Recovery through coordination: MCC and the 2015 Nepal earthquake

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal is an event etched in the memories of many Nepalis. The immense damage brought on by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake took the lives of nearly 9,000 people, severely injured around 22,000 more and destroyed over 600,000 homes. The earthquake’s epicenter that struck Barpak village of Gorkha district destroyed every house in the village. MCC Nepal’s working districts of Dhading, Lalitpur, Ramechhap and Okhaldhunga were among the regions in Nepal highly affected by the earthquake. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the people of Nepal experienced the effects of trauma and faced the prospect of a long and difficult recovery.

In the weeks following the earthquake, MCC Nepal supported rapid response distributions of emergency food, toiletries and shelter supplies in Dhading, Okhaldhunga and Lalitpur through its existing partner organizations. MCC mobilized an assessment team to survey the damage caused by the disaster and assess the ability of MCC and its partners to respond to recovery needs. MCC launched a humanitarian appeal to its supporters, resulting in about US$3 million raised to address the needs of those most affected by the earthquake. Due to the magnitude of damage sustained and the overwhelming requests from local communities for assistance, the government of Nepal loosened restrictions on international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) wishing to respond, leading to an influx of INGOs seeking to aid communities devastated by the disaster.

Coordination with the government throughout the earthquake response was a learning experience for MCC and our partners, particularly as the government was going through a federal restructuring process. Since MCC was already a registered international NGO in Nepal, our partnerships with local Nepali organizations and MCC’s existing government agreement allowed for a smoother process of obtaining approval from the government body that oversaw earthquake response work in Nepal, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). More significant, however, were the existing government relationships that our partners had with local-level government stakeholders. A key part of the enactment of Nepal’s 2015 constitution was a decentralization of power from the federal level to the local level, where our partners relate daily with local government officials and through these relationships receive approval and buy-in from local government bodies for their ongoing development projects.

One poignant example of this close coordination with local government officials comes from our partner, Shanti Nepal, which carried out two earthquake recovery projects related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Dhading district. In a discussion of Shanti’s work, Devi Prasad Silwal, the vice-chair of the rural municipality, said, “I can trust Shanti Nepal with my eyes closed. There will be no question about the quality and sustainability of their work.” This praise from the local level of government in Dhading goes beyond words: both Shanti and MCC have noticed an uptick in financial contributions to projects from municipalities now that funds are also being decentralized and more widely disbursed to NGOs from the municipality level.

In an unpredictable context like a disaster response scenario, it is helpful to remove as many barriers as possible for participants to successfully recover from the disaster.

Solid relationships with local government officials combined with using local structures and groups to plan and manage projects have led to an increase in community ownership of Shanti’s work. For example, one of Shanti’s earthquake recovery projects included the repair of a drinking water system in Baspur village in Dhading district. As with most of its other projects, Shanti involved the existing local mothers’ group and water user committee to aid in the reconstruction and ongoing management of the water system. Mothers’ groups are government-led initiatives that use locally organized groups of women to lead and support community development initiatives. These groups were already in place prior to the earthquake, playing a key role in the local management of Shanti’s work. For this water system in Baspur, the mothers’ group collects money from users each month for maintenance needs and also organizes community education around hygiene and sanitation practices.

The very same advantage of decentralizing political power to the local level also served as a challenge at times during our earthquake recovery project. Our partner, the Rural Institution for Community Development (RICOD), implemented a recovery project in southern Lalitpur district that provided top-up support for housing reconstruction for families who had been certified by the NRA’s engineers as eligible for assistance. This required families to properly file a claim with the NRA for assistance, which was a confusing process for many. The families then needed to rebuild their homes in stages, receiving incremental approval along the way from the NRA after completing each step of the reconstruction process. The complexity of this process led to project delays, and in 2017, in the middle of the reconstruction process, local elections were held in Nepal for the first time in 20 years. In one community where RICOD was working, the newly elected ward chair suddenly demanded that RICOD provide housing support for all households in his ward or they would have to withdraw from working in his community. Despite advocating to this official, RICOD believed the most appropriate and ethical way forward was to transition away from that community towards work in another area. As RICOD sought out a new community in which to work, they faced additional attempts of local government officials trying to influence participant selection, with those officials often prioritizing persons who were not those with the greatest need. Around this time, RICOD began increasing its engagement with local NRA officials, which allowed for greater trust and coordination, eventually opening the door to a new partner community where RICOD was able to successfully implement the rest of its project.

Ashok Nepal works in his vegetable field in the Ragani Village Development Committee of Okhaldhunga District, Nepal. Nepal participated in cash crop and vegetable production training conducted by MCC partner SAHAS (Group of Helping Hands). SAHAS had provided seed materials to enable him to plant cabbages, chilies and corianders. (MCC photo/Avash Karki)

As we think about the lessons learned from our earthquake recovery program, we would summarize our learnings in this way: in an unpredictable context like a disaster response scenario, it is helpful to remove as many barriers as possible for participants to successfully recover from the disaster. Some things, like the implementation of a new federal structure and local elections, cannot be controlled. Yet we can control whether we decide to engage in recovery work that is dependent on successful and timely action of governmental and other actors. Going forward, we would minimize this type of recovery programming because there were simply too many delays and risks introduced into the implementation of the projects. Instead, we would build on the success our partners experienced in this recovery effort through the utilization of existing community groups and networks to carry out recovery projects. Mothers’ groups, water user groups and community-based organizations seemed to be great fits for our partners in the planning, implementation and ongoing management of their projects.

While aspects of these learnings are unique to the context of Nepal, it is an overall reminder that partnership continues to be the best way for us to respond to local disasters. We view our partner organizations as the primary vehicles for MCC Nepal’s work, and we are discovering that these partnerships are bolstered even further through engagement and relationship building with local government stakeholders and community groups.

Avash Karki is MCC Nepal earthquake program support officer. Ryan Fowler is the MCC Nepal representative.

Bracken, Louise, Hannah Ruszczyk and Tom Robinson. Evolving Narratives of Hazard and Risk: The Gorkha Earthquake, Nepal, 2015. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Gautam, Dipendra and Hugo Rodrigues. Eds. Impacts and Insights of the Gorkha Earthquake. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2018

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