Disaster Risk in the Himalayas – governance problems exacerbate multi-hazard risks

Chandragiri Hills, Kathmandu Nepal

Chandragiri Hills, Kathmandu Nepal. Credit: Getty Images 

Sérgio Esperancinha

When the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate some 50 million years ago, a mountain range began to form. Not just any mountain range but the world’s largest, the Himalayas, home to the tallest point on Earth, the “Sagarmatha”- in Nepalese Sagar, means "ocean" and Matha, "head". The rest of the world knows it as Mount Everest, the 8848.86 m magnetic peak that allures hundreds to climb its slopes despite the costs, the crowds and the risks.

To this day, the Himalayas and Mount Everest are still rising by more than 1 cm per year as Indian plate continues to thrust into Asia, a rise cancelled only by the effects of weathering and erosion. The Himalayas, however, are not only a place of creation, as the same earthly forces that gave birth to a mountain range, have also a colossal destructive potential, such as that of April 2015.

In that year, in the morning of the 25th of April, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake followed by more than 300 aftershocks, rattled the Gorkha District, northwest of Kathmandu,  causing nearly 9000 deadly victims, over 100 000 injured and close to 800 000 damaged or destroyed houses. The powerful earthquake, the worst to have struck Nepal since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake, triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest and the Langtang Valley and severely damaged many of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Kathmandu, like the Boudhanath and Swayambhunath stupas and the three Durbar (Royal) Squares. The damages and losses caused by the disaster were immense and estimated at US$7.1 billion. The needs for recovery at US$ 6.7 billion.

The 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

The 2015 earthquake in Nepal damaged or destroyed nearly one million houses. Credit: Thomas Dutour

The 2015 Gorkha earthquake was the single-deadliest disaster of Nepal’s history but not an isolated event. Since 1972, thousands of floods and landslides have killed over 6000 people. These disasters expose the vulnerabilities caused by haphazard urban expansion and poorly planned infrastructure in a hazard-prone country such as Nepal. Now, together with Tomorrow’s Cities Hub, local authorities of Kathmandu are taking a different approach on four new ‘smart satellite cities’ being developed in the Kathmandu Valley and projecting a more resilient future. Researchers from the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS), Nepal, the University of Edinburgh, UK, the University of York, UK, and the Stockholmn Environment Institute, UK show the way forward in a special issue on “Urbanisation and Disaster Risks in the Himalaya” published by New Angle, the Nepal Journal of Social Science and Public Policy.

The special issue, compiles four research papers that analyse risk production and management in the context of the rapid urban growth in the Himalayan region from different perspectives ranging from types of urban risks and the associated narratives that exist amongst urban dwellers, to urban social structures related to caste/ethnicity, gender or class and how they influence vulnerability. Themes such as disaster risk governance, policy and planning as well as early warning systems and disaster recovery are also part of the analysis.   

“In Nepal, the rapid growth in urban population, which is a result of rural-urban migration and the conversion of seemingly rural areas into municipalities, has caused a substantial expansion of informal settlements and therefore increased the exposure of a great part of the urban population to a series of different hazards.”

Dilli P. Poudel, Senior Researcher at the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies and the Editor of New Angle.


Credit: Jan Bystrzycki

“In this special issue, all case studies, consistently and explicitly document a lack of governmental coordination in knowledge-sharing, capacity and resources which exacerbates multi-hazard risks”, Dilli P. Poudel adds.

The analysis and debates in this special issue will help to improve collective understanding on the interlinked processes that generate risks, contribute to enhancing knowledge on disaster governance, and help diverse stakeholders - particularly state actors - to undertake necessary steps to plan for and reduce the risks experienced in present and future cities.

Read the full special issue.