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Nepal after the earthquake - and why planning will be critical

06 May 2015

Inga Belokurova

Since you have a cold, is there enough medicine?... [Phone conversation gets cut-off, again]

This has been my usual conversation content for the last couple of days with N, who is forced to sleep outside the house. This is due to the risk of building collapse in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and continuous aftershocks which have spread across the country since April 25th. After all, it is not the earthquake that kills people and causes injuries, but the buildings, or to be exact, the poor quality of construction and planning regulations, cause them to collapse.

Nepal is vulnerable in terms of environmental hazards, such as flooding, mudslide, rock fall avalanche and earthquakes. Also, earthquakes cannot be predicted by any existing algorithm patterns. Aftershocks are considered the most destructive for buildings, especially the ones that have been previously damaged.

Kathmandu is one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world. Rapid urbanisation suggests unplanned development and loss of open space and decreased livability.

In terms of building capacity and construction, there is limited planning control and land management. According to the Department of Physical Planning and Works of Nepal, out of 90% of individually constructed buildings only 5% of them have professional engineering design and supervision. This is a critical number, considering urbanisation and urban sprawl in Nepal is high. This trend creates issues for development control and regulations.

Kathmandu is one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world. Rapid urbanisation suggests unplanned development and loss of open space and decreased livability. Maps, produced by the National Society of Earthquake Technology-Nepal, illustrate that the amount of open spaces in Kathmandu Valley in the event of an earthquake is minimal and lacks connectivity.

After the 1988 earthquake (Magnitude 6.7) where more than 20,000 buildings were damaged, the Government realised the need for improvement in building design and construction. But it was not until implementing the 1994 Seismic Design of Buildings in Nepal Act, part of the Nepal National Building Code, that the issue was taken seriously. The Act stated:

"Until now, Nepal has not had any regulations or documents of its own setting out either requirements or good practice for achieving satisfactory strength in buildings…"

However, this Act is more than 20 years old and it needs evaluation and revision. This would include additional requirements for building codes and design guidelines as well as risk management.

In terms of risk management, the overall improvement or, preferably, change to the building design requirements can be seen as ‘substantial’ (according to the Government of Nepal and the World Bank) due to a lack of official representatives and the frequent change of local officials. This situation results in delays and development project implementation, which can be clearly seen with the example of development of the Trans-Himalayan railways line, which has been delayed by more than four years, with a quite questionable future development potential due to past events.

So, how come, with all the implemented regulations and guidelines, the current disaster created so much destruction and took lives away?


Picture: "Durbarsquare after earthquake 5" by Nirjal stha via Wikimedia Commons.

An important factor that needs to be considered is that a large number of buildings in Nepal and especially in Kathmandu Valley are ancient and have historic significance in terms of preservation. A lot of efforts are made by UNESCO, the World Bank, international and local governments in order to enhance the historic built environment. Yet minimum efforts are actually made in order to preserve open spaces and create quality green infrastructure.

The type and design of historic and ancient buildings in Nepal is very specific and does not apply within the criteria for the National Building Code Act. These buildings and sites are mostly temples, places of worship and houses of priests or upper caste societies. They tend to be larger in scale, but construction methods are not necessarily high quality standard.

Many funds are contributed for the reconstruction of historic buildings, which is a positive aspect. But, still it creates an imbalance of fund distribution. In the event of an earthquake, or any other hazard, the funding for reconstruction is more likely to be made for historic buildings. This is partially due to international sponsorship, economic significance in terms of tourism, as well as traditional and cultural values, which are important for Nepalese society in general. As most funds are allocated for historically significant buildings, a large number of people are still remaining displaced out of their homes. It does take time to reconstruct them, yet people cannot be forced to live in emergency homes for long. This then creates a cycle of constructing individually developed homes, with poor quality or no engineering guidelines, highly dense and overcrowded. These are then highly vulnerable in case of disaster. Once a disaster occurs, like recently, the cycle then repeats itself.

Yet, the Department of Planning and Works recognises the necessity for development of earthquake-resistant buildings. It establishes partnerships, collaborates with engineers and internationally-trained specialists. It organises workshops for approaches and methods of earthquake-resistant building construction. And, most important, the Department provides consultation that raises public awareness of the need for these types of buildings. But, public participation in Nepal is relatively low. This is due to various issues, plus, Nepal is one of the less developed countries in the World.

How can this issue be tackled?

The solution could be found within the roots of the issue. By tightening regulations of development and construction, better quality buildings and planning could be achieved. Under the current pattern of development trends and enforcement, there is little possibility of improvement. Uncontrolled urban sprawl, due to migration, is also one of the aspects of the current development cycle.

The planning issue in Nepal is too big and too interrelated. At this stage, Nepal is more likely to continue to rely on international funding and aid provision. However, at the moment, the country does need funds and aid. But priorities in allocation of these funds needs to be more regulated and monitored - internationally and locally. The gap between both allocation and regulation exists on different levels, leading to delays and malfunction of development processes. Without improvement in the economy, for example through the creation of jobs, improved infrastructure and tightened regulations, good quality planning cannot be achieved.

Inga Belokurova

Inga Belokurova is a Masters student at the University of Dundee in the School of Environment, Town and Regional Planning.

Inga’s fundraiser link to the Nepal Immediate Disaster Relief fund can be found at: