Kathmandu city. Photo: UN

In many parts of the world, people have a fatalistic attitude to hazards and risks, sometimes claiming acts of god when disaster strikes. But when we examine how hazards turn into disasters, the results are often human-made. 

Take for instance the recent landslide in Sierra Leone in which an entire hillside gave way under intense rain, burying hundreds of houses under thick mud, killing over 500 people. The houses and dwellings had been built without sufficient drainage, nor with any consideration to the geological hazard of the hillside. The poorest dwellings, which outnumbered the bricks and mortar homes, were built without regulation, crowded into a small space and lacked safe construction materials.

Similarly, in Nepal, close to 9,000 people died in the 2015 earthquakes when buildings crumbled when the earth started shaking. It wasn’t the earthquake that was deadly; it was the unstable vulnerable structures that couldn’t withstand the huge shock. An earthquake of similar magnitude occurred in Chile in December 2016, but resulted in zero casualties.

Nevertheless, anything that is manufactured can be improved to reduce disaster risk. In the case of Nepal, a seismically vulnerable country, strengthening the structural elements of houses and buildings, choice of safe locations for settlements, can drastically reduce deaths, injuries and economic loss during future earthquakes.

While reconstruction of the destroyed houses is of the utmost priority for the earthquake-affected population, equal attention is needed to assess and refurbish an estimated 2 million damaged and non-damaged structures in high-risk areas.

Ideally, these vulnerable buildings are demolished or retrofitted (strengthened) if financially possible. Theoretically it is a simple solution, but practically it is not. First, there are too many houses that need thorough assessment to see if they need demolished or strengthened. Second, many of the vulnerable home-owners are unable or unwilling to invest financially in this potentially expensive upgrade or reconstruction. Financing this mass upgrade is out of reach for many Nepalis who will choose school fees, healthcare bills, or household costs to upgrading houses that in some cases are not their own. There could be government and donor-led solutions to subsidize this work. But for those who can afford upgrades and structural improvements, how can they be convinced to prioritize some of their money on these life-saving changes. It’s cheaper for society to reinforce these risky structures, rather than wait for a deadly and costly disaster to strike again.


UNDP Nepal (through a UNDP Asia Pacific Bureau iData project*) is collaborating with three urban and urbanizing municipalities are exploring an innovative solution to the challenge around retrofitting vulnerable houses, involving mapping of both the at-risk houses and the attitudes of the homeowners and then find inspiring and tangible behaviour-change solutions.  The initiative aims to blend scientific data with social science indicators; what structures need to be retrofitted and strengthened, and how to convince home-owners to invest in these upgrades. The result will be a building permit system which is linked with a hazard map (evidence generated through a model) together with the knowledge of homeowner’s perception, which aids the municipalities’ efforts to promote retrofitting of vulnerable buildings.

The first step is to compile the engineering survey conducted post-earthquake, including seismic mapping to identify the vulnerable households. The National Reconstruction Authority holds a huge data repository of over 1 million houses surveyed. These data are statistically significant enough to generate a model that depicts risks based on patterns and profiles of structures even outside the earthquake-impacted areas (materials used, foundation integrity, and geological patterns). Using this model, the three municipalities will create a unique hazard risk map that will illustrate in specific areas, what types of houses are prone to collapse and prioritize houses/clusters for upgrading.  The resulting map can show authorities which residential areas should be prioritized for retrofitting. This information will be integrated as part of the electronic building permit system, which will be introduced to the three municipalities through this initiative. The construction permits will consider the hazard map when issuing permits.

The next step is the attitude survey. Homeowners and policy/decision makers at the local levels will be asked a series of questions to determine their spending habits, prioritization, and knowledge of hazards and risks. This survey will be used to create homeowner profiles to determine why they will or will not invest in life-saving upgrades to their homes.

But how can Nepal affect behavior change? That is the final step. Technical know-how exists. Memories of the shock from the disaster exist. People understand that houses need to be safer. But how do we link that knowledge with action? Under which conditions will people who can afford it will upgrade their potentially vulnerable houses? This is what we should explore going forward, thinking outside the box. It’s not just about science and evidence. It’s about translating knowledge into actions leading to transformation and change.


After all, house owners are responsible for structural safety of their houses while municipalities are responsible for providing conducive environment for them to take up retrofitting. Data science and behavioral science could possibly pave a way for the municipalities to effectively promote safer construction practices including retrofitting of vulnerable buildings beyond business as usual models.

iData project is funded by the Government of Denmark

Read this article to learn more about the project.

About the Authors

Chinatsu Endo is program analyst at Energy, Environment, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management Unit of UNDP Nepal. She was engaged in the Government of Nepal’s policy and strategy formulation for promotion of safer building construction. 

Ramraj Narasimhan is disaster risk management technical specialist and national project manager a.i. for Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management Program at UNDP Nepal. He is architect planner by qualification, and has extensive experience in disaster and climate risk management, science and societal interactions around early warning systems. 

Pragya Pradhan is senior project officer for national building codes and risk sensitive land use planning under Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management Program. She is an architect planner and experienced in urban planning, strategy and policy formulation. 

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