Tragedy in Nepal highlights need to address fragile institutions, fragmented food systems and poor nutrition BEFORE disasters strike

Kathmandu, Nepal 
A 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April. Authorities report over 700 people have been killed and many buildings have collapsed in the capital, Kathmandu.

As search and rescue efforts continue, hospitals in the capital continue to function but are stretched to the limit. Powerful aftershocks continue to be felt, so further damage is a risk, increasing the climate of fear amongst the local population.

Once again, the world scrambles to respond to an international appeal for help to save and rebuild lives. As with the Asian tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, locust invasions of West Africa and cyclones in Myanmar, so-called ‘natural’ disasters continue to devastate people’s lives, shatter communities, destroy the basis for rural and urban livelihoods, and set whole economies back years, if not decades. Long-term socioeconomic growth doesn’t just stall in the context of massive shocks, it is often brutally compromised. As a result, policymakers must wake up to  the task of establishing durable public institutions and services, as well as resilient food systems, as part of the development process — not just in response to natural hazards.

There are many kinds of hazards in the world. Climate-related and geological shocks are part of the world in which we live. The ground on which we stand is not an unchanging stable platform. And the rain and weather patterns on which agriculture depends can veer suddenly from years of beneficence to life-threatening extremes. Climate change projections predict increased volatility and severity of extreme events (separate from longer-term changes in climatic norms).[1] Indeed, although earthquakes killed more people between 1994 and 2013 than all other types of disaster combined,  the frequency of geophysical disasters, such as Nepal’s earthquake, has remained stable during the past 20 years.[2] By contrast, there has been a significant rise in storms and floods since 2000: roughly 340 climate-related disasters per year, almost 50% higher than the 1990s, and double the rate of the 1980s.

Importantly, although less than half of all such natural disasters took place in low income countries in recent decades, those countries experienced more than two-thirds of all disaster-related deaths; in other words, three times as many people died per disaster event in low income countries compared with high income countries. Of course, the underlying reason for this is imbalance is that that the human and economic impact of disasters is anything but ‘natural’. For example, there is growing destruction in developing countries in part due to the pace of change, which includes high population growth, highly concentrated urbanization, and high rates of building construction (of questionable quality) put many more people in harm’s way than ever before. The magnet-like attraction of urban hubs typically located in flood plains, on coasts, or in earthquake zones increases the likelihood that natural hazards become major human and economic crises. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it (with very high confidence levels), “impacts from recent climate-related extremes…reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability.”

In other words, it is the vulnerability of ‘human systems’ that allows natural disasters to become catastrophes. They don’t always have to. Human systems include public institutions that support daily access of key services and resources to all, including the most vulnerable; these are essential to building the human health, education, good nutrition and productivity on which resilient societies all rely. They involve the food systems that put meals on the table: including, agriculture that is efficient and responsive to demand for quality of outputs (not just quantity), farm input systems that are responsive to changing environmental conditions, and storage and market systems that are resilient in the face of the secondary effects of shocks (including the damage posed by moisture, molds, pest and diseases, impaired transportation, less than transparent information on access points, prices and demand). They include private sector activity – where to invest in food transformation and retail and where not; what to promote as healthy diets and what not to include; how to respond to demand for quality among the bottom billion in ways that are sustainable, etc. And they include public safety nets that must be able to protect and sustain the most vulnerable during periods of acute and rising need just as well as during less dramatic times of chronic penury.

The problem is that a long-standing bifurcation persists in policy agendas (including the funding, training, and career-building of professionals) between humanitarian and development actions.[3] That good nutrition can only be achieved by focusing multidisciplinary actions on entire food systems, not just on targeted public health interventions, has become a widely-accepted mantra.[4] What that perspective still lacks is an acknowledgement that system-wide risks, food system shocks and nutritional vulnerability must be addressed not only as a humanitarian concern, but as a key facet of the world’s long-term development goals.

Preserving and building on past gains in the face of shocks is no longer just a good idea, it’s become a core part of the policy agenda. How each government prepares for, and responds to, crises depends on local context and capacity.  Nevertheless, the responsibility of governments, and their donor partners, to do better – much better – in this domain is quite clear. This is not uncharted territory. We’ve been here before, all too often. Uncertainty in the face of risks is an inescapable fact of life. We all have to live with it. But far too many people’s lives are threatened by it.

Governments must take more substantive steps to avert and/or manage the downsides of such systemic risks. Agriculture and food systems are critical not just to improving nutrition, but to global survival. Building resiliency into these systems – their capacity to respond to multiple risks and uncertainties — is a now a key global goal. The tragedy in Nepal is felt deeply by everyone. We must learn from it, and do better to be prepared before the next disaster strikes.


By Patrick Webb, Policy and Evidence Adviser for the Global Panel

Photo credit: Nepal earthquake, 25 April 2015. Photo by Carl Whetham for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland. 

[2] Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). 2015. The Human Cost of Natural Disasters: A Human Perspective. Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium.

[3] Maxwell D, Webb P, Coates J and Wirth J. 2010. Fit for purpose? Rethinking food security responses in protracted humanitarian crises. Food Policy, 35: 91-7. Doi: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2009.10.002.

[4] IFPRI. 2014. Global Nutrition Report. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.