barasi in Nairobi

People across Nepal, with the help of aid agencies and the government, are beginning the work of recovering after the huge earthquake that struck the country on Sunday.

The destruction caused by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and the response to it, may have lessons for how countries like Nepal can prepare for other disasters.

Questions have been raised about whether authorities in Nepal had prepared adequately for such an earthquake, which had been long-predicted.

“There are things we should have done that would have lessened the damage”, Nepalese planning expert Madan P Pariyar told RTCC, speaking on the sidelines of a climate adaptation conference organised by the IIED development thinktank.

The earthquake that hit Nepal on Sunday is confirmed to have killed over 5,000 people, with fears the death toll may reach 10,000.

It was the worst earthquake to hit the region since 1934, which itself followed a series of previous earthquakes.

While an area’s susceptibility to earthquakes can be identified in advance, seismologists are not able to predict exactly when an earthquake will strike.

With the history of earthquakes in the region, Nepal was known to be at risk from quakes.

Yet, it has been suggested that the country did not act sufficiently on this knowledge to prepare for a likely earthquake.


Pariyar says that in the decades following the 1934 earthquake, people in Nepal were conscious of earthquake risk and factored it into decisions about housing and infrastructure.

“People did not build multi-storey buildings because they were the generation that had seen the earthquake.”

But more recently, he says, this attitude changed: “Investment in multi-storey buildings greatly increased in the last 10 years.”

He adds that many low-rise buildings were also vulnerable to the earthquake because they had been constructed too close together.

Most houses were not built to earthquake-resistant standards, he notes, but “there are cases where houses were built to earthquake-proof technologies and which survived”.

Given the knowledge that Nepal was in an earthquake zone, Pariyar asks, “Why were the authorities approving these building plans?”

Sujan Piya, who works for Practical Action in Nepal, links the buildings’ vulnerability to the earthquake with the weakness of government in the country.

“The preparation was very poor, because the political management was poor and the local government systems were nonexistent.”

According to Piya, the problem can only be addressed by leadership from public authorities.

“The strategy has to be right from the top level”, he said.

He contrasts the building practices in Nepal with those in Japan, where, he says, public authorities ensure buildings are built strictly to earthquake-resistant standards.

“The problem is not about capital, it is about the lack of rules and regulations”, Piya said.

“A building code is necessary, especially for public infrastructure like schools and hospitals”, he added.

Pariyar suggests this week’s disaster will, like the one in 1934, remind people of the risk of an earthquake and change the way they prepare for such an event.

“Before, people knew about it but they never believed it”, Pariyar said.

“Now, people will be very careful, because they have seen it – they will take it into account”, he added.

Pariyar notes that the earthquake particularly affected people who were living in more fragile areas, such as high on mountainsides: “Poor people, women, children – they are more affected”.

The priority now, he says, is making sure aid reaches the people who most need it: “What we need is doctors and medicine to get to those who survived, their lives need to be saved.”

Climate change

With climate change predicted to cause growing numbers of disasters like landslides, floods and storms, what can we learn from how this week’s earthquake has affected Nepal?

Pariyar notes that a crucial difference is that earthquakes are unavoidable, while many climate-related disasters can be prevented.

“We can’t stop the earthquake, but climate change we can stop”, he said.

In both cases, he added, “preparedness is very important”.

Yet, he said, even though in the case of the earthquake “such a catastrophe was forecast”, the measures that could have reduced the damage were not taken.

Piya contrasts the preparations that are needed for earthquakes with those he says are necessary for climate-related disasters.

While earthquake preparations require regulations from public authorities, he says threats from climate change can be more easily addressed at informal community levels.

“Our focus is on avoiding disasters like landslides: this is more related to what communities can do.”

He says the risk of local disasters like these can be reduced through work with unofficial institutions to change the way communities use their land, for example through terracing.

Some scientists believe that climate change is itself likely to make earthquakes more common.

As the warming climate melts ice sheets and causes sea levels to rise, the changing pressures on the Earth’s surface may increase the frequency of earthquakes as well as of volcanic eruptions.

This could mean that preparation for earthquakes, such as enforcement of building regulations, will be seen as an important aspect of adaptation to climate change.

However, the extent of any link between climate change and earthquakes is not yet clear.

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