standard Earthquake risk and building resilience in Nepal

Hanna Ruszczyk, Durham University PhD researcher on community resilience to eartqhuake hazards.

Durham University PhD student Hanna Ruszczyk who is researching community resilience to earthquake hazards.

Earthquake risk in less-developed countries such as Nepal presents challenges to both practitioners working in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), and for academic researchers undertaking research in this field.

Nepal is located in one of the most seismically active regions in the world, where initiatives are helping to raise awareness of earthquake hazards and develop ways to prepare for them. This involves bringing together local and international expertise on earthquake hazard and risk, and empowering communities and governments to build a more resilient society to earthquakes.

Hanna Ruszczyk recently started her PhD on community resilience to natural hazards in Nepal and neighbouring Bihar in northern India. Through her PhD she will explore if it is possible to operationalise the concept of community resilience with the aim of developing a set of indicators and examples of good practices that might be applied to different urban contexts.

In this interview Hanna explains some of the findings from her Master’s thesis regarding how resilience is defined in relation to disaster, and, using the example of the Kathmandu Valley, explains how vulnerable communities together with researchers and practitioners engaged in development and DRR, can work in tandem to reduce earthquake risk.

You participated in the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium’s sponsored symposium ‘Successes and lessons learned in urban-community-based Disaster Risk Reduction’ held in Kathmandu. What were the key findings from your Master’s research that you presented to the NGO practitioners and the government of Nepal?

My first main finding from my thesis was that resilience as a concept is not directly relevant to local communities. It’s a concept that we from the west have brought to communities. So when resilience is translated into Nepali, the phrase that they use is ‘to adapt’ or ‘adaptive capacity’.

As another example, in Indonesia the word used for resilience is ‘resistance’, so it’s not a concept that is easily utilised in the languages of the communities we’re trying to work with. Resilience in the Nepali context refers to social capital to a large extent, that’s what the practitioner community focused on when they were working with communities.

People have a very short-term focus in Nepal, their main struggles are ‘everyday needs’, such as dealing with only 12 hours of electricity per day, chronic water shortages, or precarious livelihoods.

Everyday life is very difficult. People are not able to address, or are not interested in addressing a hazard such as a rare, high-magnitude earthquake.

They are more concerned about everyday hazards, such as fires. So resilience as a concept isn’t directly relevant to local people. But it is relevant to the practitioners that work in Nepal, because they’re trying to support communities to build their capacity to be resilient to natural hazards, which can become disasters.

What was the importance of social capital to communities in Nepal?

My second main finding has to do with social capital, such as who do people rely on in times of trouble? Who do they celebrate with? This includes their family and neighbours. Social capital is also found in new community groups.

In the cities, such as Kathmandu and Lalitpur, there are women’s groups that are organised by extended families within a small geographic area (ward level, the lowest level of the government) and they help each other through, for example, group financing schemes. The government has begun to ask these groups to get involved in health education and also disaster risk reduction awareness raising. These groups are tremendous sources of social capital.

Agricultural land disappearing for housing in Kirtipur, Nepal. © Hanna Ruszczyk

What about the role of government in people’s lives?

When we think about resilience, in the case of Nepal, we think about linkages between people, government, and internationally driven projects. The other main finding from my research was that people do not have high expectations from the government. People said, ‘we take care of ourselves, we don’t need the government for anything’, except for the critical infrastructures, such as electricity and water.

How does earthquake preparation in Nepal differ from nearby areas with similar problems such as Bihar?

There has been a tremendous amount of work in Nepal on developing Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) committees on a neighbourhood, ward and municipal level, creating links between individuals, communities, and government. These DRR committees are now starting to establish their own plans to prepare their communities in the event of an earthquake, and how they would address the reality post-earthquake.

The practitioners are organising training activities at the community level, such as light search and rescue, because the first responders will be the community members. It is unlikely to be the government or the army; it will be the neighbours, as it is in most countries.

So a lot of work and effort has been given for training people in search and rescue, and first aid, preparing communities, and drawing up evacuation plans in case of a disaster. There is also quite a lot of work being done in Nepal for earthquake awareness. I am interested to see how Bihar compares to Nepal when I undertake my PhD fieldwork.

What is the role of practitioners in defining resilience and how do they correspond, if at all, with how researchers define it in academia?

Practitioners use the phrase in their work extensively. They prefer to consider resilience as an inclusive phrase with different definitions, and they are very adamant about this. They do not need a commonly accepted definition. The reason is that resilience has allowed for dialogue between different actors that did not occur before, because people were very fragmented in their DRR narrative.

There were the development practitioners focusing on poverty and livelihoods, and there was also the emphasis in the climate change sector on adaptation, adaptive capacity and transformative change. So resilience seems to be a concept that different actors can sit around the table and discuss. The academic understanding of resilience is contested.

There are different definitions from psychology, ecology, and economics, and resilience as a concept has been around since the 1800s. It does mean flexibility and the ability to bounce back. That concept of bouncing back is the thread that links the resilience discourse in different disciplines, in what we’re looking at in DRR and even climate change.

It’s a phrase that people fundamentally and inherently believe they understand, and so that also opens up ways or paths for people to talk to each other. There’s some interesting literature that has come from the practitioners focusing on how to operationalise resilience.

At the moment do any ‘indicators’ for resilience exist?

I think that we will be able to show that there are some aspects of resilience that can be operationalised. In Nepal they have nine minimum characteristics of a disaster resilient community. Several of these characteristics are related to governance, but they don’t focus on the social aspects of resilience. I am interested to see if we could assess what is a disaster resilient urban community in my PhD.

The urban context is increasingly important due to the number and percentage of people moving to urban settings in the Global South. Urban areas are more challenging for practitioners to work in. The practitioners define community as ward level, but that’s not completely accurate because a community is actually on a smaller neighbourhood level according to people I interviewed across two wards. So how do I combine those two varying definitions?

If you ask the local people for their version of community it also transcends space; some of it is located in their immediate physical space and some of it is in the rural communities where they come from, their extended families, so again you have these different definitions of community as well as resilience.

Earthquake awareness rally. © Hanna Ruszczyk

Since large-scale hazards like earthquakes know no boundaries how could countries with similar problems work together in order to foster resilience to environmental risks?

I think the ESRC/NERC Earthquakes without Frontiers (EwF) project is one mechanism for the exchange and dissemination of knowledge between different countries. So I hope my work will feed into the EwF project and be shared with countries in the wider partnership.

Research undertaken by EwF to date highlighted that DRR practitioners in Bihar are very interested in learning from people in Nepal and vice versa. There are already some links between the two. I think EwF has significant potential to help disseminate findings adapting the learning into different local contexts.

How is urbanisation changing Nepal’s risk landscape?

Urbanisation is one of the most significant changes that has happened to Nepal in the recent past (after the insurgency). There’s a significant migration of people from the hills to the roadside, and larger cities. In my research I found that there is a lot of academic discussion about the urban and the rural but these are treated separately. But my research demonstrates how the rural and urban are linked through family ties, the remittance of funds etc.

We have to adjust how we discuss linkages between the urban and the rural because they do impact on each other’s levels of vulnerability and resilience. No matter how much outsiders may tell people they are better off staying in their villages or by their roadsides, that’s not what people want. They want to live in the cities because they believe they have better access to health care, schools, and opportunities for livelihoods; so people will continue to move, but then when they do move to the urban settings their risks change.

The Nepalese government is very worried about that. The municipalities are worried about it. The donors are also very much worried about urbanisation because it changes the profile of people, it impacts the social networks that people have. It impacts the housing stock. The new housing stock that’s being built is for the most part chaotic and is probably not conforming to the national building code. So you’re increasing the risk to the hazard significantly.

In Nepal how do communities view earthquake risks?

People are very much aware that the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal lies in a seismically active area and that there’s significant risk of an earthquake. They’re not preparing because they are more concerned about their everyday needs, but people are willing to help each other out after an earthquake.

Local communities generally know the scientific causes of earthquakes, but they’re not actively preparing in terms of evacuation routes or knowing where their open spaces are. They’re also not building to the national building code. People need to be motivated to prepare for an earthquake and the government plays an important role.

The government needs to enforce the national building code, and to retrofit critical infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, and they’re now starting to do this.

What is the most important thing people in Nepal can do to reduce the impacts of geohazards?

Raising awareness of the general public is the most important thing whether it’s through schools educating students who then educate their parents – or the regular public service announcements about what people can do to help themselves, especially actions that do not cost much money (for example having an evacuation plan or a bag with essentials), then retrofitting of critical infrastructure buildings.

Making sure people on a local level do understand what they can do to support each other. Planning and preparation beforehand, and empowering people to help themselves during and post crisis.

Residents queue for water. © Hanna Ruszczyk

Why is resilience not tangibly relevant to local people yet useful for practitioners working with them in emergency planning or disaster management?

I think their everyday lives are so precarious that to think of a hazard such as an earthquake that may not happen in their lifetimes is too far removed from their reality. Our issue as researchers is how to make it relevant to their everyday lives, that’s where our job comes in. Regular awareness raising and the government enforcing the national building code can mitigate the risk.

I think if we can find a way to incorporate Disaster Risk Reduction into development it would be a more effective strategy. It’s only by including it in people’s everyday lives that they will think about these hazards. And that’s why I’ve mentioned in my work that if we talk about earthquakes and relate them to an everyday hazard such as fire then we have slightly more chance of success.

Fire is a hazard that Nepali people are quite concerned about because they don’t have much access to water to fight it. We can talk about how to mobilise people, how to deal with the fire. One of the secondary effects of an earthquake is fire, and so that’s the way to connect the earthquakes to something that is really relevant to people – setting up community structures for accessing water.

It’s finding a way to make earthquake hazards relevant to people’s everyday lives by listening to them, and finding out what hazards are important to them and then linking the earthquake hazard to it in a meaningful way.

Hanna Ruszczyk is a PhD student in Durham University’s Department of Geography and IHRR. Her supervisors are Dr Colin McFarlane, Dr Katie Oven and Professor Jonathan Rigg (National University of Singapore). Contact:

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