Why Debris Management in Nepal Is Critical to Preventing Further Loss of Life and Injuries

Homes, schools, and health facilities throughout Nepal are in ruin. Nepalese families and communities, ever resilient and determined, are now digging their way through the massive amount of debris created by the recent 7.8 earthquake, and powerful aftershocks, with their bare hands and any equipment they can find. The Government of Nepal (armed forces, civil response and police) are mobilized and leading the response with support from the international community.

The immense challenges involved in beginning to rebuild are increasingly clear. To date, the Government of Nepal and the humanitarian community estimate that 489,000 homes, 24,974 classrooms and 945 health facilities have been destroyed. Before people can go to sleep at night without fear of their homes crumbling on top of them, before classrooms can again be filled with children and before people can visit a Nepalese health facility building, destroyed and damaged buildings must be safely and efficiently managed.

Debris threats to public safety are multifaceted. Hazardous waste, gas containers and other dangerous elements can harm survivors who are now desperately digging their way through buildings that have collapsed or may collapse at any moment. Without the proper protective equipment and safety precautions, people moving amongst the ruins risk their lives and likely injury. Buildings damaged by the quakes lean up against other buildings, threatening all structures in the vicinity. Safely separating these buildings and demolishing those that are uninhabitable is a complex task made even more difficult by the prospect of additional aftershocks. The actual amount of debris is unknown, as accurate debris volume estimates are not yet available. Speed is of the essence as the rebuilding process begins, while also ensuring that demolition and debris removal is handled in a manner that protects public safety. The positive psychological impact of immediately dealing with earthquake debris so that the rebuilding process can begin is immense. Removing debris generates a sense of progress and a positive look forward while erasing the constant reminder of death and loss.

Recovering from a disaster of this magnitude is complex and challenging; shelter construction for those who have lost their homes is an absolute priority, however, without a comprehensive strategy that includes debris removal, this cannot happen. If funding for debris management is not secured, shelters will begin to be constructed around the remaining debris which can hinder or even prevent removal of debris. This scenario happened following the earthquake in Haiti. Reconstruction projects were funded and implemented in pockets, homes were constructed amidst the vast amounts of uncollected debris, which hampered or prevented further reconstruction and the removal of debris. Funding for debris management can lag behind other programs as donors are sometimes reluctant to invest the financial resources required. Debris removal is simply not as sexy as other projects, no pictures of new houses or hospitals to share with the world yet the fact remains that sustainable recovery and construction of new homes, hospitals and schools can only begin after the debris is removed.

The Nepal Government, supported by the international community, anticipated this situation (and worse) when it created the Kathmandu Valley Post-Earthquake Debris Management Strategic Plan in 2014. While an excellent planning and preparedness document prior to the disaster, the time now is for implementation and action with respect to a massive debris management effort. In particular, this effort would benefit from three key steps:

First, recovery and reconstruction would benefit from the creation of a Nepal Earthquake Debris Management Implementation Plan. This plan would operationalize any previous strategic planning and establish a unified strategic direction for implementation of all debris management activities. This implementation plan would specify key operational aspects including building assessments, debris clearance priorities, demolition, debris processing (including recycling), safety procedures, debris staging and storage, debris transport, disposal and treatment sites, handling of historic sites, contract management and public communication. Subsequent reconstruction planning related to actual rebuilding on debris cleared locations can be built on the back of this implementation plan.

Second, as with all major disasters, the national private sector has a critical role to play in recovery and reconstruction. Specialized technical support, particularly with respect to the safe demolition of buildings is essential. Engineers, the management of explosives, heavy equipment (excavators, cranes, wrecking balls) and hand-held equipment are needed. The private sector in Nepal should be looked to first to meet these needs and then international resources can support with filling any gaps. A critical component of this engagement is the establishment of emergency procurement mechanisms specific to this response that can rapidly engage the Nepalese private sector in a transparent, fair and efficient manner.

Third, prioritization of rapid debris management funding by the international community responsible for recovery and reconstruction activities in Nepal is needed. People living and roaming among these damaged or destroyed structures is a national safety issue. The humanitarian and development community cannot wait until more injuries and deaths result from unsafe work on these sites. Though funding is often held until the reconstruction phase, it should be allocated now so that this work can be prioritized even earlier in the recovery phase.

Rising from the ruins in Nepal requires more than good intentions. A cohesive and comprehensive approach to debris management and demolition led by the Government of Nepal, with focused and timely engagement from the international community and private sector are all necessities at this time.


Langdon Greenhalgh is currently working in Nepal for Global Emergency Group. Debris management specialist Dan Strode also contributed to this article.  (link to Langdon’s bio on the site).