Building Back Greener: The Nepal Earthquake One Year Later

Judy Oglethorpe/WWF

by Anita van Breda

April 20, 2016

The Nepalese community of Ramche, Gorka are survivors. After years of painstaking work to build a reliable and safe water supply, their primary source of water was damaged in last April’s devastating Nepal earthquake. Structural damage to homes, coupled with an ongoing fear of sleeping under unstable roofs added to village hardships, but the Ramche people remain remarkably resilient. They embody the spirit of an entire country — a small and beautiful nation that is beginning to rebuild their lives, their communities and their country, a year after a heart breaking natural disaster.

I witnessed this determination when I visited Nepal in February. Recovery has begun. And many are working to incorporate environmentally responsible practices in the process. Repurposing disaster debris and utilizing responsibly sourced building materials are examples of environmentally sound techniques that can make a significant difference to the country’s long-term social, economic and environmental health.

Under the humanitarian guiding principle of ‘do no harm,’ disaster recovery and environmental stewardship complement one another; a safe and secure living environment can only exist if the quality of the physical environment can sustain it.

However, to be truly effective, building back “greener” needs to be an essential part of post-disaster planning. In most countries, that’s not the case. But in Nepal, there is a unique opportunity — the chance to build a secure future for its people by making the environment a core principle of reconstruction.

Incorporating nature into disaster risk management isn’t new. After 230,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, we partnered with the American Red Cross to develop the “Green Recovery and Reconstruction Toolkit” — a training program for government, local communities and humanitarian organizations, to help them build back safer by managing and protecting local natural resources. For example, working with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and local partners, we trained communities on organic home gardening techniques and composting. Pesticide-free vegetables helped improve nutrition, increase food security and in turn, household savings. And new recycling enterprises led to private sector engagement and development.

But to implement this on a global scale, we need properly trained environmental and humanitarian experts who can work side by side when natural disaster strikes. The problem? Right now there are only a handful of people in the world trained in environmental reconstruction and response.

Building back “greener” not only helps reduce the potential negative impacts of the rebuilding process and future disaster risk, it increases productivity of healthy natural resources, which in turn improve livelihood opportunities and provide a safety net for the poor and marginalized — often the most vulnerable when disaster strikes.

Recognizing the benefits of green reconstruction, the Nepalese government reached out to WWF and our partners to conduct an assessment of the earthquake’s direct impact on the environment. The findings revealed massive loss of forest and farm land due to landslides and avalanches, changes to water sources, increased sediment in rivers and risk of downstream flooding, to name a few.

While the problems can seem overwhelming, we can work to address them. With support from USAID, we’re now conducting green recovery and reconstruction trainings for hundreds of participants in Nepal, ranging from national to district level authorities to community members.

We’re also supporting recommended efforts to use responsibly sourced construction materials, designing environmentally sound water and sanitation practices that take increasing climate variability into account, utilizing spatial planning that integrates disaster risk reduction for recovering communities and relocating agriculture and infrastructure away from hazardous places.

We’re making progress, but given the increasing frequency of larger and more damaging disasters, we need to further our collective efforts to build capacity for green recovery and reconstruction response across all sectors — and do it at much greater scale.

- We need to support ownership at the local level. It’s critical that governments and the public and private sectors have both the mandate and the authority to design, implement, monitor and enforce environmentally responsible recovery and reconstruction activities.

- We need to do a better job of integrating environment and disaster risk management into education and professional development curriculums. Training the next generation of practitioners to work in an integrated fashion is vital.

- We need to focus on ensuring a healthy environment is acknowledged as a crucial element of national security.

To address the current lack of experts able to offer direct, on the ground environmental support during a natural disaster, we’ve come up with a support solution: a 24–7 call-in Help Desk.

Launched this year, the Environment and Disaster Management Help Desk is an online platform providing round the clock access to a team of advisors, skilled in supporting green rebuilding efforts. Anyone, anywhere in the world can reach us, anytime.

In Nepal, the rebuilding will take time.

One year anniversaries can be an appropriate time to take stock of progress made. But it can also be a misleading timetable, when we are often trying to build back what may have taken generations to build in the first place.

With the right people working together to build back safer and greener, we have the opportunity to strengthen resilience for Nepal’s ecosystems, its infrastructure and most importantly, for communities like Ramche. They’re doing their part, and they’re counting on us to help them get it right. We owe it to them to try. This time and every time.

Anita van Breda is Director of World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Environment and Disaster Management Program.