Lessons from Nepal’s 2015 Earthquake

David James Molden
Eklabya Sharma
Gopilal Acharya

Discussing a number of lessons learnt, these series of articles argue for a holistic approach to disaster preparedness and recovery, mainly focusing on the significance of livelihoods recovery. The authors also highlight the importance of cooperation and coordination among countries in the Himalayan region to improve understanding of seismic risks and prepare for earthquakes and their impacts. 


On 25 April 2015 at 11:56 am local time, Nepal was struck by a huge Mw7.8 earthquake with its epicentre located in the Gorkha region, about 80 km northwest of Kathmandu. The earthquake occurred at the subduction interface along the Himalayan arc between the Indian plate and the Eurasian plate (Avouac, 2003; Ader et al., 2012). Several aftershocks, including a major Mw7.3 one on 12 May in the northeast of Kathmandu, caused additional damage. More than 415 aftershocks greater than Mw4.0 were recorded as on 13 December 2015, according to Nepal Siesmological Centre.

The impacts of the Gorkha Earthquake were devastating. It affected 39 of the country’s 75 districts and more than 8 million people, according to Nepal’s National Planning Commission (NPC). The official death toll was 8,773, with another 23,304 injured, more than 785,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and about 2.8 million people displaced. The earthquake also triggered numerous secondary geo-hazards, including landslide-dammed rivers, future mass movements (landslides/debris flows), glacial lake moraine failures, and avalanches (ICIMOD, 2015).

Apart from taking lives, damaging homes, and displacing people, the total value of the damage and loss caused by the earthquake was estimated at USD 7 billion (USD 1 = Nepalese Rupees 100), which is equivalent to about a third of Nepal’s Gross Domestic Product (NPC, 2015). The total loss in the agriculture sector, the main source of livelihood in most earthquake-affected areas, was estimated at around NPR 28.4 billion (USD 284 million), of which NPR 16.4 billion (58%) was direct damages (NPC, 2015).

Impact of the Earthquake

Damage to human settlements, public infrastructures, and cultural heritage

The earthquake caused widespread damage and destruction of homes and human settlements in all the affected districts. Up until 30 May 2015, it was estimated that around 500,000 homes were comprehensively damaged and more than 250,000 partially damaged (NPC, 2015). In some settlements like the Barpak Village of Gorkha District, the epicenter of earthquake, almost every home was completely damaged. The village overnight had become a tent settlement. Most damages to homes and human settlement were seen in the rural areas, including many remote and inaccessible mountain communities. However, emerging cities and several neighborhoods in the Kathmandu Valley also saw sever damage to housing and human settlements.

A total of 446 public health facilities, including hospitals, primary health care centres, and health posts, were completely destroyed, and another 765 health facilities or administrative structures were partially damaged (NPC, 2015). This severely affected the reach and response to healthcare needs of the affected people. Similarly, hundreds of educational facilities were destroyed or damaged. The NPC put the total damages and loses in the education sector at NPR 31.3 billion.

Numerous monuments of historical and cultural significance, some more than several centuries old, were either destroyed or substantially damaged. According to the Post Disaster Needs Assessment done by the Government of Nepal, the earthquake affected about 2,900 structures of cultural and religious significance. Many of the heritage sites were extensively damaged, and some major monuments in Kathmandu’s seven World Heritage Monument Zones were comprehensively damaged (Post Disaster Needs Assessment – PDNA, NPC, 2015). Some of the structures, like the iconic Bhimsen Tower in the heart of Kathmandu, collapsed completely. Further, in all the quake-hit districts hundreds of temples and monasteries were affected with many of them sustaining severe damages. The PDNA put the total estimated damages to tangible heritage at NPR 16.9 billion or US$ 169 million (NPC, 2015).

Loss of livelihoods

The total loss in the agriculture sector was estimated at around NPR 28.4 billion. The earthquake affected the overall economic situation in the production and service sectors, such as agriculture, livestock, tourism, trade, and industry. About 135,200 tonnes of foodstuff was lost, and 17,290 large livestock, 40,976 small livestock, and 507,665 poultry animals died when homes and animal sheds collapsed (ICIMOD, 2015b). Farmers lost agriculture equipment, livestock, fodder trees, and forage. A field study by the Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NFSMS- NFSC-WFP, 2015) showed that 60 to 80% of farmers had less than 25% loss of their standing crops as a result of the earthquake. Farmers also reported a substantial loss of seed, especially millet, maize, and rice. It was estimated that around 135,187 tonnes of stored food was lost to the earthquake (ICIMOD, 2015b). Farmers mostly lost wheat, rice, millet, maize, and potatoes (FAO-NFSC, 2015). Further, major agriculture-related infrastructures were damaged, including roads, service centres, training centres, plant pathology labs, and breeding centres. The Government feared a substantial yield reduction in the 14 most affected districts in 2015-2016. In terms of food security, of the total affected population, around 240,000 were severely insecure, 1.1 million insecure, 930,000 moderately insecure, and another 774,000 minimally insecure (NFSMS- NFSC-WFP, 2015). More than 700,000 people were pushed below poverty line.

Tourism and its chain of related infrastructures were badly affected. Many migrant workers returned home to help their families, and outmigration slowed leading to a reduction of remittance inflow. Additionally, the earthquake caused large-scale damage to forests and ecosystem services, affecting people’s forest-based incomes. Systematic analysis of satellite images estimated forest loss of 2.2% in six of the earthquake-affected districts. Of the 20 protected areas, seven were affected, including a World Heritage Site (Sagarmatha National Park) and two Ramsar sites (Gosaikunda and Gokyo) that are globally significant in terms of mountain ecosystem and biodiversity (ICIMOD, 2015).

Overall, the lives and livelihoods of 5.4 million people in the 14 most severely affected districts, accounting for over two-thirds of the 8 million living in the 39 affected districts, were the hardest hit. With the exception of the Kathmandu Valley, these severely affected districts are essentially rural mountains and hills where subsistence agriculture is the main livelihood activity. The disaster impact on agriculture-based livelihoods and food security was particularly worrying as it had damaged people’s homes, as well as their productive resources, employment, and means of living. A major worry at such difficult times is that the affected people could resort to negative coping mechanisms, like selling off their livelihood assets and over exploitation of the natural resource base, for their immediate survival.

Contributed by David Molden, Eklabya Sharma, Gopilal Acharya

David Molden (PhD) is the Director General of Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD); Eklabya Sharma is ICIMOD’s Director of Programme Operations; Gopilal Acharya (formerly ICIMOD’s Communications Specialist) is a Thimphu-based independent consultant.

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