2015 Nepal Earthquake

Armed actors—particularly militaries—can provide unique assets and capabilities that humanitarians cannot. The Nepal 2015 earthquake response provides an example of when a government, humanitarian agencies, and militaries coordinated efforts for a largely successful response.

Principles in Practice

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, causing severe damage in 14 of the country’s 75 districts.[1] The earthquake resulted in nearly 8,900 confirmed deaths, destroyed 605,300 houses, and damaged an additional 288,300 houses, and temporarily displaced 188,900 people.[2]

While the earthquake caused harm in some already hard-to-reach areas, it also damaged infrastructure, such as roads, and caused landslides that complicated responders’ access to affected populations.[3] This meant that air transport was the only way to reach certain areas, but there was a dearth of civilian aircraft in the country and of space from which to fly them: Nepal has only one, relatively small, international airport that can only accommodate eight large aircraft at any given time.[4]

The Government of Nepal immediately launched a large-scale operation to respond to the effects of the earthquake, relying on a natural disaster response framework they had developed with support from the UN.[5] From the outset, the Nepali Army—as the national disaster management lead—was involved along with humanitarian organizations and foreign militaries.[6] The UN Civil-Military Coordination (McCord) team developed a coordination strategy that facilitated information sharing between civilian and military actors and helped the humanitarian community submit rapid requests for assistance to military forces involved in the response.[7]  In some instances, the militaries served as first responders—for example, by conducting search-and-rescue operations—and in others amplified civilian efforts with logistics support, such as by transporting aid supplies and workers via helicopter.[8] Humanitarian organizations were able to quickly access relief commodities, conduct aid distributions, and mobilize services such as health care and protection.


Given context-specific elements, such as that the disaster occurred during peacetime, the 2015 earthquake demonstrates how humanitarians and armed actors might coordinate in distinct-but-complementary ways to achieve a beneficial, minimally harmful outcome and help meet the humanitarian imperative.


Humanitarians worked closely with various foreign militaries, who transported humanitarian goods and personnel to hard-to-reach areas of Nepal.

Questions to consider

  • In your opinion, did the humanitarian community’s decision to use military assets satisfy the conditions laid out in this policy? Why or why not?
  • In this scenario, how were the humanitarian community’s objectives similar to those of the Nepali military and foreign militaries? How were they different? Would your answer change if Nepal had been experiencing a conflict?
  • If your team has no other option but to engage with armed actor(s), what steps could you take to ensure that the actor(s) understands and respects your objectives?


Although the emergency in Nepal was due to a natural disaster and did not occur during active conflict, there were still some tensions between the Nepali military and civilians, the lingering effects of a Maoist insurgency that began in 1995– and lasted until 2006.[9] Aid workers relied on the military for access, however, there still needed to be considerations to neutrality in the response because of the historical background because the community still had perceptions of the military.

Questions to consider

  • The earthquake and coordinated government-humanitarian-military response took place in a largely peaceful context. How might the response have looked different if Nepal were experiencing a large-scale conflict?
  • Given the country’s fairly recent history of conflict, why wasn’t neutrality prioritized more during the earthquake response? In similar situations, where a crisis occurs during a peaceful period but where there is a history of tension between civilians and armed actor(s), is it possible for humanitarians to coordinate with the armed actor? What steps might humanitarians take to demonstrate neutrality?

The unique circumstances of any disaster and the context in which it occurs help determine the possible extent of humanitarian–military coordination. The specific facts of the 2015 Nepal earthquake led to a successful joint operation between humanitarian and military actors, where each understood their roles, adhered to their respective mandates, and cooperated where possible.

[1] Reid, Kathryn, “2015 Nepal Earthquake: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help.” World Vision, April 3, 2018, https://www.worldvision‌.org/‌disaster-relief-news-stories/2015-nepal-earthquake-facts#:~:text=A%20magnitude%207.8%20earthquake%20struck‌,more‌%20than%2022%2C000%20suffered%20injuries.

[2] OCHA, “Nepal Earthquake Humanitarian Response, April to September 2015.” 2015, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info‌/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/nepal_earthquake_humanitarian_response_report_lr_0.pdf.

[3] Cook, Alistair, et al., “International Response to 2015 Nepal Earthquake: Lessons and Observations.” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, October 2006, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/NTS_Report_4_Nepal_final_‌04Oct2016.‌pdf.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ovesen, Puk and Stine Heiselberg. “The Humanitarian Response to the 2015 Nepal Earthquake.” UN Chronicle. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/humanitarian-response-2015-nepal-earthquake.

[6] USAID, “Nepal Earthquake – Fact Sheet #7.” May 3, 2015. https://www.usaid.gov/nepal-earthquake/fy15/fs07.

[7] OCHA, “Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination in the Nepal Earthquake Response,” Issue 5, May 2015, https://‌reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/CMCoord%20Newsletter%20%20May%202015%20%28Issue%205%29.pdf.

[8] Robson, Seth, “Military Delivering Supplies as U.S. Promises More Aid to Nepal,” Stars and Stripes, May 6, 2015, https://reliefweb.int/report/nepal/military-delivering-supplies-us-promises-more-aid-nepal.

[9] BBC, “Nepal Profile – Timeline.” February 19, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12499391.