Possibilities and Limitations of Urban Planning In Reducing Disaster Risks

Possibilities and Limitations of Urban Planning In Reducing Disaster Risks


The effects of ‘natural’ disasters in cities can be worse than in other environments, with poor and marginalised urban communities in the developing world being most at risk. To avoid post‐disaster destruction and the forced eviction of these communities, proactive and preventive urban planning, including housing, is required. This paper examines current perceptions and practices within international aid organisations regarding the existing and potential roles of urban planning as a tool for reducing disaster risk. It reveals that urban planning confronts many of the generic challenges to mainstreaming risk reduction in development planning. However, it faces additional barriers. The main reasons for the identified lack of integration of urban planning and risk reduction are, first, the marginal position of both fields within international aid organisations, and second, an incompatibility between the respective professional disciplines. To achieve better integration, a conceptual shift from conventional to non‐traditional urban planning is proposed. This paper suggests related operative measures and initiatives to achieve this change.

On 25 April 2015, a Mw 7.8 earthquake struck central Nepal, killing more than 8700 people. An earthquake of this magnitude has long been anticipated in Nepal and the neighbouring northern Indian state of Bihar, which straddle the active Himalayan frontal fault system. Drawing on field research undertaken before the earthquake, this paper traces the progress made in earthquake risk reduction efforts at the national scale in Nepal and at the sub-national scale in Bihar. With their contrasting ‘governance landscapes’, we examine the political and institutional context and power relations among different stakeholder groups, as well as the interests and political will motivating earthquake risk reduction. Nepal is a post-conflict country, with a weak legislative and institutional setting for earthquake risk reduction, and a multitude of different stakeholders (government, multi and bi-lateral donors, UN organisations, and national and international NGOs) engaged in the disaster risk reduction process. Bihar, by comparison, has a strong, hierarchical, sub-national government system with minimal influence of non-government stakeholders in earthquake risk reduction. While Nepal appears to have progressed further in strengthening earthquake resilience, the institutional structures in Bihar are stronger and could potentially support more sustainable resilience building in the long-term. The role of individual ‘champions’ in both instances (in Nepal among a national NGO, donors and multilateral agencies, and in Bihar within the government) has been instrumental in shaping the earthquake risk reduction agenda and initiatives.

Case Study City Profile

On 25 April 2015 a Mw 7.8 earthquake struck central Nepal (now called the Gorkha Earthquake), with its epicentre located 80 km northwest of the capital city Kathmandu in Lamjung District. This was followed, less than three weeks later, by a Mw 7.3 earthquake northeast of the capital in Dolakha District. In Nepal, more than 8700 people were killed and 20,000 injured in this earthquake sequence, with more than 500,000 homes destroyed [92]. In Bihar, on the Indian side of the border with Nepal, 60 people were killed and hundreds injured, with many districts in the north of the state affected [11].

An earthquake of this magnitude has long been anticipated in the Himalaya [5]. Loss estimation scenarios based on a repeat of the 1934 earthquake in modern day Kathmandu have suggested an order of magnitude higher death toll than resulted from the 25 April 2015 event [23,53]. In 1934 a similar number of people had died, with 20% of the building stock in the Kathmandu Valley destroyed and 40% damaged [23]. Eighty-one years later the Kathmandu Valley was home to far more people living at much higher density. One might ask, why were the effects not as bad as had been anticipated by the scenarios? In part, there was luck. The earthquake had a smaller magnitude than the 1934 earthquake (M 7.8 versus 8.4), leading to lower intensities. The earthquake stuck at noon on a Saturday. Schools were closed. Many people were out of doors. But there have also been several years of intensive work on preparedness and risk reduction which may have also been a factor.

While weak governance and lack of political will are frequently cited as barriers to effective DRR there remains a lack of evidence on the effectiveness of different governance systems for DRR . This paper provides some of the evidence called for. Empirical studies suggest that important governance issues underlie the effectiveness of earthquake risk reduction practices, revealing, for example, that earthquake mortalities are greater in newer than older democracies and that public sector corruption is positively correlated with earthquake deaths. While critical structuralist accounts of the underlying causes of disasters, little attention has been given to the specific processes behind these findings. For example, Williams notes that for the factors identified in econometric studies correlated with the number of people who die in disasters, there is a limited understanding of how the mechanisms and causal processes operate in practice.


As in many developing nations, mapping information in Nepal has been often outdated, missing data, and sometimes only accessible on a pay-per-view basis. This creates societies without knowledge of village names, governments without access to their assets, and confusion as to where to provide aid in the case of a natural disaster.

In Nepal, these data and information gaps only heighten the earthquake-prone country’s high seismic hazards. Kathmandu, the Nepali capital, is the world’s most seismically at-risk urban area. The city’s population faces the highest mortality threat from earthquakes of any urban population.

The potential for a large earthquake in Nepal spurred the government of Nepal to implement the Open Cities Project, a program supported by GFDRR’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI). Initiated in November 2012, the project aims to build seismic resilience in the Kathmandu Valley’s education and health infrastructure by training civilians to map their local areas.

Under the project, volunteers have used the open-source OpenStreetMap (OSM) platform to map road networks, schools, and health facilities. Over 130,000 buildings were mapped and more than 1,500 people in Kathmandu were trained in OSM over two years. The remote mapping was combined with extensive on-the-ground verification.

Mapping activities in the Kathmandu Valley were aimed at preparedness and risk reduction, with the knowledge that any data would be valuable when the next earthquake struck. When two high-magnitude earthquakes with an epicenter near Kathmandu struck Nepal in April and May 2015, causing the deaths of nearly 9,000 people and destroying over a half a million homes, information gathered from this project proved crucial and helped inform response and recovery efforts.

The data collected included building type and incorporated construction characteristics to understand vulnerability to hazards. Other helpful information covered road networks, village names, and boundaries.

The project brought together stakeholders from the Department of Education, the National Society of Earthquake Technology, donor agencies, and civil society to create usable information through community mapping techniques, applications, and tools that inform decision making. The project also helped launch a local innovation lab, the nonprofit Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL).

Risk Assessment

Land subsidence is just a geological phenomenon either triggered by natural or anthropogenic activities but when this phenomenon has the probability of resulting harmful consequences or the expected loss (of lives, property, livelihoods, economic activities or environment) then it is considered as risk. Risk factors are compounded by rapid increase in urban population and economic development. The physical damage caused by land subsidence can be mainly categorized into two forms: damage on artificial (manmade) infrastructures and damage on natural systems. Significant damage is seen in areas corresponding to land subsidence occurrence.

Kathmandu valley, the capital and the urban core of a developing country Nepal is lagging in terms of data documentation and research work regarding land subsidence and its risk assessment. The factors that make a location prone to land subsidence risk (i.e. geology and groundwater extraction characteristics) are in favor of the valley, yet research is not being conducted. Also, the valley is experiencing rapid increase in population and economic development in the past few decades that will ultimately contribute to increase in risk of damage induced by land subsidence if no counter measures are considered.

Therefore, it is necessary to assess land subsidence risk for decision and policy makers to prevent a huge potential disaster. Risk assessment is simply an application of a methodology for evaluating risk, where risk is defined as the probability and frequency of occurrence of a hazardous event, exposure of people and property to the hazard and consequences of that exposure [1] .

Most frequently deployed approach for land subsidence risk assessment are by the means of Geographic Information System (GIS) techniques and Disaster Risk Index Method and Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP). GIS provides robust tools for inclusive spatial modeling and analysis. Disaster Risk Index method is an approach where the hazard, the vulnerability and the capability of disaster prevention and reduction are considered for the quantitative evaluation of a risk. AHP is a multi-criteria mathematical evaluation method used for decision making where hierarchical structures are used to quantify relative priorities for a given set of elements on a ratio scale set by the user.


UN-Habitat has been supporting the government of Nepal and its people since the 1980’s in various areas of human settlements and urban development. It established its office in Kathmandu in 2006, and provides support in the areas of water and sanitation, shelter and land, slum upgrading, green development climate change and urban mobility through the following projects:

The first technical session was chaired by Mr. Surya Bhakta Sangachhe, Director General of DUDBC, co-chaired by Mr. Manish Pradhan, Urban Poverty Theme Leader, Action Aid Nepal, and facilitated by Ms. Lajana Manandhar, Executive Director, Lumanti Support Group for

Shelter. The session started with a brief presentation by Dr. Bharat Dahiya from UN-HABITAT on “Challenge of Slum Upgrading and Millennium Development Goals in Asia”. Dr. Dahiya

explained the geographical distribution of slum population in developing countries, and the

level of urbanization and proportion of slum population in Asia. Drawing on the State of

World Cities Report 2006/7, he explained the “Slum Scorecard” in the various countries in

Asia region related to the achievement of MDG 7/11. Dr. Dahiya concluded his presentation

by emphasizing that addressing the issue of slum and squatter upgrading was central to

building “New Nepal”, and gave the slogan of “Slum Free Nepal”, a goal for which the

various key stakeholders could work together in partnership with slum and squatter

communities. This, he underlined, would go a long way in meeting the MDG 7/11 in Nepal.

One of the projects reviewed was the Bhaktapur Development Project (BDP), the only large-

scale urban upgrading project taken place in Nepal thus far. This project differs from the most

in aim as well as magnitude. The main goal of BDP was to improve buildings of historical

value rather than improving urban settlements. The project was, nevertheless, a pioneer in the

field of settlement upgrading. The experience gained during the project paved the way for

projects thereafter.

Nepal’s high urban growth rate produces besides the social problems, a large environmental

impact. Mr. Pradhan addressed this issue by describing the Dhalko Urban Development

Project initiated in 1987. This project was aimed at raising awareness as well as making local

efforts towards a better environment.


The Japan International Cooperation Agency held the seminar “Build Back Better Reconstruction Seminar for Nepal” in collaboration with the Government of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal in Kathmandu on May 25, one month after Nepal was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on April 25. This seminar was organized to support Nepal’s reconstruction effort by sharing Japan’s experience and knowledge on earthquake reconstruction. During the seminar, Japanese experts presented practical examples of reconstruction measures that may be applied to Nepal’s future reconstruction planning and specific recovery projects. The seminar received more than four hundred participants which were more than expected. This earthquake was the first large one after the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015. Throughout the Conference, “Build back Better” as well as achieving a seamless transition from humanitarian assistance to recovery and reconstruction assistance were emphasized. The “Build Back Better” concept* was adopted as a key element (Priority for Action) of the “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030”, a guiding agreement for disaster risk reduction for the UN member countries. The concept was also reflected in Sendai Cooperation Initiative for Disaster Risk Reduction announced by the Japanese Government.


Land pooling

To facilitate planned development through adequate supply of serviced plots for housing, a full-fledged and more positive approach called the land pooling scheme was initiated in 1988 in the Kathmandu Valley. Today, the valley has managed to implement 11 projects after hard negotiations with the landowners. However, no review has been made so far as to what extent they were able to meet the overall planning objectives. This paper makes an attempt to assess the overall implementation experiences of land pooling projects in the valley. At the beginning, the paper introduces: the urban land management challenges, the concept of land pooling and the international experiences, the Nepalese context of urban land development, and the land pooling projects of Kathmandu Valley. The paper then makes an assessment of the implementation experiences: strengths and weaknesses, and finally, concludes by making recommendations to improve the performance of the future land pooling projects to achieve the urban planning objectives mentioned above. Land pooling or land readjustment scheme is regarded as one of the most successful tools for land development as it is a public private partnership scheme and involves community in the planning process. However, there are a number of issues and problems that exist in the land pooling areas as well. So far, there are no studies done to measure or evaluate the socio-economic impacts of such projects on the community and the neighborhood. In this context, this study aims to delve on the socio-economic impacts of land pooling projects on the community. The study has been carried out taking an example of Nayabazar land pooling project, which has been considered as one of the successful and fastest in implementation. The research has been carried out to measure different indicators of socio-economic impact assessment mainly change in demography, change in aesthetic quality of neighborhood, change in employment, income, change in retail/housing markets etc. The research has been carried out by conducting questionnaire surveys, interviews from key informants, informal focus group meetings and secondary data sources.

From Rural to Urban 

Managing rapid urbanization poses challenges that require urgent policy attention. One critical challenge is haphazard and uncontrolled growth of built-up areas. Because they are classified as rural areas in spite of their urban characteristics, several market and border towns are growing “under the radar” without government planning and control. Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to rapid and uncontrolled sprawl; irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing development; loss of open space, and decreased livability. It has also increased vulnerability to disasters, making Kathmandu one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world. Limited connectivity and access to markets, exacerbated by the country’s difficult topography, and intermittent electricity supply are major impediments to the expansion of nonfarm economic activities. Public capital expenditure for municipal infrastructure is inadequate to meet the growing needs of urban areas, and is biased against Kathmandu and the largest cities, where infrastructure needs are the greatest.


The high rates of migration and population growth have directly contributed to rapid, often unmanaged urban growth in Kathmandu valley. Urbanization has occurred at the cost of fertile agricultural lands and cultural sites. Land use change in the valley has been aggravated through sporadic and persistent exploitations. Unattended fallow lands in suburban areas have worsened land degradation by welcoming invasive alien species and compromising the indigenous landscape and culture. The study area experienced rapid urbanization with the average annual urban growth rate of 7.34%, 7.70% and 5.90% between 1976, 1989, 2002 and 2015, respectively., The annual urban expansion growth rate indicates the level of urban area extension in the valley. Urban expansion direction indicates the value of socio-economic movement. Relatively the highest, moderate and the lowest urban concentration over the time period occurred in the east, southwest and west along with the northwest part of the valley, respectively.

This excessive trend of urban momentum in recent decades is being strengthened with the ongoing construction of the outer Ring-road and additional physical infrastructures, which are likely to convert the whole valley into a dense jungle of concrete in the coming decades. The government needs to introduce an effective urban plan to control the haphazard settlement practice in the city, fringe and rural areas. Geological studies, soil tests, building standards, road standards and wise land utilization practices should be conducted prior to the construction of private and public infrastructure

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