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Improving adaptation and resilience outcomes through energy access: lessons from post-earthquake Nepal

Recovering after a severe crisis may serve as a critical juncture to mainstream adaptation and drive sustainable resilience outcomes. Reflecting on the failures and missed opportunities in the case of reconstruction in Nepal two years after the devastating earthquake, several important lessons can be drawn that will help other world regions better integrate energy access with resilience thinking and adaptation planning.

In April 2015, a little over two years ago, communities across Nepal were devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by a series of related aftershocks and landslides. These events resulted in severe loss of life (around 9,000 deaths and more than 22,000 injured), half a million Nepalese families left without a home, many cultural and sacred sites destroyed, and enduring physical, emotional and psycho-social challenges for its government and people.

Matthew Herington recently returned from a research visit to several rural communities in two of the most severely impacted mountain districts in Nepal, Sindhupalchowk and Rasuwa. The primary goal of this research mission was to observe how reconstruction and recovery have progressed in the past two years; explore linkages between energy access and strengthened community resilience in a post-disaster context; and to distil lessons from Nepal’s experiences that will find relevance for policy uptake across other world regions vulnerable to a suite of hazards from a fast changing climate.

Without a reliable supply of electricity in rural Nepal, many families and communities rely on solar and batteries, torch lights or kerosene lamps as a primary lighting source. Photo credit: Matthew Herington.

Access to affordable, reliable and clean energy can play a fundamental role in strengthening the capacity of communities to cope and respond to natural or human-induced disasters. From facilitating communication to transportation of aid and supplies, to operating health clinics and providing access to services such as heating, lighting and cooking, reliable energy is a key ingredient in post-disaster phases of a crisis.

Even before the earthquake, Nepal’s energy infrastructure was highly vulnerable, with limited capacity for adaptation. Whilst 85% of the population had access to electricity in 2014, the service was notoriously unreliable, insufficient and expensive. Furthermore, only a quarter of the population reported access to clean fuels for cooking, meaning traditional biomass (i.e. fuelwood and animal dung) dominated as a key energy resource, resulting in poor quality of life, characterised by drudgery, ill health, environmental degradation, and gender inequity.

The earthquake exacerbated the energy situation in Nepal, damaging existing grid-connected hydropower generation and transmission facilities, and delaying the construction of much-needed new capacity. Almost 300 micro-hydro facilities and thousands of solar home systems servicing off-grid and remote communities were put out of operation.

During the six-month research visit to Nepal, Matthew Herington made a number of observations:

  1. Firstly, reconstruction efforts have been difficult, diverse and overall, painstakingly slow. Two years after the event for example, 84% of people in the heavily impacted district of Sindhupalchowk are still living in temporary shelters. Despite a handful of noteworthy activities by NGOs and INGOs, on the whole, remote mountain communities have not received the support they need to get back on their feet. With luck, the recent local government elections provide a renewed hope to strengthen governance and bring some much-needed coordination and momentum for reconstruction activities in these remote parts of the country.
  2. Second, energy vulnerabilities have particularly hindered capacities to cope and adapt in Nepal, both directly and indirectly. To cite just one example, an elderly gentleman from a community in Helambu emphasised the necessity of communication in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and the difficulties of charging mobile phones without a reliable electricity supply. Community members would take turns to gather several phones from their neighbours, and make the two-day return journey on foot to the nearest local market for charging. This meant crucial, and avoidable, lost time away from immediate and critical recovery tasks for these people.
  3. Third, many of these more vulnerable, remote communities in Nepal still battle on a daily basis to ensure that some of their most basic needs such as safety, security and shelter are met. With this realisation, it is therefore hardly surprising that these people afford little thought to adaptation, long-term resilience building and transformation. There is an opportunity here for institutions that are supporting the recovery efforts to ensure resilience and adaptation are placed firmly on the agenda during this critical phase of reconstruction. A whole new level of effort is needed to help these communities realise greater states of resilience across a number of fronts including, but not limited to, housing, energy access and food security. This will further help to mainstream adaptation to natural hazards, and drive transformation within the larger goal of achieving sustainable development through improved health, livelihoods and social equality outcomes.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Matthew Herington and Vigya Sharma work at the Energy & Poverty Research Group of the University of Queensland (Australia). Matthew also works at the Centre for Communication and Social Change at the University of Queensland (Australia). Bikash Sharma works at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Khumaltar (Kathmandu, Nepal).

The study is based on the lead author’s field work as part of a six-month Endeavour Fellowship, funded by the Australian Government and supported by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal.