In 2013, government planners identified 83 open spaces for evacuation and refuge during disasters. According to the 2020 IOM report, only about half of these sites are actually usable in an emergency. New small buildings, storage areas, and infrastructure expansion have eaten into important space. Ten sites have been dropped from the list as they now serve other purposes.
The report highlights other problems: an almost total lack of on-site water and sanitation facilities, unsuitable terrain, scarce local participation, especially of marginalised groups; low public awareness; and insufficient routine emergency drills. Some local governments did not even realise that spaces under their jurisdiction are designated earthquake evacuation sites.
We also need to plan for multiple hazards: earthquake and floods at the same time, or even simultaneous earthquake, flood, and pandemic. Nepal ranks eleventh and thirtieth worldwide in earthquake and flood vulnerability.
This multiple hazard preparedness scenario is not impossible. After the 2015 earthquake, people in Bhaktapur’s shelter camps had to flee the gushing Hanumante River.
We often call earthquakes ‘natural’ disasters. Doing so allows governments and others to avoid blame. But the real cause of many disasters is not nature, it is poor human planning. Kathmandu Valley residents would do well to remember how they have relied up open space in the past and will need it again in the future.
The World Health Organisation recommends 9 sq m of open space per person. Kathmandu has about 0.25 sq m per person. Lalitpur has only 0.06 sq m per person, with poorer people’s access even less. So, neighbourhoods with the least open spaces have to be prioritised. Regular drills are needed everywhere so people know where to go and what to do in a crisis.
Says Anil Pokhrel of the National Risk Reduction and Management Authority, “Nepal is one of the fastest urbanising countries in the world, and 2015 was an eye opener. Government had done some work, but it really showed us the meaning of open space.”
He stresses the importance of gardens and parking areas, not just the 83 designated open spaces in the Valley. “We need spaces closer to home,” he adds. “We have serious threats to urban space, such as construction and encroachments, but we also have communities like Thimi that are protecting and restoring ponds and cultural heritage as open spaces for emergencies.”
Pokhrel says the aftermath of the earthquake six years ago showed how crucial water and toilets are for families. He adds, “Our message to every local government is this: work disaster planning into everything you do.”