Natural Hazards Governance in Nepal
Summary and Keywords
Natural hazards in Nepal have traditionally been managed on an ad hoc basis as and when they occur, with individuals and communities largely responsible for their own risk management. More recently, however, there has been a shift from response to disaster preparedness and risk reduction, in line with the United Nations Hyogo Framework for Action and the more recent Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Like many developing countries, Nepal has received significant financial and technical support to implement DRR programs from the national to the community levels. While this has provided a much-needed incentive for action in this post-conflict, transitional state, it has also created a complex governance landscape involving a multitude of government and non-government stakeholders. Heavily influenced by the neoliberal development agenda, and in the absence of an up-to-date disaster management act, DRR programs focused largely on institution-building and technical interventions, for example, the establishment of disaster management committees, the retrofitting of schools and hospitals, and the development of flood early warning systems. Such interventions are highly technocratic and have been critiqued for failing to address the root causes of disasters, in particular, the systemic poverty, social inequality and marginalization that characterizes Nepal. Nepal is also undergoing a complex political transition, which has seen the ratification of a new constitution, federal restructuring, and local elections for the first time in 20 years, as well as the passing of the new Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017. There is much scope for optimism but successful risk reduction moving forward will require commitment and action at all levels of the governance hierarchy, and a wider commitment to address the social injustice that continues to prevail.
Natural Hazard Governance in a Transitioning State
Located along the Himalayan Arc, Nepal is highly susceptible to a range of geophysical and hydro-meteorological hazards including earthquakes, landslides, and floods. This reflects the country’s dynamic setting along the boundary between two tectonic plates and a climate dominated by the South Asian summer monsoon (June–September) (Petley et al., 2007). Between 2000 and 2014, an average of 329 people per year lost their lives due to disasters (Ministry of Home Affairs & DPNET, 2015). Recent examples include the 2014 Jure landslide in Sindhupalchok District, Central Nepal which killed approximately 150 people, destroyed agricultural land, and blocked the main highway linking Kathmandu and China (Khanal & Gurung, 2014); the 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha Earthquake sequence which killed around 9,000 people in Central and West Nepal (UNOCHA, 2015); and the 2017 floods which affected 35 districts, killed 134 people, and displaced tens of thousands more (Government of Nepal, 2017a). In addition to these rapid-onset events, Nepal is susceptible to slow-onset disasters such as drought, reflecting changes in rainfall patterns that are having a notable impact on the predominantly rural population,1 which remains heavily dependent upon rain-fed agriculture (Dahal et al., 2016).
It is well recognized that such disaster events are not the result of natural hazards alone but reflect a range of social, economic, and political factors and processes that render Nepal’s population vulnerable to disasters (Wisner et al., 2004). Indeed, Nepal is classified as a low-income country, ranked 144 out of 188 countries in the composite Human Development Index (HDI) (UNDP, 2016). While money-metric poverty in Nepal has fallen in recent years, Nepal remains one of the world’s 48 “least” developed countries, with 37%of the population living on less than $1.51 per day (ADB, 2014). It is widely documented that political marginalization and social exclusion are the main barriers to poverty alleviation in Nepal, with an individual’s caste, class, ethnic group, and gender largely determining access to resources, livelihood options, and decision-making processes (Nagoda, 2015; see also Bista, 1994; and Gurung et al., 2014). While social inequality is reported to be narrowing, it remains severe, with wide variations in HDI values across population groups (UNDP, 2014). It is unsurprising, therefore, that past disasters in Nepal, including the 2015 earthquakes, have disproportionately affected marginalized groups including women and ethnic minorities (National Planning Commission, 2015).
Nepal is undergoing a complex political transition following the establishment of multi-party democracy in the 1990s (Jha, 2014; Nightingale et al., 2018). Fueled by severe poverty, pronounced socioeconomic inequality, and the marginalization of indigenous groups, Nepal’s left-wing Maoists launched the “People’s War” in 1996 which lasted for a decade, killing more than 12,000 people (Rankin et al., 2018). The signing of a Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006, demanding the removal of the monarchy and the establishment of a federal republic, marked the start of what became a protracted constitution-writing process (Nightingale, 2017). After a series of failed attempts, the new constitution was finally adopted five months after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. While the constitution was hailed by some as an achievement, for others the earthquake provided an opportunity to push through a less progressive, even backwards-looking constitution (Tamang, 2018a; see also Muni, 2015). Indeed, for some there remain significant concerns over the rights of ethno-cultural minorities and women, particularly in regard to political representation and citizenship; and contestation over some federal state boundaries, which have resulted in further protests and violence (Muni, 2015; Nightingale et al., 2018; Rankin et al., 2018).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, disaster management and disaster risk reduction (DRR) have been very much sidelined in Nepal, at least within government. Until September 2017, Nepal was working from an outdated disaster management act dating back to 1982, which focused on disaster response and recovery. Despite this, progress has been made in reducing disaster risk, but this has been largely initiated by the international development community, with DRR policy and practice shaped by international frameworks including the Hyogo Framework for Action2 and the more recent Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Jones et al., 2014a). These frameworks, in a similar vein to the climate change adaptation frameworks discussed by Nightingale (2017), promote a range of institution-building and technical measures to reduce disaster risk, from the establishment of national platforms and local disaster management committees, to the development of early warning systems. However, while such initiatives have been seen to build capacity within government and support some communities in disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation, for example in the context of flood risk reduction in Nepal’s low lying southern plains, they have been criticized for failing to address the root causes of disasters or addressing livelihood concerns fundamental for resilience building (Nagoda, 2015; Oven et al., 2017; Nagoda & Nightingale, 2017; Gladfelter, 2018). This, at least in part, reflects the often apolitical and technocratic roots of many development interventions(Ferguson, 1994; Li, 2007), with vulnerability viewed as an outcome of a disaster rather than the underlying cause of it (O’Brien et al., 2007).
This essay explores how natural hazards are governed in Nepal using the broad definition of governance proposed by Brown (2016): “the structures and processes by which people in societies make decisions and share power” (p. 206). Governance in this context therefore refers to the actors, formal laws, and other public policy, and informal institutions and practices including social norms and power relations. The essay examines how natural hazards are governed from the national to the community level, including the role of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms, and the factors shaping the approaches taken. Consideration is given to a range of geophysical and hydro-meteorological hazards that present both immediate and longer-term threats including landslides, earthquakes, floods, and drought. The essay begins by outlining the framework that structures it, before providing an overview of the stakeholder, institutional, and incentive context for DRR at the national and sub-national levels. In doing so, the essay highlights the recent governance changes that have a bearing on future natural hazard governance in Nepal.
Understanding the Governance Landscape for DRR in Nepal
Informed by the theory of political economy analysis, Jones et al. (2016) set out a framework for understanding how DRR is governed (Figure 1). The framework considers three specific aspects of DRR governance: the stakeholder, the institutional, and the incentive contexts.
The first, the stakeholder context, refers to the stakeholders (both government and non-government) that are engaged in DRR, and the relationships among them, including the role of power. Second, the institutional context refers to the specific apparatus including the formal institutional structures, the legislative and judicial context, and roles and responsibilities of specific stakeholders. Here consideration is given to issues of political power, prioritization and influence, as well as policy and institutional coherence (Lavell et al., 2012). Third, the incentive context, refers to the incentives and disincentives that affect the decisions taken by stakeholders engaged in DRR at all levels and the implications for policy and practice, for example, decisions to enforce seismic building codes or to regulate land use planning. Factors influencing decision-making may include legal responsibility, administrative rules, ethical principles, career aspirations, and peer pressure, among other factors (Wisner et al., 2011). The incentive context is also very much concerned with political will, the determination or resolve of key officials, and opinion-forming elites in society to implement and enforce a policy (Wisner et al., 2011). The following sections unpack the natural hazard governance landscape in Nepal using this framework.
The Stakeholder Context for DRR in Nepal
A multi-stakeholder governance landscape for DRR is very much evident in Nepal. For Jones et al., (2014a, citing Bulkeley & Jordan, 2012), this is very much a reflection of the neoliberal development agenda, which has led to a redistribution of state functions “upwards” to international institutions, “downwards” to lower tiers of authority, and “outwards” to a range of nonstate actors. This can be attributed to Nepal’s reliance on international development assistance, the underpinning logics of which have shaped the development agenda (Pandey, 2011; Rigg et al., 2016). A priority area in recent years has been disaster resilience and risk reduction, reflecting the dominant international agenda spearheaded by the United Nation International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the top sectors receiving overseas development assistance in Nepal in the 2015/2016 fiscal year were energy; local development; education; health; and environment, science, and technology, which includes DRR (Ministry of Finance, 2017, p. 6).
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, with its four priority areas (Table 1), sets out a vision for stakeholder collaboration. The state is recognized as having the primary role in reducing disaster risk, with responsibility shared with other stakeholders including local government and the private sector (UNISDR, 2015). Jones et al. (2016) explored the role and power of the state versus nonstate actors in the context of earthquake DRR at the national level in Nepal through a series of participatory activities with a range of government and non-government stakeholders. One particular exercise focused on developing a power and influence pyramid, with a focus on earthquake risk reduction. After much discussion and disagreement amongst participants, the mixed stakeholder group identified the Government of Nepal (including the Council of Ministers, the Home Ministry, in which the Disaster Management Section has traditionally been located, followed by the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, which is responsible for building code implementation and land use planning) as the most powerful and influential stakeholders in the context of earthquake risk reduction in Nepal. They were followed by the UN organizations, a consortium of humanitarian and development partners working towards DRR (the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium), other central-level government departments, and a prominent national non-governmental organization (NGO) working for earthquake safety. Below these stakeholders were the Kathmandu municipalities, reflecting the power of the municipal governments in the Kathmandu Valley, and finally the donor organizations, development banks, and international NGOs. In follow-up interviews, however, Jones et al. (2016) uncovered a more nuanced picture that importantly recognized the power of the state, even in this post-conflict transitional context, but also the influence of other stakeholders, namely the donor organizations and UN agencies, with their associated funding.
Table 1. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: Four Priorities for Action
(1) Understanding disaster risk
Disaster risk management should be based on an understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions of vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazard characteristics, and the environment. Such knowledge can be used for risk assessment, prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and response.
(2) Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk
Disaster risk governance at the national, regional, and global levels is very important for prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery, and rehabilitation. It fosters collaboration and partnership.
(3) Investing in DRR for resilience
Public and private investment in disaster risk prevention and reduction through structural and non-structural measures are essential to enhance the economic, social, health, and cultural resilience of persons, communities, countries, and their assets, as well as the environment.
(4) Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction
The growth of disaster risk means there is a need to strengthen disaster preparedness for response, take action in anticipation of events, and ensure capacities are in place for effective response and recovery at all levels. The recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction phase is a critical opportunity to build back better, including through integrating DRR into development measures.
Source: UNISDR (2015, p. 36).
In Nepal, disaster management has traditionally been the responsibility of the Ministry of Home Affairs as set out in the 1982 Natural Disaster Relief Act (also known as the Natural Calamities Act). The Act specified that the Home Ministry was responsible for the formulation of national policies and their implementation, preparedness and mitigation activities, immediate rescue and relief work, data collection and dissemination, and the distribution of relief materials (Pradhan, 2007; IFRC, 2011). While the Home Ministry’s role in disaster response was clear, in the last decade there was significant debate around who should be responsible for DRR, which arguably sat more logically within the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (now the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration). Unsurprisingly, this resulted in power politics between the two ministries, with the Home Ministry reluctant to relinquish any power (or budget). It is important to note, however, that the priority accorded to disaster management by the Home Ministry has historically been low. For example, Jones et al. (2014a) reported that the Disaster Management Section consisted of only three staff members headed by a low-ranking official, with all staff being generalists rather than specialists, and having other responsibilities alongside disaster management. Further, section staff were frequently moved within and between ministries resulting in a lack of authority. While a larger division was being proposed at the time, it was a long way from the National Disaster Management Authority proposed in the draft National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management in 2008.
A number of technical departments have also been involved in DRR. These include the Department for Urban Development and Building Construction (Ministry of Urban Development), the Department of Mines and Geology (Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies), and the Departments of Water Induced Disaster Management and Hydrology and Meteorology (Ministry of Water Resources and Energy).3 As indicated, these departments sit under different line ministries, creating a challenging bureaucratic environment, with implications for institutional coherence, which we explore further below.
Under the Hyogo Framework for Action, the UNISDR promoted the establishment of National Platforms (or equivalent) as a central coordination mechanism for disaster risk management in country. This was taken forward in the Sendai Framework with the recognition of “the critical role played by national platforms in supporting the implementation, monitoring and review of the Sendai Framework through effective coordinated action at the national level and linkages with the local level as appropriate, the mobilisation of key stakeholders including the private sector, communities and key technical experts.”4 In the absence of a functioning national platform in Nepal, the UNDP established the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium in 2009 which brought together government, development and humanitarian actors engaged in DRR, with the aim of supporting the government to develop a long-term disaster risk management action plan (NRRC, 2013).
Described by a former head of the UN Mission to Nepal as “an unprecedented international alignment of actors—developmental and humanitarian, government and non-government—all working to a common plan with a shared sense of urgency and ambition” (Piper, 2013), the consortium had five priority areas or Flagships: School and Hospital Safety, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Flood Risk Management, Community Based Disaster Risk Management, and Policy and Institutional Strengthening.5 The aims of the Consortium were highly ambitious in terms of the breadth of activities planned and the funding target (Table 2), and faced a number of challenges along the way, notably bureaucratic hurdles and tensions between stakeholders who had not traditionally worked together (Taylor et al., 2013). Despite this, for the majority of stakeholders interviewed by Jones et al. (2014a), the consortium had been particularly successful in raising the profile of DRR within government and beyond, and in attracting further funding. The consortium did, however, receive criticism, with some stakeholders feeling that the DRR agenda had been hijacked by “international organisations and foreign experts [. . .] undermining existing national capacity” (Jones et al., 2014a, p. 85).
Table 2. The Estimated Budget of the Five-Year Flagship Program of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium and Example Achievements
(1) School and hospital safety
(2) Emergency preparedness and response capacity
(3) Flood management in the Koshi Basin
(4) Integrated community-based disaster risk reduction
(5) Policy and institutional support for disaster risk management
Much of the donor funding for DRR is passed to international NGOs for distribution to local NGOs who are mandated to implement development projects in Nepal.6 As reported by Nagoda and Nightingale (2017) in the context of climate change adaptation, donors tend to “mistrust the government’s capacity to implement CCA [climate change adaptation] interventions effectively, and rather overwhelmingly favour the use of NGOs to implement their programs” (p. 91). According to the Social Welfare Council of Nepal, nearly 40,000 NGOs are registered in country,7 with the NGO community seen by some as a “parallel state” (Bhandari, 2017). This reflects growing “anti-NGO rhetoric in [the] Nepali public sphere” (Bhandari, 2017). Tensions have been noted between government and the international NGOs, with government pressing for development funding to be channeled through them. In addition, some larger national NGOs feel that they are being by-passed by donors as in most cases they are unable to bid for funding directly. This was seen by some as a rather neo-colonial model that undermines capacity in Nepal and impacts negatively on project ownership and sustainability (Jones et al., 2014a).
Nepal has seen a proliferation of NGOs engaged in DRR in recent years reflecting, at least in part, the funding available from the international donor community to support DRR projects and a clear capacity gap to implement DRR initiatives at the sub-national level (Jones et al., 2014a). The Association of International NGOs Task Group on Disaster Management and Climate Change had, as of April 2018, 55 members, in addition to an extended membership of national organizations;8 while 95 international NGOs were registered with Nepal’s Disaster Preparedness Network.9 The high number of NGOs engaged in DRR has presented a number of challenges in relation to how funding is allocated, coordination amongst the growing number of actors, and ensuring the quality of the projects being implemented (Oven et al., 2017). The Social Welfare Council, which is legally required to register international NGOs and coordinate their assistance under the Social Welfare Act, has an important coordination role to play here (IFRC, 2011). However, in practice, this has become an administrative bottleneck (IFRC, 2011). The then Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development attempted to coordinate international NGO activity through the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium’s Flagship 4 program on Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction (CBDRR), with support from the IFRC (Oven et al., 2017). Projects were voluntarily registered by development partners and a mapping exercise undertaken. Guidelines were also developed to support CBDRR activities and to ensure a minimum standard of project delivery. Despite progress being made, the initiative stalled following the 2015 earthquake, the disbanding of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, and federal restructuring. A Community Based Disaster Risk Management Platform, led by the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration’s Environment and Disaster Management Section, has now been established to take this work forward (KC, personal communication, April 2018).
At the sub-national level, the district, municipal and village-level governments have been responsible for disaster management. However, Nagoda and Nightingale (2017) found “a strong mismatch between the role allocated to local-level governments by national-level policies, and the abilities of district governments to coordinate to implement these policies” (p. 91). For example, Yates (2012) noted a lack of direct coordination between District Development Committees (DDCs) and Village Development Committees (VDCs).10 Similar observations were made by Oven et al. (2017) in their review of the community-based DRR policy and practice in Nepal which saw the establishment of disaster management committees and the development of disaster management plans at the district, VDC and ward levels, often with limited coordination among them. Oven et al. (2017) also reported an absence of downward accountability and support (both technical and financial) from the district or central levels.
Yates (2012), in his study on the governance of livelihood adaption in rural Nepal, described the Village Development Committee (VDC) as largely “ineffective, bureaucratic, cumbersome, and unresponsive” (p. 540). In some cases, the absence of local elections and the central appointment of civil servants, some of whom were based at the district level, meant no actual government representative was present at VDC level, leaving no obvious mechanism for managing local government issues in a VDC area (IFRC, 2011). With NGOs largely providing technical support, the VDC was often bypassed as knowledge flowed directly from the development NGO to the local governance area (Yates, 2012). As a result, Yates’ (2012) research in Chitwan and Nawalparasi Districts revealed the disaster management committees to be more important, prevalent, and accessible than the VDC or DDC, as they brought together multiple scales of decision-making, knowledge, and influence. Oven et al. (2017), in contrast, drawing on field research in 10 districts across Nepal, found that the committees were rarely owned by, or embedded within, the communities where the DRR projects were undertaken, with DRR initiatives often viewed as NGO-owned and -led.
For Rankin et al. (2018) “[Nepal is] not the classic neoliberal governance scenario where the state devolves public functions to civil society” (p. 286). Indeed, rather than a “thinning of the public sector,” they argue that Nepal is opening up to new (multiply scaled) governmental agents. At the district and community levels they highlight the multiple and overlapping interests that shape decision-making processes including political party representatives, civil society leaders, NGOs, and donors. In the absence of local elections for almost 20 years, resulting in a lack of “legitimate local political and administrative structures and bodies” (Nagoda, 2015, p. 574), decision-making at the community level has often been based on consensus politics involving all political party representatives with the aim of creating the conditions for civil co-existence (Byrne & Shrestha, 2014).
It is important to note, however, that while there are now a multitude of stakeholders engaged in DRR in Nepal, natural hazards have traditionally been managed by householders and communities themselves, and in many ways, this remains the case, particularly in the context of small-scale, recurrent hazards (Oven, 2010; Oven & Rigg, 2015). A good deal of local knowledge about the physical environment has been documented including local observations in relation to flood hazard in the Terai (Dekens, 2007; Oven et al., 2017; Yates, 2012), landsliding in the hill and mountain districts (Johnson et al., 1982; Oven, 2010; Sudmeier-Rieux et al., 2012), and in relation to climate change including both drought and flood conditions (Uprety et al., 2011; Jones & Boyd, 2011; Manandhar et al., 2011; Chhetri et al., 2012). This can be seen in both traditional settlement locations and land use planning, and in locally developed early warning systems. In addition, at the household level, migration and livelihood diversification have long been coping strategies in the context of a range of shocks and stresses adopted by the rural poor (Nightingale, 2015b). For example, as part of a study on community vulnerability to landslides in Central Nepal, Oven and Rigg (2015) documented the migration of householders in north east Sindhupalchok District from the surrounding hill villages to the valley bottom to take advantage of roadside locations. Here, the landslide hazard is acute and potentially catastrophic putting householders at risk. Householders were, in general, aware of the hazard but “[f]or the majority of people in the study, landslide risk was a low priority concern [with] immediate, more tangible needs dictating local perceptions of risk” (Oven & Rigg, 2015, p. 692). With no formal landslide risk management in place beyond a limited number of gabion boxes constructed at the roadside, responsibility sat with the individual or the community. Householders and communities were found to rely on informal observations of the physical environment during the monsoon months, the establishment of small community funds to support affected householders, as well as religious practices such as the pre-monsoon puja. Many of these actions were undertaken by preexisting, informal community groups such as mothers’ groups and community forest user groups.
The Institutional and Policy Context for DRR
The essay now turns to the institutional and policy context for natural hazard governance in Nepal at the national and subnational levels, before outlining the changes that have ensued following the ratification of the new Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017, and the implications that these changes have for DRR governance in Nepal moving forward.
Nepal has a relatively comprehensive body of legislation relevant to natural hazard governance that has been developed over many years, including the Natural Disaster Relief Act (1982), as well as laws related to building and construction, land use planning, environmental protection, and water and forest management (IFRC, 2011). The Natural Disaster Relief Act was fundamentally oriented towards disaster response with disaster events managed on an ad-hoc basis as and when they occurred (Pradhan, 2007). The Act led to the establishment of disaster relief committees from the central to the local level, and the establishment of disaster relief funds under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Act remained in place until September 2017. Interim plans and strategies were, however, drafted and ratified, heavily shaped by international discourse and practice at the time (Vij et al., 2018) and a growing recognition within government that the Act “[did] not provide a sufficiently comprehensive platform for implementation of national DRR strategies” (IFRC, 2011, p. 29).
In 1996, in accordance with the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), the Government of Nepal produced the National Action Plan on Disaster Management (Ministry of Home Affairs, 1996). The plan emphasized preparedness, response, and recovery, but with an emphasis on hazard assessments and environmental engineering. This very much mirrored the scientific discourse of the time that underpinned the IDNDR, whereby disasters could be prevented by putting scientific knowledge into practice (Christoplos, 2003). The role of local government in disaster management was recognized and later supported by the 1999 Local Self Governance Act, which devolved responsibility and decision-making to the subnational level. However, as noted by Pradhan (2007), in the absence of any guidance or funding to support local government in disaster risk management, the plan had little impact.
In 2006, two separate policy processes were instigated in Nepal: the drafting of a revised Disaster Management Policy and Act involving the international NGO Oxfam and the National Centre for Disaster Management; and the National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department, and coordinated by the UNDP, with national NGO NSET-Nepal acting as the technical consultant. Both initiatives were influenced by the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action, an international framework promoting a wider paradigm shift from disaster response to DRR. The National Strategy was intended to “facilitate the fulfilment of the commitments made by Nepal through various international conventions and forums towards DRR” by making recommendations to improve the existing policy and legislative environment (NSDRM, 2008, p. iv). While the draft Act seemed to disappear into the political ether, the National Strategy gained a great deal of traction amongst the national and international stakeholders engaged in disaster management. Indeed, according to Jones et al. (2014a, 2016), there was little to fault in the process or in the final strategy document itself, which was deemed to be highly consultative and participatory (see also IFRC, 2011). As summarized in Jones et al. (2014a), the stakeholders interviewed saw the National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management as necessary in the absence of formal DRR legislation, with a recognized “need to ‘bypass government’ to enable DRR implementation” (p. 83).
It could be argued, therefore, that progress towards DRR was being achieved despite the many barriers identified in this transitional state, with non-government stakeholders navigating a way forward. However, as Nightingale (2017) warns, in the context of climate change adaptation policy, “[policy] documents need to be read as products of the messy politics of the time, not as achievements that somehow overcame them” (p. 15). A content analysis of the National Strategy and Act undertaken by Jones et al. (2014a) illustrates this well, with a number of the proposed ideas in the draft strategy resisted. For example, as summarized by Jones et al. (2016) “the National Strategy proposed the creation of a separate National Disaster Management Authority, under the Prime Minister’s Office, which would have the authority to mainstream DRR across all ministries and to allocate funds” (p. 35). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there was some resistance to this within the Ministry of Home Affairs, as they would lose power and funding to a new authority. Instead, the Home Ministry proposed a new and larger division within the Ministry, to be led by a more senior ranking official. While this may be viewed by some as evidence that disaster management was being taken more seriously by government, a division within a ministry does not have the authority over other ministries to enable mainstreaming. At the district level, the proposed “District Authorities for Disaster Risk Management” were to be led by the Chief of the District Development Committee under the then Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (Jones et al., 2014a). But in the approved strategy, the committees were to be chaired by the Chief District Officer under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The changes made between the draft and approved strategies suggest a desire for the Ministry of Home Affairs to retain power and authority reflecting, perhaps, “the logic of a state that seeks not to serve citizens, but to accumulate power to justify its existence along feudal lines of authority” (Tamang, 2015a).
Having introduced the main policy instruments guiding DRR in Nepal up to September 2017,11 consideration is now given to the institutional arrangements for earthquake and landslide risk reduction, and climate change adaptation, which serve to highlight some of the institutional incoherence that exists in natural hazard governance, and the power struggles at play within national level government.
A key component of earthquake risk reduction is building code design and implementation. Nepal’s National Building Code was developed in 1994 and mandated in 2004 (EERI, 2016). However, as noted by the IFRC (2011) in its analysis of legislation related to DRR in Nepal, “[t]here is not yet a comprehensive and/or adequately resourced mechanism to implement the National Building Codes to guard against the risk of earthquakes and fire” (p. 10). Building code implementation involves a complex governance arrangement in Nepal. As summarized by Jones et al. (2016), while the Department for Urban Development and Building Construction, within the Ministry of Urban Development, is responsible for private buildings over seven storeys and government buildings, schools are the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and the private sector; hospitals are the responsibility of the Ministry of Health and the private sector; and local government buildings fall under the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (now the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration). To add to this complexity, municipalities are under the purview of the local development ministry, limiting the influence of the Department for Urban Development. Similarly, land use planning has not been clearly regulated, with institutional responsibility divided between the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, the municipal authorities, and others (IFRC, 2011). There is also no consistent legal mechanism to relocate individuals or communities from high-risk land, which has been undertaken ad hoc in response to disasters (IFRC, 2011). The resettlement of communities displaced by landslides following the 2015 earthquake is a case in point and poses an ongoing challenge (Singh et al., 2018).
Landslide risk management is the responsibility of multiple government ministries, reflecting the fact that the hazard is associated with rainfall and earthquakes, with varying scales and styles of impact. Examples include: the Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management, Ministry of Forests and Environment (for small, shallow landslides); the Department of Water Induced Disaster Management, Ministry of Irrigation (for large-scale landslides affected strategic roads and other infrastructure); the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Ministry of Water Resources and Energy (rainfall and flood monitoring); and the Department of Mines and Geology, Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies (earthquake-triggered landslides). In addition, following the 2015 earthquakes, the National Reconstruction Authority, which is a separate authority under the Prime Minister’s Office, has also led a Geohazards Assessment focusing on settlements identified as being at risk of landsliding.12 The lack of clear authority, which is being further impacted by the current administrative changes, continues to be problematic, with landslide risk reduction being everyone’s and no one’s responsibility.
In contrast to DRR, climate change adaptation policy at the national level has been developed through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change-supported initiatives, including the National Adaptation Plan, Climate Strategy Document and the Pilot Programme for Community Resilience (see Nightingale, 2015a for a more detailed discussion). Most climate change programs in Nepal have been placed under the Ministry of Environment (now the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment) which has never been a powerful ministry, compared to the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation and the Ministry of Water, which govern the resources most closely aligned to climate change risks (Nightingale, 2017). Nightingale (2017) explains that for international actors, this was the obvious overarching ministry, and the national government agreed because it is a politically weak ministry. However, despite being responsible for all climate change programs and mainstreaming into wider development efforts, not all climate change mitigation programs fall within its ministerial jurisdiction, reflecting various struggles over authority. There are also notable overlaps between the climate change and DRR sectors and the planning processes underway (Oven et al., 2017)
Two sets of guidelines were introduced in 2011 to support subnational DRR in Nepal: the Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan guidelines for the district level, developed by the Ministry of Home Affairs with support from the UN agencies (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2015); and the Local Disaster Risk Management Planning Guideline (LDRMP) for municipalities and VDCs, developed by the then Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, with support from the international NGO Oxfam. A year later, the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development also published a set of guidelines for the formulation of District Disaster Management Plans. The Chief District Officer appointed by the Home Ministry was responsible for the District Disaster Response Plan which was focused on response and relief. The Local Development Officer, appointed by the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, was responsible for the District Disaster Risk Management Plan, and the VDC Secretary was responsible for the Local (VDC-level) Disaster Risk Management Plan, with the aim of institutionalizing disaster risk management and sustainable development at the local level. Alongside the LDRMP, in response to a growing recognition of the number of CBDRR projects underway, the need for better coordination and to ensure a consistent minimum standard of the projects being implemented, the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium’s Flagship 4 program developed the “9 Minimum Characteristics of a Disaster Resilient Community” (Oven et al., 2017) (Figure 2).
The LDRMP process involved the establishment of disaster management committees, a hazard and vulnerability assessment using a range of participatory methods and tools, and the identification and implementation of various technical measures (e.g., first aid and search and rescue training, the building of raised community grain stores and the development of evacuation plans). Through the LDRMP, natural hazards governance was “rendered technical” to create a “knowable, improvable, technical domain” which could be addressed through a development intervention (Li, 2007, p. 154).
Progress in the form of technical “outputs” was encouraging. Indeed, in their report to the HFA in 2015, the Home Ministry reported that all of the then 75 districts had District Disaster Preparedness and Response Plans (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2015); and as of December 2015, the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development reported that there had been more than 800 LDRMPs and 125 ward level Disaster Risk Management Plans completed (Oven et al., 2017). However, the Government of Nepal identified two key barriers to the implementation of the LDRMPs in their report to the HFA. The first related to the absence of a budget allocation at the district, VDC, and municipal levels, and the second to the absence of local elections: “At the local level, while planning tools such as the LDRMP support communities in planning for DRM, budget allocation and implementation is limited. The Government of Nepal is beginning to address this issue by directing local authorities to allocate 2 to 5% of total revenue for DRR activities. However, there is a need to ensure local government is aware of this directive and has the capacity to act upon it” (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2015, p. 9).
Focusing on CBDRR interventions informed by Nepal’s 9 Minimum Characteristics of a Disaster Resilient Community, Oven et al. (2017) observed a number of positive outcomes particularly in the context of seasonal flooding in the Terai. Examples included the establishment of early warning systems, the introduction of community-level DRR measures including safe houses and raised water pumps, and the establishment and training of task forces in preparedness and response. These findings support those of ISET et al. (2015) in its review of the 2014 Karnali River floods in Nepal, which concluded that early warning systems, implemented as part of a joint NGO-government project, saved lives and assets despite some complications and points of failure; while community disaster management committees were instrumental in responding to immediate needs, the government and NGO response was slow and poorly coordinated.
Key governance challenges were, however, noted. For Oven et al. (2017) new ward and VDC-level committees were often established based upon administrative boundaries rather than community networks defined locally by householders themselves. In some cases, new committees placed an added burden on already stretched community members, particularly women; committees were rarely embedded within local government limiting access to technical knowledge and funding; there was a lack of awareness amongst local government stakeholders of the resource and technical support available higher up the government hierarchy; and a lack of community ownership was reported, reflecting a perception that the CBDRR initiatives were NGO- rather than community-owned initiatives. Projects also tended to follow a fixed template, giving little space for flexible adaptation based on community concerns and needs, and existing informal governance arrangements. Participants were also aware of the limitations of what they could realistically achieve on their own, for example, in relation to preparing for and responding to disasters such as a high-magnitude earthquake. Here they saw a clear role for government in urban planning, infrastructure development, and building code enforcement.
The findings from Oven et al. (2017) resonate with those of Jones et al. (2014b), who undertook an action-research project in Nepal with the aim of establishing two risk and resilience committees. They highlight a number of governance challenges including: the importance of strong leadership while avoiding elite control and capture; and deeply ingrained social and political divisions that can be reproduced within newly established committees, which are not easy to overcome. Jones et al. (2014b) identified institutionalization as a principal factor for the success of one risk and resilience committee over the other. The successful committee, which was embedded within local government, had greater access to resources and the potential to be more accountable and transparent in its activities. However, it was recognized that embeddedness within government is not always a positive factor, and that this very much depends on the level of support the community has for local government.
Despite some of the positive outcomes associated with community-based flood early warning systems, Gladfelter (2018), in a case study on a community-based flood early warning system in the Far West of Nepal, challenged some of the implicit assumptions and material effects of early warning technologies. She highlighted that such projects “can have the effect of unintentionally naturalizing vulnerability and individualizing responsibility for self-securitization in the name of empowerment. In the process, they may even provide an excuse for government’s continued neglect of marginalized citizens” (p. 121). Elsewhere it has been argued that the discourse of community resilience justifies the state’s inaction and “shifts the burden of security from states to people” (Evans & Reid, 2014, p. 74). For example, Tamang (2015a), in a piece for the Kathmandu Post a month after the 2015 earthquake, warned that while a focus on resilience is, on one level, positive, with examples of citizens helping fellow citizens, raising funds, and coordinating relief efforts, it also “miss-directs attention from what should be emphasized—the duties of the government.”
Underpinning the above are issues of participation and power. For example, as demonstrated by Nagoda and Nightingale (2017), in a study of climate change adaptation policy in Nepal, “the same social and power relations that are driving local vulnerability dynamics, such as caste, gender, and access to social and political networks, also play important roles in shaping the impact of CCA [climate change adaptation] policies” (p. 85). Even if the most vulnerable households are included within the community disaster management committees, as specified in the LDRMP, they have very little, if any, influence on decision-making, with the better-off and high-caste households benefitting. Nagoda and Nightingale (2017) also warn that climate change adaptation initiatives can actually “perpetuate rather than alleviate the conditions that create differential vulnerability patterns at village level” (p. 85). For this reason, Nightingale (2015a) questions “the efficacy of participatory approaches when they are framed outside contentious politics” (p. 227) (see also Regmi et al., 2016).
An Evolving Institutional and Policy Context
The new constitution approved in September 2015 mandated a new federal state comprising seven provincial and 753 local governments, with significant implications for natural hazards governance in Nepal. Two years later, the new Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017 was approved, replacing the 1981 Natural Calamities Act (Kamat, 2017). It is unclear why the Act was passed at this particular time given the long period of inaction. Some commentators suggest that it was the 2015 earthquake and 2017 floods that provided the catalyst for change. Others see this as a strategic move by the Home Ministry to ensure they retain some power at a time of devolution under federalism.
The new Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act sets out a five-tier structure for disaster management at the central, provincial, district, municipal, and ward/community levels (Government of Nepal, 2017b). At the apex of the new governance structure is the National Council for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management chaired by the prime minister, and below this an executive committee chaired by the home minister, which is responsible for the formulation and implementation of policies and plans for approval by the National Council. Working under the executive committee is a National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, with an appointed civil servant as chief executive, which is responsible for implementing plans, conducting and commissioning research as required, providing funding and technical assistance to the provincial and local level for periodic plans, in addition to various disaster response functions. The new structure, then, broadly reflects the national level structures proposed in the draft National Strategy, before its revision and approval in 2009. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there remains a leading role for the Home Ministry and a backseat role for the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, reflecting the devolution of development planning under the new federal system.
The Act specifies the establishment of Provincial Disaster Management Committees chaired by the chief minister of each province, which are responsible for mid- and short-term disaster management planning at the provincial level, and coordinating disaster preparedness, search and rescue, and the management of relief materials. Below the provincial committees, there are District Disaster Management Committees chaired by the Home Ministry-appointed chief district officer, and Local Disaster Management Committees in each of the new rural and urban municipalities chaired by the mayor in the urban municipalities and the chairperson of rural municipalities. The local committees are responsible for formulating and implementing local disaster risk management plans in accordance with national policy, for ensuring the allocation of the local budget for disaster management, conducting disaster management activities and overseeing the formation of committees at ward and/or community levels. However, while the Act appears to map onto the new “scaled notion of the state” (Nightingale, 2015b), under the new constitution, decisions will be taken by the provincial government and below with provincial offices deciding if they would like a disaster management authority or not. As a result, how the above will play out in practice is far from clear. There has been a suggestion that as an interim measure, provincial-level disaster management authorities may be established in priority provinces, including the areas affected by the 2017 floods. Indeed, in preparation for the 2018 monsoon, local government was “told to focus on disaster preparedness” (Local levels told to focus on disaster preparedness, 2018).
Incentive Context for DRR
The final section considers the incentive context for natural hazard governance in Nepal. DRR, like other environmental agendas globally, has been heavily influenced by a transnational network of actors and institutions (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004). These networks mobilize information, knowledge, and values with the aim of shaping everyday worldviews and practices (Bulkeley & Betsill, 2005; see also Vij et al., 2018). Despite the influence of these international networks, for example in shaping international donor programming and funding, the Nepali state continues to be a site of considerable political power (Nightingale et al., 2018). Jones et al. (2016) report a high level of political will for DRR amongst the international donors in Nepal, which is often justified in the context of “protecting development gains” (p. 37). But despite a number of so called government-led DRR initiatives, this level of political will has not been matched within government. They further suggest that “it is only present in government at all due to the ‘incentive’ provided by the availability of donor money” (p. 37).
The role of political champions in driving the DRR agenda in Nepal has therefore been important. These include high-level international figures who leverage their political capital to promote the DRR agenda with the government and the wider development community. Key champions identified by Jones et al. (2016) include a former head of the UN Mission to Nepal, Robert Piper, who highlighted the urgent need for earthquake risk reduction in Nepal at a high-level UN meeting in 2012, and was instrumental in establishing the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium; and a former U.S. ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, who used his position to get earthquakes on the agenda at the highest level in government, leveraged funding and established an inter-agency DRR office led by USAID. At the national level, the former executive director of national NGO NSET-Nepal, Dr. Amod Mani Dixit, has been a key figure working with and lobbying government for more than three decades. More recently, Dr. Gangalal Tuladhar, a member of the Constituent Assembly and a former minister for education, who completed his doctorate in the field of disaster risk management in Japan, advocated for the new Disaster Management Act and the importance of implementing the Sendai Framework in Nepal.13 While some scholars have cautioned against having too much optimism in the potential of champions to bring about change due to more systemic constraints (see Williams, 2011), they have certainly generated and maintained political will for earthquake risk reduction at a time when the subject was a long way from the government’s agenda.
The role of disaster events as windows for change is well recognized (Birkmann et al., 2010; Simpson, 2013). However, disaster events on the scale of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake are rare in Nepal in comparison to disaster events experienced by other countries in the region. This reduces the impetus for action; for example, people are less inclined to hold politicians to account (Jones et al., 2016). In terms of past events, the 2011 Sikkim earthquake had little impact on DRR policy in Nepal as it wasn’t high impact enough, the impacts were away from Kathmandu where government interests lie, and, importantly, the government’s response was considered effective. The same can be said for the 2008 Koshi flood disaster which affected more than 65,000 people in Nepal (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2009). While the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake was a different order of magnitude, the main impact was outside the Kathmandu Valley. As noted by Rankin et al. (2018), in some respects after the earthquake, political space opened up for articulating alternative development paradigms, but the challenges associated with post-earthquake reconstruction (for example, the political wrangling over the establishment of the National Reconstruction Authority, securing the USD 4.1 billion of international aid pledged by international development partners (Ministry of Finance, 2017),14 and the absence of effective local government), have left people skeptical about the ability of political leaders to capitalize upon this space. Indeed “political instability, corruption and the personal agenda of politicians and civil servants [continue to be] major hindrances to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable” (Nagoda & Nightingale, 2017, p. 91). For Tamang (2015b) “only the most optimistic (or foolish) can assume that the government and state will magically transform its feudal culture of functioning overnight because of the earthquake.”
Between 2002 and 2017, there was no democratically legitimated local government in Nepal (Byrne & Shrestha, 2014) to lead and coordinate DRR. As noted by the Government of Nepal in its HFA Progress Report, “the absence of locally elected representatives . . . has hindered local planning processes, particularly the participation of local populations” (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2015, p. 10). In the absence of local elections, executive authority was delegated to local civil servants attached to central government ministries, with responsibilities assigned primarily to the VDC secretary, an administrator appointed by the then Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development (Byrne & Shrestha, 2014). As a result, “a loose and fluid network of stakeholders—including state bureaucrats, party leaders, civil society organisations and ethno-national social movements—partake in district governance, with officials finding themselves unable to function without colluding with local politicians and elites” (Byrne & Shrestha, 2014). In addition, it is recognized that in many cases vulnerable and marginalized groups were poorly represented in these formal and informal bodies, leaving them highly vulnerable in the face of a disaster (Barber, 2016; Nightingale, 2015a).
Local elections were successfully15 undertaken in three phases between May and September 2017, radically reshaping the institutional structure of local governance (Nightingale, 2017), with significant implications for natural hazard governance. However, questions remain as to whether local elections will provide the accountability mechanism needed at the local level to ensure the implementation of DRR initiatives. For Byrne and Shrestha (2014), an elected local government would be preferable to the current situation because at least someone will have the responsibility to make decisions. But Tamang (2018b) warns that bureaucracy doesn’t work for the wider population who rely on aphno maanche (“their own people”) (see also Bista, 1994). While people are hopeful, there are worrying signs. For example, locally elected officials will be in post for five years with very little thought given to accountability.
DRR has certainly not been a priority concern for householders; development has, including the construction of roads and modern concrete houses (Oven & Rigg, 2015). As a result, in many cases there has not been the demand for DRR from the local level. For example, the implementation of Nepal’s National Building Code has been slow reflecting, at least in part, “the prevalence of owner-built or owner-supervised construction and the lack of owner and builder responsiveness to seismic risk and training in the appropriate means of complying with the NBC [National Building Code]” (Arendt et al., 2017). Demand may well have changed following the 2015 earthquakes, driven by direct experience of the damage and destruction that an earthquake can cause, as well as the government’s guidelines for earthquake-safe house construction, which householders must follow in order to secure their cash grant for private house construction. This, however, remains to be seen.
Conclusion: Towards a More Effective and Inclusive Approach to Natural Hazards Governance
This essay has explored how natural hazards have been governed in Nepal, and how this landscape is changing, from the national to the community level, including the role of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms, and the factors shaping the approaches taken. Importantly, natural hazard governance is discussed in the context of the post-conflict, transitional state, in response to Nightingale’s (2017) call to put policy processes in the context of “the messy politics of the time” (p. 15).
The essay highlights the multi-stakeholder governance context for natural hazards, reflecting Nepal’s dependence on overseas development assistance and through this the influence of transnational governance frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. As a result, Nepal has experienced a shift in the discourse around natural hazards governance, from ad hoc response as and when disaster events occur, to more proactive risk reduction. While progress has undoubtedly been made in reducing disaster risk, this has largely been driven by the international development community through a mainly apolitical and technocratic approach. There are, as a result, clear questions around ownership and sustainability of the DRR agenda in Nepal. Jones et al. (2014a) questioned the future of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium on these very grounds. Some four years on, the consortium is moribund, and the Government of Nepal is transitioning to a new governance arrangement as specified in the Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Act 2017. While the new Act is in many ways a positive move, with the government of Nepal taking the lead, it is unclear how the Act will be implemented in practice in line with new federal restructuring.
As noted by Gellner (2015) following the 2015 earthquake, “[i]t might be tempting to think that delays over writing Nepal’s long-awaited constitution don’t matter, that life goes on as normal without political resolution . . . But the earthquake shows just how vital it is to have political institutions that work both at the centre and, even more importantly, at the local level.” The new constitution has the potential to address the underlying social, political and economic causes of disasters introduced at the start of this essay, in a way that donor-funded DRR programs cannot. While the constitution may not be as progressive as had been envisioned (Muni, 2015), there remains hope of increased accountability and action, especially at the local level.
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(1.) While Nepal is one of the least urbanized countries in South Asia, with less than 20% of the total population living in urban areas, the urban population itself has grown with an average increase of around 6% per year since the 1970s (UNDESA, 2012, cited in Muzzini & Aparicio, 2013). Such unplanned urban growth has the potential to increase Nepal’s vulnerability to disasters.
(2.) The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), Building Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, emerged following the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in January 2005. The HFA set out a number of priority goals with the aim of reducing disaster risk. Nepal was one of the 168 countries to sign up to the HFA.
(3.) As of July 2018, the Government of Nepal was undergoing further restructuring. The number of ministries was being reduced, with a number of technical departments being restructured as sections.
(10.) Until 2017, Village Development Committees (VDCs) were the lowest administrative unit of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, with responsibility for development activities. VDCs were dissolved in March 2017 and replaced by Gaun palikas (rural municipalities).
(14.) According to Ministry of Finance (2017), of the pledges made by various development partners following the 2015 earthquake sequence, 75% (USD 3.06 billion) has been translated into actual commitments. The government of Nepal continues to follow up on the status of pledges made following the earthquake.