When the World Shakes

After a massive earthquake, ICIMOD responded with data, analysis, relief, and government support in the Koshi basin

On 25 April 2015 at three minutes to noon in Nepal, the ground began to shake. Throughout the hills and valleys of the Koshi basin, the sides of cement, stone, mud, and brick buildings started to quiver and crack. People ran out of their homes and waited, hoping for the best.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake and the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that followed approximately two weeks later on 12 May devastated a large part of Nepal, including the Koshi basin, killing more than 8,000 people and resulting in ten billion dollars in economic losses. In many hilly and mountainous areas, individuals had to worry not only about shelter, food, and water during the earthquake’s aftermath, but also about landslides. With each aftershock, the earth and rocks that clung to the side of mountains became loosened and had the potential to slide down over settlements, roads, and infrastructure. Monsoon rains, which usually start in June and also loosen the soil, exacerbated the already threatening conditions.

The Koshi Basin Programme’s response to the disaster was immediate and multi-fold throughout the basin.

The Koshi Basin Programme’s response to the disaster was immediate and multi-fold throughout the basin. In the days following 25 April, the programme shared its inventory of existing and potential landslides in the Koshi basin with an international team of volunteers from ICIMOD, the National Aerospace and Space Administration (NASA), the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey. The team worked off the existing inventory and incorporated incoming data from satellite imagery to assess landslide-affected villages and rivers, and identify landslide-prone areas. The efforts identified over 3,000 landslides in Nepal, including in the Koshi basin, and assembled a database of 250 landslides that had happened after the earthquake. The information was shared with the Government of Nepal, which helped the government and international agencies respond to the disaster.

Additionally, throughout the month of May, the Koshi Basin Programme distributed rice, lentils, oil, tarps, face masks, soap, medicine, oral rehydration packets, and sanitary items to households in Sindhupalchowk and Sindhuli, two districts in which the programme works.

Ratatar, a village in Sindhuli that received relief, is perched on a green ridge. It is home to a small community known as the Hyau, some of the most marginalized people in the entire district. The earthquake completed destroyed all of the community’s mud-built houses. In May when relief supplies came, residents of the village were living in small huts they had made out of materials found nearby. The huts, however, did not protect well from the rains, and people spoke of damp floors and mosquito bites. Food and water were also scarce: the earthquake had punctured Ratatar’s water tank and grain storages were now buried under building wreckage. Villagers worried about work and getting enough money to rebuild their houses; most villagers are daily wage labourers, and little work was available after the earthquake. Ratatar received no outside help before the Koshi Basin Programme arrived, and, although the overall relief effort was small, the community deeply appreciated it.

Farther north in the basin, researchers working with the Koshi Basin Programme at the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMHE-CAS) quickly moved to evaluate the post-earthquake conditions in the upper reaches of the Koshi basin in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where it was reported that at least 26 people had died, and nearly 8,400 people were at risk.

After submitting a post-earthquake response policy recommendation based on previous fieldwork in the region, IMHE researchers partnered with China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, and completed a seven-day, onthe-ground geological hazard investigation of earthquake-affected areas of the upper Koshi basin. The investigation found that the region would benefit from a hazard management plan and the installation of flood early warning systems, should aftershocks trigger the eruption of a glacial lake. The Chinese government moved to take the team’s suggestions forward.

A four-day disaster loss assessment in earthquake-affected areas of TAR with China’s National Disaster Reduction Commission (NDRC) complemented this geological hazard investigation. The team assessed casualties, property losses, and infrastructure damage and provided guidelines for post-earthquake reconstruction at an NDRC meeting in Beijing in May 2015.

Also in May, nine researchers from IMHE, along with the TAR’s Department of Land and Resources, completed an intensive, monthlong investigation of geological hazards specifically in Nyalam County, where the Koshi Basin Programme bases some of its work. The researchers surveyed 45 villages and 328 geological hazard sites, and found more than 200 earthquake-induced hazards, including landslides, collapsed slopes, debris flows, and unstable slopes. The investigation culminated in a series post-disaster recommendations for the upper Koshi basin.

Yet, despite the initial rapid response, longerterm recovery throughout Nepal remained difficult. Efforts were often slow and piecemeal, and six months after the first earthquake, many earthquake-affected communities in the Koshi basin were still waiting for basic relief supplies.

From September 2015 to January 2016, relief efforts were further complicated when Nepal’s southern border with India was largely closed due to political tensions, which all but stopped the flow of supplies throughout the country. During this time, the Koshi Basin Programme, along with The Energy and Resources Institute, distributed 450 solar lamps to earthquakeaffected and unelectrified households in Ratanchura, Jalkanya, and Baseshwor village development committees of Sindhuli District. The lamps were in addition to 200 solar lamps that the programme distributed in July in Sindhuli.

For many individuals, the lanterns were a small step towards the resumption of normal life.

While trauma from the earthquake still lurks in many places throughout the Koshi basin, communities want to move beyond the disaster and resume normal life. ICIMOD’s goal was that it could play a small part in encouraging brighter days ahead.