Resilience Policymaking in Nepal: Giving Voice to Communities

More than 80% of Nepal’s population is exposed to the risk of natural disasters which include earthquakes, droughts, floods, landslides, extreme temperature, and glacier lake outburst floods.

people from rural village in Nepal
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An innovative project has used video to help communities in Nepal voice their experiences of natural disaster to the policymakers responsible for disaster risk reduction strategies.

The project sought to address the gap that exists between national-level policymakers in charge of designing policies that make Nepal more resilient to natural disasters and the community level experiences of people living through disasters and their aftermath. The project gave those most-affected by the overlapping challenges of poverty, conflict and environmental change a powerful way to engage with, and potentially influence, high-level policymakers.

The project team worked in three rural villages in Nepal, which were all affected by the 2015 earthquake. Residents were encouraged to speak about their perceptions of disaster, how they have dealt with previous disasters, and what they feel the government and other organisations should be doing to assist them in preparing for future disasters. 

Volunteers were supported to make short films that addressed the issues of disaster, risk and resilience in their communities. This involved the participants deciding on the priority issues in their village, interviewing fellow local residents, and editing the footage they had collected into a short film designed to convey key messages from their villages to policy audiences. All of the decisions about what to show in the films, and how to show it, were made by the filmmaking teams themselves.

Once the videos were complete, screening sessions were held. The sessions were attended by the residents, local and national policymakers and other relevant stakeholders. The films produced in the three villages were used to open up discussion, allowing participants from the communities and from the policy-level to explore and more fully understand the views of each group. 

The sessions revealed significant disparities between government officials and community members in the definition of ‘disaster’ and the perceived vulnerability of communities to future disasters. During the work in the villages, a wide variety of understandings of the term ‘disaster’ were uncovered. The 2015 earthquakes naturally dominated people’s initial responses to questions about disasters. But when prompted to think about future disaster risks, villagers spoke about a wide range of potential future ‘disasters’ that could impact them and their communities, including economic problems and threats to livelihoods. 

At the village level, there is a perceived need for a broader range of social, economic and regulatory interventions to mitigate diverse future disaster risks. Clear examples of this included a demand from some of the communities for greater regulation of illegal quarrying and road-building, seen as causing significant risk of landslides, and for improved community-level education on disaster preparedness and response.

Policymakers, on the other hand, showed a tendency to focus on technical forms of disaster risk reduction, particularly the resilience of housing and key infrastructure to future earthquakes. They mostly talked about high level policies such as disaster management planning and government policies on creating disaster management units at the provincial and local levels. 

Very different perceptions were also found about the progress being made in the construction of earthquake-resistant housing, following the 2015 earthquake. While policymakers tended to focus on the positive progress that had been made, community members concentrated on implementation deficits, especially the plight of members of their communities who had not yet been able to reconstruct. Government participants had limited knowledge of the progress of reconstruction in the most remote village, Dharche Rural Municipality Ward 2, Gorkha, and a number of issues highlighted in that community’s film provided new information to district level officials, which they subsequently undertook to address. 

The workshops opened up discussions of how the experience of the earthquake and the subsequent reconstruction process had impacted upon marginalized community members. Although policymakers often referred to the strong community spirit in Nepali culture as an advantage in coping with disasters, evidence of the social resilience of the study communities was mixed. 

In all three villages, residents had come together to support each other in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. However, there were also instances of tensions, and even violence, over the distribution of aid materials. The video participants gathered examples of individuals who had been excluded from receiving emergency aid, for example, widows, but at the same time there was evidence of social barriers being broken down as communities came together in the immediate aftermath. 

Policymakers noted that the government and its partners had made significant efforts to ensure that marginalized communities received targeted support in the post earthquake period. However, there were concerns from the communities about the longer-term adverse consequences of the earthquakes increasing the vulnerability of marginalized groups. At the High-Level workshop in Kathmandu, for example, there was discussion of people trafficking, especially of young girls, which some participants felt had increased following the disruption of the earthquake, and increased incidence of outward migration. There were also concerns raised around how Dalits were experiencing the reconstruction process, with some having lost their land and being forced to relocate to areas of higher risk, including landslide prone areas.

The project showed that the limited political literacy in the rural communities involved in this study led to an incomplete understanding of government structures and mechanisms, and a resulting inability of some people to properly access support. There was often confusion about how people not currently on the government’s list of earthquake victims could get on the list, and a lack of knowledge about the timing of the instalments of government grants for housing reconstruction. It is currently uncertain how this will be impacted by Nepal’s shift to a federal government structure, which in theory brings decision-making closer to the people, but which may increase opportunities for gaps to emerge between different levels of government. 

The project has made various key recommendations for the future. Firstly, the research has identified the need for a broader approach to disaster risk reduction policy that goes beyond the construction of earthquake resistant infrastructure. Strategies are needed that seek to address the other socio-technical challenges that result from disaster. 

The research has highlighted the need for improved communication within government at all levels, and with communities to manage expectations. Additionally, more inclusive processes, not just measures of output are required to prevent inequalities in reconstruction and resilience building initiatives.

And finally, there is a need for better institutional integration across the disaster cycle. Currently at the government level, Disaster Risk Reduction, disaster management and post-disaster reconstruction are currently dealt with through separate institutions and processes. This will be especially important given the shift to a federal government system.

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