Nepal, Disaster Resilience, and America’s Role

November 12, 2015 By Sean Hansen

As all eyes turn to Afghanistan and Pakistan following the recent devastating earthquake, the case of Nepal—also struck by powerful earthquakes this year—serves as a reminder for our potential to help nations become more resilient and prepare for likely disasters before they strike.

Nestled high in the Himalayas, strategically located between China and India, sits Nepal—a land-locked nation where two catastrophic earthquakes struck earlier this year, devastating the small country. With roughly 9,000 dead and 20,000 wounded, millions more became homeless in a nation that already has among the highest poverty levels in the world.

But what may come as a surprise is that the devastation and loss of life were not much worse. In a nation that sits on a known seismically hazardous area, the Nepalese government has for years focused on a “Disaster Risk Reduction” approach. With development assistance from the United States as well as the UN Development Program, Nepal had taken several steps to prepare itself: by retrofitting buildings for seismic resistance, digging water wells in open spaces near Kathmandu, and developing a more robust disaster response management capacity by, for example, having a storage unit for disaster aid at the airport to avoid backlogs on the tarmac.

It seems clear that, despite the devastation, U.S. development assistance saved countless lives. USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader Bill Berger concurred, saying that “I expected a much higher death toll and much higher destruction.” So while disaster relief following a crisis is critical, it is always preferable that foreign assistance be utilized to build resilience, which allows a nation to take a punch and not breakdown. As Berger put it, “We [USAID] augment the government’s capacity and help in every way we can to get as much out as quickly as possible.”

The U.S. government has also been working to build resilience in Nepal’s agricultural sector, which provides 75% of the country’s employment and makes up nearly 40% of its GDP. Through USAID’s KISAN project (Knowledge-Based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition) – part of the Feed the Future initiative—the U.S. is helping Nepal increase the availability of quality seeds, enhance market ties, and address agriculture policy reform to improve the enabling environment for private investment. This not only strengthens Nepal’s economy, but also provides a more secure food source in times of need.

But still, there is much work to be done in Nepal. Post-earthquake reconstruction efforts have slowed despite pledges of billions of dollars of international aid because of inefficient government institutions and concerns of corruption. That is why the U.S. government’s work to promote democratic and effective governance in Nepal is so crucial. USAID’s current programs seek to bolster recent strides in peace and security, strengthen vital institutions such as the Election Commission and Constituent Assembly, and assist civil society groups working to make the government more responsive to citizen’s demands.

Nepal serves as an example of what has become a core fixture of U.S. foreign assistance: that aid should provide a hand up, not a hand out. Natural disasters are unavoidable, but by providing Nepal with the proper tools to respond to these events, the U.S. is making a wise investment that will ultimately reduce the amount of disaster assistance that Nepal needs. This is not only in their interest, but ours as well.

Photo: Sindhupalchowk District, Nepal: May 5, 2015: USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso E. Lenhardt, USAID’s Nepal Mission Director Beth Dunford and the U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader Bill Berger are briefed by staff from the USAID-supported aid group Save the Children during Lenhardt’s visit to Nepal. Source: Kashish Das Shrestha, USAID, CC