Disaster Law and Displacement, Nepal Edition

Earlier this month I wrote about displacement and disaster in Haiti, highlighting some legal obstacles that were (and still are) frustrating efforts to reduce displaced populations after the 2010 earthquake.  The legal framework was weak on three fronts: domestically, building codes were not optimized for seismic activity and rarely enforced, while property documentation processes were confusing; regionally, while the Dominican Republic pledged aid at first, long-running tensions emerged eventually; and internationally the NGO and intergovernmental community operated without meaningful checks and balances.  

Image: Slate.

Image: Slate.

On Saturday, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, with an epicenter roughly 80 kilometers from the capital and most populous city, Kathmandu.  Compare that to Haiti's 7.0 magnitude earthquake 25 km from Port au Prince, Haiti's capital and most populous city, and the seismology looks similar.  But vulnerability is a product not only of earthquake strength and duration, but population and property preparedness as well.  A comparison between rich and poor countries illustrates the dynamic quite well (see chart on right).

So far the impact of the earthquake in Nepal - and immediate relief efforts - appear to be mirroring the Haitian experience.  The death toll (so far) is lower than estimated for the region, but hundreds of thousands of survivors are sprawled across large tent cities near Kathmandu, with power, freshwater, food, and hospital services being stretched thin.  International relief agencies are pouring into the country, and the relief effort will inevitably become a rebuilding project, with familiar echoes of Haiti's infamous "Build Back Better" campaign.   Given the impending transition in Nepal, it's worth comparing the lessons of Haiti's experience with the Nepalese context.  

Low building code standards and enforcement

Nepal ranks near the bottom in a list of countries on preparedness for natural disasters.  Despite being located on a known fault-line, Kathmandu, like Port au Prince, did not develop stringent building codes, zoning laws, or urbanization management plans to mitigate risk.  What plans do exist have not been enforced.  According to The Atlantic's City Lab:

Kathmandu city has been one of the fastest-expanding metropolitan areas in South Asia. But a lot of this growth hasn't been planned or regulated. In rural areas of the valley, satellite towns have grown without much guidance from the government, the report says. On the other hand, the shopping centers, offices, and residential buildings built within the city proper have not adhered to safety codes that would protect their occupants during an earthquake.

"The building code is a serious issue. In a place like Kathmandu, a new building pops up every day which has not been built to code," Robert Piper, former resident coordinator for the United Nations in Nepal told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. "Buildings kill people, not earthquakes."

Weak Land Tenure Administration

In Haiti, an opaque land tenure scheme frustrated efforts to return displaced people to their homes, since they had no way to document or prove to foreign agencies they actually owned those homes.  This is how USAID describes land tenure in Nepal: 

There have been past efforts at land reform, but little success in equalizing highly skewed land holdings, reducing the significant level of landlessness, improving security of land tenure, or eliminating exploitative tenancy relationships. These chronic land issues helped to fuel the years of conflict. The government has convened a Land Reform Commission, is in the process of revising the legal and policy framework governing land, and has committed to an agenda of land reform.

Expect land tenure to be a similarly persistent - if subtle - obstacle to reconstruction in Nepal.

Regional and International Interventions

It is too soon to pass judgment on how regional and international actors will influence displacement in Nepal, though early signs show an outpouring of support that may be poorly coordinated.  Neighboring India and other countries have sent planes to provide relief, only to find the airport too congested to land.  The international relief effort is being coordinated by Nepal's National Emergency Operation Center, but this will be the first time the institution faces a task of this magnitude, and it's not clear at this point if it has the necessary capacities.  In some ways the presence of the fault-line may have spurred international agencies to think about disaster preparedness, but overcoming the power outages, food and water shortages, mountainous geography and impending monsoon weather will remain a challenge.  Like Haiti, those challenges will persist long after the earthquake and initial relief efforts fade from view.