Post-earthquake Nepal: rebuilding WASH facilities, rebuilding a nation

4 min read

Nine months since the first of two devastating earthquakes hit Nepal, Pragya Lamsal, Communications Officer at WaterAid Nepal, assesses the progress of WASH facilities being rebuilt in affected areas and why this is an important opportunity to ‘build back better’.

On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal. The quake and a series of aftershocks delivered a severe blow, causing widespread damage in infrastructure and loss of life. 35 of the country’s districts were affected – 14 severely so. 498,852 houses were categorised as fully collapsed or damaged beyond repair, and 256,697 were partly damaged. Approximately 9,000 people lost their lives and more than 22,000 people were injured.

The quake and WASH

The vast majority of the 11,288 water systems in Nepal’s severely-affected districts are gravity-fed, with springs or streams as their source. Around 1,570 systems were totally damaged, and a further 3,663 suffered partial damage and still require repair. The earthquake also destroyed more than an estimated 180,000 household toilets, and damaged more than 4,416 school toilets.

According to the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment report, the net total value of damages and change in economic flows to the water and sanitation sector is estimated at NPR 11.4 billion at pre-disaster prices. Of this, the damage to infrastructure and physical assets is estimated at NPR 10.5 billion. The total needed for recovery and reconstruction, using the principle of 'building back better', is estimated at NPR 18.1 billion.

Formal reconstruction begins

Political tussles and parliamentary delays meant it took eight months for the Government to approve a reconstruction bill proposed in Parliament with the limbo finally ending on 16 December when Nepal’s parliament endorsed the Reconstruction Authority Bill.

The international donor community has already welcomed the Bill and, with this endorsement, plans for recovery and reconstruction can move ahead with the confidence that donors will provide pledged funds.

The newly formed National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) will be responsible for spending the US$4.1 billion in donations pledged at a conference in June 2015.

However, in my opinion, formation of the NRA alone does not ensure effective reconstruction works. The NRA should immediately start its tasks, but ordinary people, civil society leaders and development partners should maintain pressure on responsible officials to hold the Government accountable and demand transparency in the rebuilding phase.

Sector-by-sector monitoring and updates will be fruitful to hold the Government to ensure all sectors receive equal attention in the reconstruction process. The NRA, in turn, should not forget the ‘build back better’ principle.

Build back better

It is said that disasters provide an opportunity to 'build back better' (BBB) creating new infrastructure that is safer and accessible for all. Because Nepal lies on an earthquake sensitive zone, it will be vital for the NRA to adopt BBB approaches such as:

  • Set up a pool of technical experts and ensure a crystal clear reconstruction policy framework and guidelines are in place.
  • Build strong, resilient structures and implement building codes properly; both will help minimise loss of life and property during earthquakes.
  • Initiate the building of safer homes to offer to people forced to live in unsafe shanty towns without delay.
  • Make the construction of sustainable toilets in rebuilt houses a priority.

It is important to note that adopting these approaches is possible when government policies incorporate universal design principles appropriate for the poorest section of society into any new construction plans – i.e. by ensuring the most cost-effective and sustainable construction methods of all involved.

Building WASH facilities, rebuilding a nation

It is noteworthy that the Government is being proactive in providing grants and loans to citizens for the reconstruction of their damaged and destroyed houses.

However, the Government should use this disaster as an opportunity to ensure cost-effective building of WASH facilities. If done properly, every home can be rebuilt with its own toilet – and this will help achieve universal sanitation coverage.

Current results speak for themselves. The Government's Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan previously recommended that toilets have a permanent structure up to the plinth- or floor-level to improve durability and sustainability: as a result, in the earthquake they were often more resilient than the houses themselves – families' household toilets remained standing even though the house was damaged.

As housing reconstruction continues, we believe the Government should include a policy to encourage resilient and inclusive building or more facilities like these strong toilets in every single home. WaterAid Nepal has been working closely with Government agencies, civil society groups and grassroots organisations to ensure WASH infrastructure is more inclusive and robust like this going forwards.

In the end

After such terrible damage from the earthquakes, further loss due to inadequate sanitation must be avoided, by prioritising WASH infrastructure during the reconstruction process.

Evidence shows that the economic cost associated with 
sanitation is very high. World Bank data shows that annual economic losses due to poor sanitation in 18 African countries are equivalent to between 1% and 2.5% of GDP. This effect may be similar in other developing nations.

The Nepalese Government has been active in promoting sanitation through approaches like community-led total sanitation, and has really helped many communities resume good hygiene practices promptly after the earthquakes. This spirit and commitment should be continued while getting damaged WASH infrastructure back to pre-earthquake status – but the slogan ‘build back better’ must be at the forefront.

Pragya Lamsal tweets as @pragyalamsal.