Nepal Earthquake: Lessons learnt from responding to earthquakes

On Saturday 25 April 2015, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck the Himalayan nation of Nepal, killing over 3,000 people, destroying homes and buildings across the country and setting off a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.

Nepal is located in South Asia, home to one fifth of humanity and one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world.  The region experiences some 100,000 minor quakes every year, and one of magnitude 8 or greater every 25 years. Yet lax building standards, densely populated urban centres and poorly planned towns make the region's people extremely vulnerable to the fallout from tremors. 

While the international emergency response takes off and comes to the aid of the people in Nepal overwhelmed by this enormous tragedy, Irish NGOs warn that decisions made in the early phases of the response will determine the success of the country’s reconstruction efforts for years to come.

1) Earthquakes are different from other disasters.

Earthquakes are the most deadly natural disasters, accounting for some 60% of the deaths caused by natural disasters in the 2000-2009 period.

  • Earthquakes typically do an enormous amount of damage in a very short space of time. This means that they kill and wound great numbers of people during the quake and its aftershocks, but that in comparison to disasters such as droughts and floods the death toll is unlikely to increase significantly afterwards.  

  • This also means that after earthquakes the affected communities are always the first to provide assistance to the victims. Once the tremors are over, the search and rescue can begin, and earthquakes - unlike other natural disasters - rarely prompt large flows of refugees or social/political instability. This means that the survivors, despite the trauma and fear of further shocks, can tend to their neighbours and other victims immediately after the quakes have subsided.

  • Earthquakes pose big challenges for external assistance. In most countries struck by large earthquakes the destruction of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure makes access and communication extremely difficult.  

2) Disaster relief: Rushed decisions influence the future

Aid agencies and authorities have responded to a large number of major earthquakes over the years, and their collective experience has provided a number of valuable lessons for future disasters:

  • First and foremost, the lesson of humanitarian assistance after earthquakes has been that international assistance must focus on the prospects for “building back better”. Because earthquakes begin and end so quickly, the focus of external assistance to earthquake victims is on “search and rescue” (rescuing people trapped under the rubble and recovering the remains of those who died), as well as on recovery. In contrast, in most other emergencies the initial focus is on saving lives and halting the further spread of the disaster.

  • Giving cash remains the most effective way of assisting the victims. In contrast to donations in kind (clothes etc.) money is faster and more flexible, and allows for the local purchase of relief goods. Because most earthquakes affect only a relatively small area, in most situations relief items are available close to the people affected. Buying locally is not only cheaper and faster, it also helps provide local employment, boosting the affected communities’ long-term prospects of recovery. 

  • Like in any other relief operation, listening to the survivors and victims is crucial. All aid agencies and donors have an obligation to make sure that outside aid actually ‘helps’ and that the assistance is appropriate and effective. 

  • Livelihoods are key to recovery. In most cases, people’s means of making a living have also been damaged by the earthquake. Survivors must be assisted in building livelihoods that help them cope with and recover from shocks and stresses such as natural disasters in the future.

  • Focusing on emergency shelter while neglecting permanent shelter is a mistake. It is important to provide tents and other accommodation to the survivors of earthquakes, but purchasing materials and tools so that affected people and communities can set about reconstructing their homes is better in the long run. 

  • Aid is rarely neutral. Any outside assistance will either reinforce or reduce existing inequalities in the affected community - and therefore must be designed specifically with the intentions of reducing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Disaster response and humanitarian aid must not be treated as a stand-alone activity, unrelated to the development strategies of the country affected. 

  • The risk of disease after the earthquake tends to be exaggerated. In the vast majority of earthquake situations, the much feared epidemics did not materialise. There are substantial risks associated with the decay of dead bodies and the pollution of water sources, but aid agencies have strong mechanisms in place that – if properly resourced – have proven to be able to manage those risks very effectively.

  • Change is necessary. Aid agencies, governments and donors all want to “build back better”. This means not just building better housing, it also implies improving building codes and town planning and reinforcing the community’s social and physical infrastructure. Disaster response activities must combine structural measures such as the building of quake-resistant building and roads with non-structural measures such as enhancing the rights and negotiating power of vulnerable and marginalised communities.

  • Disaster response is not a magic bullet. 

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