Monday, May 25, 2015

Nepal’s Disaster Resilience Is a Structural Issue


The country faces a mammoth task building economic, social, and political stability.

Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake has claimed more than 8,600 lives, and is now officially the deadliest event in the country’s history. Since the April 25tragedy, commentators and experts have opined about Nepal’s lack of preparedness, with indictments of shoddy infrastructure, poorly enforced or non-existent building codes, and inadequate response systems. International attention, aside from an uptick after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake on May 12, has waned. Regrettably, factors underlying Nepal’s lagging structural resilience have received little coverage. Beyond disaster preparedness, true resilience is a net product of economic, social, and political conditions, factors which in Nepal’s case continue to threaten the country’s stability.

Nepal now faces the realities of a slow, challenging, and likely unsung recovery. Addressing the difficulty of moving forward amidst this seeming hopelessness, a recent Guardian article argued “the mental and emotional impact of an earthquake is the other invisible disaster.” If any good comes of this disaster, aside from inspirational rescue and survival stories, it is that lessons from the impacts will be woven into a larger narrative concerning the continuing plight of the Nepalese people. Even before the earthquakes, Nepal was not the commonly held impression of a simple-but-satisfied country with cheerful hillside villages.

In a continuing disaster of nearly equivalent proportions, the country’s sagging economy has driven young Nepalese men to migrate in droves. The impacts are felt in the villages they leave, and in their own toilsome and dangerous lifestyles working as construction workers in wealthier Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries. Between 2006 and 2014, more than 1,000 Nepalese laborers died in Malaysia alone; more than one hundred die in Qatar each year. Construction on that country’s 2022 FIFA World Cup facilities could ultimately claim the lives of 4,000 migrant workers, a majority of whom are from India and Nepal.

“Many Nepali migrant workers work in low-paying jobs with hazardous conditions – often known as the 3D jobs: dirty, difficult and dangerous,” says Richa Shivakoti, a Singapore-based migration analyst focusing on Nepal. This story has not emerged in popular media coverage, even during the latest disaster, but the migrant phenomenon is nonetheless highly relevant for exacerbating the country’s recovery challenges.

Disaster resilience is about more than episodic foreign donations, which now resemble a global arms race of pity despite concerns about governments co-opting funds. Rebuilding takes manpower, but many of Nepal’s most able workers are absent. By some estimates, at least 7 percent of the country’s nearly 30 million people have already left and more than 500,000 do so every year. These are only the official statistics. Actual numbers may be higher. Remittances account for more than 25 percent of GDP, which is an indication both of the productive value of Nepal’s lost workers and of the country’s otherwise anemic economy.

With prospects so dim that upwards of 10 percent of citizens willfully leave their families to risk life and limb working overseas, Nepal lacks fundamental resilience against any type of threat, natural or otherwise. Despite the current wave of Kathmandu residents returning to their home villages, the earthquake may intensify the exodus of workers in the long run, as Nepal’s economy – already suffering – struggles to recuperate. Because of the havoc created by the two major earthquakes, migration may even increase over the short and medium terms because of a lack of employment opportunities.

Nepal’s earthquake vulnerability is arguably a confluence of economic, social, and political conditions that deplete the country of human capital. Inadequate infrastructure, building codes, and response efforts are merely symptoms, and focusing on these issues misses the larger point. Countries with otherwise healthier economies and socio-political environments are typically more resilient. This disaster should therefore be a call to address Nepal’s broader failings, a lingering challenge after a decade-long Maoist insurgency and current political stalemate.

Japan responded quickly and effectively after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake. Within several weeks, victims were housed, infrastructure was under repair, and living conditions were gradually stabilizing (for instance, with the simple provision of food and necessities). These circumstances were clearly different from those in Nepal; access to Japan’s affected areas was largely unobstructed, technical expertise was more readily available, and the country had long since understood its own seismic vulnerability (notwithstanding the seaside location of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station). Japan was prepared to mobilize, but Nepal was not.

Nepal faces a bleak and discouraging situation that simple recommendations cannot improve. From a demographic perspective, overpopulation strains urban infrastructure and crowds out individual economic opportunities. For families in rural areas, however, having children is an agricultural necessity and social safety net. From an economic perspective, upgrading industries and global linkages can hasten growth and generate domestic employment opportunities. However, the country’s landlocked geography, poor governance practices, and past insurgencies, along with the emergence of ambitious regional peers, complicate the pursuit of economic competitiveness.

From a comparative advantage perspective, Nepal could focus on further developing its tourism industry, which accounts for 8 percent of the economy. However, step-gains in tourism – arguably even more difficult after the earthquake destroyed heritage sites – will not provide the economic boost needed to transform the economy. Agriculture, which constitutes the largest share of Nepal’s economy, is likewise confined to only linear growth and based largely on marginal improvements in productivity.

A potentially new source of Nepal’s comparative advantage could be hydropower and the export of electricity to power-hungry neighbors, especially India. Nepal’s hydropower potential is estimated at 80,000 MW, out of which only about 700 MW has been developed. With a population of around 30 million, Nepal’s per capita electricity use of 106 KWh is one of the lowest in the world. Frequent blackouts in Kathmandu have been a major deterrent to economic and industrial development. Other mountainous countries like Norway and Switzerland have developed 56 percent and 87 percent of their hydro-potential (respectively), but Nepal has developed only about 0.8 percent. Even neighboring Bhutan is aiming to boost economic growth by exporting electricity to India and Bangladesh.

The past 30 years have been a case of missed opportunity for Nepal, due in large part to continuing mistrust with India and big brother-small brother dynamics. The situation is likely to worsen after the two earthquakes. Ideally, the present governments of India and Nepal would forge better relationships so that Nepal can develop hydropower both for domestic use and for export to neighboring South Asian countries. Realizing this potential would have a transformational impact on Nepal, which now has very few alternatives and urgently needs a new path to development.

Long-term concerns aside, Nepal must take progressive steps towards restoring services and providing shelter and basic necessities for earthquake victims. When recovery aid money is spent and life returns to some semblance of normalcy, Nepal will then face the mounting task of building true resilience: economic, social, and political stability. Given the challenges already faced, it has no other alternative. The country’s future depends on it.

Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a doctoral candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 



  1. What Japan's 'Proactive Contribution to Peace' Looks Like in Nepal
    Japan’s aid to Nepal has gone largely unnoticed by the international community.
    On April 25, Nepal was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Less than a month later, a second, 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck on May 12, followed (as the first quake had been) by numerous aftershocks. As of Sunday, May 17, Nepal’s Home Ministry has confirmed a death toll of at least 8,583, making this the most devastating and deadly disaster of Nepal’s history. As the rescue effort continues, the numbers of those who perished will no doubt continue to climb.
    After the first earthquake, Japan was one of the countries that reached out to Nepal most quickly to provide various forms of disaster relief. To start, Tokyo immediately announced that it would provide a $14 million emergency grant aid package to Nepal, much of which will be disbursed through international organizations such as the World Food Program, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Japan has always been quick to donate money, particularly given its own experience with major natural disasters, and this time was no exception. This time, however, we are seeing Japan’s “whole-of-the-government” approach to international emergency assistance, which embodies Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace.”

  2. The Japanese government has three main tools for emergency assistance: dispatch of the Japan Disaster Relief (JDR) team, the provision of emergency relief goods, and emergency grant aid. In the case of Nepal, the timely dispatch of the JDR was particularly noteworthy. Getting relief efforts underway within 72 hours after a large-scale disaster is considered critical in disaster relief. Japan managed to dispatch its two inter-agency JDR teams — one focused on search and rescue/recovery and the other for medical support — to Nepal within 48 hours after the first big earthquake hit. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) followed the next day to provide medical assistance and airlifts. Since the calamity first hit Nepal last month, Japan’s JDR teams have engaged in the following relief activities:
    • Search and Rescue: A inter-agency search-and-rescue team of 70 personnel from MOFA, JICA, National Police Agency, Fire and Disaster Management Agency, and Japan Coast Guard was dispatched on April 26. The team concluded their operations and returned to Japan after two weeks.
    • Medical: The first team of 46, composed of medical practitioners across Japanese government agencies, was sent on April 27 for approximately two weeks,. The second team of 34 personnel was sent on May 7.
    • Relief operations by the SDF: Following a small pre-deployment assessment team, 20 SDF medical personnel were dispatched on April 28, to be followed by a group of approximately 110 personnel. The SDF has also been involved in airlift operations.
    Today, the JDR medical support team and SDF continue their relief effort in Nepal.

  3. As the Japanese Diet enters a fierce debate on the national defense legislation package this week, all eyes are on how the suggested legislative changes will enable the SDF to play a more active role in a situation that may require the use of force. While that debate is no doubt critical, the effective and timely inter-agency response displayed by Japan in in the immediate aftermath of the worst earthquake in Nepal’s recent history deserve greater attention, as it is nothing but a demonstration of Japan’s unwavering commitment to a proactive contribution to peace.
    Yuki Tatsumi is Senior Associate of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Hana Rudolph is a research assistant with the East Asia Program at Stimson.