Nepal 2015 Earthquake Reveals Need to Shake-up Water and Disaster Management

5 June 2015

Nepal was rocked by two major earthquakes of magnitudes 7.8 on 25 April and 7.3 on 12 May, that resulted in more than 8,700 fatalities, injured over 22,000 and damaged over 790,000 buildings, mostly in the worst affected 14 districts, including the capital Kathmandu and in the Western and Central regions.

(Photo: Deepak Adhikari)

The quake severely damaged water infrastructure and disrupted water-related services such as water supplies and drainage, hydroelectricity generation, and irrigation facilities. Moreover, there is a significant danger of additional earthquake-related water problems in the near to mid-term future because the quake also exposed unknown geological hazards. Visible land fissures and widespread dry landslides show that the earthquake has loosened Nepal’s relatively young, fragile and tectonically active mountainous geology and left the affected areas more vulnerable to future disturbances. Structural reforms of Nepal’s water management are urgently needed, not only to deal with the immediate water crisis, but also to prepare for bigger impending problems likely to result from continued geological changes. These reforms cannot narrowly focus only on water, but different policy areas need to be linked together in order to promote disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience building more broadly.

There are three major problems that need immediate attention: the disruption of services related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); the increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) in the Himalayas; and the higher chance of landslides and flooding.

Access to WASH services is crucial to keep affected communities healthy during post-disaster rescue, relief and rehabilitation. Contamination of water sources, coupled with poor sanitation and hygiene, could lead to water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid. This was the case following the 2010 Haiti earthquake where an outbreak of cholera claimed more than 8,900 lives out of some 738,000 infected cases. Huge amounts of funds were diverted to deal with this secondary crisis alone and necessitated the implementation of the National Plan 2012-2022 which cost an estimated USD2.1 billion. But while cases on the scale of Haiti have not yet emerged in Nepal, the danger of a sudden outbreak cannot be completely ignored due to factors such as difficulty in reaching affected areas and detecting the problem at the very early stages, an impending monsoon and Nepal’s poor track record of controlling water-borne diseases in the past. In 2009, a major cholera outbreak infected over 30,000 people and caused around 500 deaths in the mid-western Jajarkot district of the country.

Severe damage to the water supply and sanitation infrastructure has also been reported. The extent of the damage is still unknown due to communication difficulties, but already more than 130,000 cartons of bottled drinking water have been distributed, signifying the urgent need for safe drinking water in the affected areas. Furthermore the earthquake could have unknowingly affected the hydrogeology and water flow as natural water springs have dried up in some places and newly appeared in others. It may take years to rebuild the disrupted WASH services, especially in rural areas where access to clean drinking water and sanitation was inadequate even before the earthquake. What has become absolutely necessary is to put in place an effective WASH strategy for post-disaster situations. This strategy should, at the very least, consist of a surveillance system to detect an outbreak in the early stages, as well as backup disease prevention and control measures for emergency situations such as provision of health workers, WASH toolkits, and supplies of medicines and vaccinations.

The risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) has also become a major public concern after the earthquake. Earthquakes could easily trigger these floods in the Himalayan region where glaciers are retreating faster due to climate change, and the accumulation of melt water has created high risk glacial lakes such as Imja and Tsho Rolpha in the region near Mount Everest. No immediate GLOF risk was found by a quick assessment done by a group of experts from the International Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD) but the possibility of a GLOF is real. The capability to conduct this kind of immediate assessment is essential to prepare for risks, especially immediately after an earthquake. For future planning, GLOF risk should be assessed not only in relation to climate change, but also other possible triggers such as earthquakes.


Widespread dry landslides are one aspect of earthquakes that has never been seen before in Nepal (as opposed to common wet landslides that occur in the monsoon season). Nearly 1000 landslides have already been mapped by an international team of scientists. These landslides not only destroyed man-made infrastructure and claimed the lives of many people, but on 23 May, landslides also blocked a major snow-fed river – the Kaligandaki in the Myagdi District. In just 15 hours, the blockage rapidly developed into a potentially dangerous dammed lake, about 200m high and more than a kilometre across. Fortunately, the lake drained naturally and did not inflict a flash flood which would have been catastrophic in the downstream areas. If a landslide were to occur in the wet season, when river water levels are higher than normal, the situation could have been even worse and possibly unmanageable.

Intense runoff during the monsoon season could easily trigger more wet landslides and floods from the already destabilised mountain slopes and loose top soils. It is therefore critical to have in place strengthened DRR preparedness and response mechanisms before the monsoon touches ground in Nepal in about a month time. 

The Nepal earthquake should lead us to rethink the emerging dimensions of earthquake hazards and their impact on water resource planning, development and management. Nepal already has plans, such as the National Water Plan 2005, in place for flood and landslide hazards, as well as water sanitation and access, but these are not sufficient to manage the new dangers revealed by the recent earthquake. The dangers posed by the real possibility of similar future earthquakes needs to be incorporated into the national planning process.

Here are some additional recommendations that the government agencies, development partners and local communities should consider based on the experience of the recent earthquake in Nepal:

Prioritise an emergency action plan to rehabilitate and reconstruct water infrastructure:

The people and economy of Nepal depend heavily on water resources for growing crops and generating hydro-power, among other things. The government should place an interim emergency action plan that allocates resources and mobilises human capital to rebuild and strengthen vital infrastructure such as drinking water supplies, sanitation and drainage canals, hydro-plants, irrigation facilities, and flood control structures.

Incorporate the potential impacts of earthquake-induced geo-hazards in ongoing and future projects for water resources development:

Nepal is actively pursuing a policy to develop water infrastructure, including hydropower plants, dams and irrigation canals. It should be mandatory to consider earthquakes as a potential hazard, in the design criteria for building water infrastructure, and to strictly implement it. This would not only safeguard expensive investments but also, more importantly, protect human lives and livelihoods. 

Empower and actively involve government agencies to strengthen their disaster response capacity:

Lessons from the Nepal earthquake should be used to improve the country’s water resources planning to deal with future disasters. Government agencies should actively engage affiliated bodies and mainstream non-government development actors and local communities to create a disaster-resilient system for water resources planning, management and use. Strengthening financial, technical and human capacities and decision-making roles within government would be an essential first step.

Finally, it is necessary to prepare for the possibility of extremely rare, but nevertheless highly destructive simultaneous occurrence of multiple hazards. It was only a matter of luck that the earthquake did not occur during the monsoon season, which would have greatly expanded the scope of the damage. Japan also suffered from a “triple disaster” from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown). Nepal’s future DRR planning should also consider ways to deal with the worst-case scenario of a combination of multiple disasters, one amplifying the impact of the others, such as a combination of earthquake, monsoon flood and GLOF.

(Authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the valuable inputs and support from Daisuke SANO, Mark ELDER, Augustine KWAN, Henry SCHEYVENS, Tetsuo KUYAMA and Emma FUSHIMI)

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