A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Managing Environmental Risks in the Age of Climate Change: Rhetorical Agency and Ecological Literacies of Transnational Women During the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake

Sweta Baniya, Virginia Tech University

(Published November 10, 2020)

At noon on April 25, 2015, when the earthquake hit, I was with my friend at a conference in the heart of Kathmandu city in Nepal.

"Is this an earthquake?" I asked my friend.  

"No," she replied, but all the people in the room had already started to scream and exit the shaking building, so we exited as well. With a trembling body and shocked mind, I checked Twitter on my phone to find that it was the biggest earthquake of the century. Within a few minutes, pictures, news, and facts were shared worldwide of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal. More than 8,979 people in 14 districts of Nepal lost their lives and around 26,000 were injured, creating a humanitarian crisis of around $7 billion worth of damage (Post Disaster Needs Assessment). Meanwhile, this crisis also added nuances to disaster response by creating global concerns, both online and offline, that helped facilitate transnational disaster response. At the time, my work as a journalist and a communications officer in a non-profit as well as my online presence on Twitter allowed me to participate in the transnational disaster response.

A year after the earthquake, with the memory still fresh in my mind, I started my PhD in the United States, which gave me a chance to conduct a comparative, mixed methods dissertation project on the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake and Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in September 2017. I conducted a narrative inquiry with 28 participants from Nepal and Puerto Rico (14 women and 14 men) who dedicated their time and energy to helping people during these natural disasters.[1] Further, I conducted a social network analysis of approximately 50 million tweets that were posted within a week of the two disasters. While analyzing my interviews, I observed the rhetorical agency of women participants who dedicated their time and energy to support their communities.

In this article, I analyze the question of how Nepali women were able to exercise transnational rhetorical agency and ecological literacies through disaster response. This question comes amid reports that suggest women and girls were the most vulnerable citizens during the earthquake and lost their lives because of the assigned gendered roles inside their homes (Post Disaster Needs Assessment). Nepali women are often categorized as being vulnerable, in need of protection, and without agency; however, the female participants for my project shared an alternative narrative of agency and social action. Amid the vulnerability rhetoric about women, this paper also argues that studying this situation via alternative narratives of women can illuminate the kinds of future responses that will be needed in the wake of climate change disasters and events.

Disaster and climate change have an intrinsic relationship wherein one affects the other cyclically. Margareta Wahlström, in her article, “Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Risk Management and Sustainable Development,” argues that climate change affects disaster risks in two ways: first, through the likely increase of weather and climate hazards and effects of sea-level rise; and second, through the increasing the vulnerability of communities to natural hazards that adds to environmental degradations such as deforestation. In his article, “The Economics of Climate Change,” Nicholas Stern shares that deforestation accounts for up to 20 percent of the current emissions of global greenhouse gasses (31). In this cyclical relationship between climate change and disaster, many communities remain vulnerable while some within those communities move beyond such vulnerabilities.

In this article, I offer a narrative analysis of how women representing various sectors of Nepal moved beyond vulnerabilities in their responses to the 2015 April Nepal Earthquake by managing environmental risks, showcasing rhetorical agency to create a global synergy, and sharing ecological literacies required for disaster response. A narrative analysis supplemented with assemblage theory reveals Nepali women’s use of technologically mediated transnational feminist practices in disaster response enhances ecological literacies that provide environmental justice to their communities (see Clandinin; Jones; Hesford and Schell; Wang; Schell). The narratives of these women illustrates how ecological literacies build rhetorical agency through a) writing, researching, and communicating for fundraising and relief activities; b) designing community-based environmental risks communication for ecological literacies; and c) creating and mobilizing various assemblages across the globe for disaster response. I argue that studying this situation can illuminate the kinds of future responses that will be needed in the wake of climate change disasters and events.

Theoretical Framing: Assemblage Theory, Rhetorical Agency and Ecological Literacy

In this section, I explore how pairing the concepts of rhetorical agency and ecological literacy with assemblage theory will help in exploring the role of transnational women in environmental risk management and in thinking through how to manage future climate disasters. Assemblage theory, first articulated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, suggests that an assemblage is like “a rhizome ceaselessly establish[ing] connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to arts, sciences, and social struggles” (7). An assemblage is in the process of becoming when it establishes its existence by interacting with other beings—both human and non-human. Manuel DeLanda builds upon this idea by defining an assemblage as, “a multiplicity, which is made up of heterogenous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns—different nature” (1). Additionally, there are two major concepts in assemblage theory: territorialization and deterritorialization. Territorialization is a process through which assemblage establishes its identity by claiming space such as spatial boundaries, territory, and community (DeLanda). Meanwhile, while creating boundaries, sometimes the assemblage stretches, losing influence and re-inventing relationships with elements of the assemblage leading towards deterritorialization (DeLanda 22). In the context of disaster, assemblages evolve out of necessity and are often mediated via networks: social, communal, and technological. Precarious contexts after any disaster require an agency of not only the humans but also non-human elements such as cellphones, laptops, food, shelter, and health-related materials (see Deleuze and Guattari, Potts, Delanda)

In exploring the assemblages (created/managed by women) that address environmental risks, the concepts of ecological literacies and rhetorical agency are supportive. David Orr defines ecological literacy as a “multi-faceted process of humans observing nature with insight…. possessing a quality of mind that seeks out connections” (587). Eileen Schell builds off Orr’s definition to argue ecological literacies are the strong ties and knowledge of the environment and place. Ecological literacy is also implemented in managing environmental risks by performing actions to bring together a community of people towards environmental justice. Similarly, rhetorical agency has been described by scholars as emergent, based on individuals’ lived knowledge and understanding that their actions allow them to make a difference in the world (see Cooper; Gries). Amy Koerber defines rhetorical agency as “negotiation among competing alternative discourses, that grants individuals the ability to reject discursive elements that they find problematic” (94). Natasha M. Jones further argues rhetorical agency motivates people to take up the role of rhetor with an understanding of the rhetorical situation that provides them with the ability to establish their rhetorical space to act (331). Both these concepts help in exploring the role of transnational women in forming transcultural assemblages, as they were enacted after the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake and what potential such actions can have for climate change responses.

Research Methods: Narrative Inquiry

I recruited participants who have worked extensively for relief, rescue, and management of environmental risk during the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake by searching them via personal contacts, Google, email outreach, Facebook messages, and Twitter direct messages as well as snowball sampling. Narrative inquiry helped me have an in-depth conversation with the women (see Creswell and Plano Clark). In these conversations I listened to their embodied experiences, learning about their literacies and rhetorical agency with the intent to honor lives and lived experiences of the participants (see Clandinin; Jones). Narratives have the power to unearth human experiences shaped by events, incidents, and cultural nuances as they incorporate the temporality, social contexts, complicating events, and evaluative conclusions that make coherent stories (see McAlpine; Jones). Although I had a set of interview questions (see Appendix A), those were used to provide the basic context of the inquiry rather than conduct a question and answer interview so that I could listen to the stories of participants rather than prompting an answer I wanted to hear. This way, I slightly deviated away from similar inquiries like semi-structured or unstructured interviews. 

Narrative inquiry allowed my participants and me to have a common space, breaking down the dichotomies between participant and researcher as we focused on having a conversation about our lived experiences during and after the earthquake. Participants included a geologist who worked with international researchers; a journalist whose byline was worldwide; a CEO of an international media oriented non-profit who developed disaster focused radio programs; a photo-artist who gathered national and international communities for disaster response; a student in the US who raised funds and worked online to extensively curate data and information; a school teacher who worked in a rural community; and, a representative of the non-profits working in Nepal. The assemblages of the participants were not limited to Nepal, hence for the context of this study, I am regarding the women participants as transnational women (see Hesford and Schell; Wang). Transnational women in the context of disaster are those who have created a connection beyond their nationality, established networks (personal or official) beyond their geographical locations, and have been engaged locally or globally with the use of digital media. I analyzed the interview transcripts using a grounded theory approach via NVivo (Creswell and Plano Clark; Saldana).

Rhetorical Agency for Global Synergy

The rhetorical agency displayed by the participants varied as they worked nationally as well as globally, writing, researching, and disseminating information as well as fundraising and organizing relief work. The participants displayed their rhetorical agencies by mobilizing their networks and by using technological mediums to connect and collaborate with people around the globe. This helped in the formation of various formal and informal assemblages as participants managed unprecedented risks in post-earthquake Nepal. The rhetorical agency displayed by the participants ranged from spontaneous actions such as posting pictures on social media, mobilizing volunteers to gather data, and connecting and collaborating with researchers from around the world. The participants expanded the territory of their assemblages by inviting people around the world to spread awareness and take action in response to the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake. Their rhetorical agency in creating global synergy served as a form of “transcultural rhetoric. Huiling Ding argues that transcultural rhetoric “examines the interactions and negotiations between localities and larger global processes, flows, and structures” (11). The transnational women participants worked to study the immediate impacts of the earthquake, to raise funds, and to conduct relief and rescue activities without any governmental support but by interacting and negotiating it within their localities and beyond. Subsequently, the participants became the focal point for many assemblages[2] that helped communities in Nepal to survive the earthquake, and their rhetorical agency challenged the rhetoric of the vulnerable categorization of women. These women supported and built community resilience, forging partnerships that created a global synergy. One of the participants shared:

I think I might have posted the pictures on my Facebook initially and then my blog. And next morning, I remember, there were so many people messaging me on [T]witter and tons of new followers, mostly the international press trying to get in touch with me and some of them wanted the pictures.[3] 

Jones argues that rhetorical agency requires two components: (a) an awareness of the rhetorical situation, including exigency, kairos, and an understanding of existing discourse or arguments, and (b) the ability, opportunity, or rhetorical space to act (325). In this narrative, this participant’s Facebook and blog postings created an assemblage in which various international journalists participated. This participant’s rhetorical actions of writing and curating pictures in social media platforms territorialized the assemblage as she invited journalists around the world to join to collect information about Nepal and disseminate it through varied international news-based platforms. Furthermore, networks in her assemblage helped her to tell the stories of people’s suffering and needs. These stories were out in the world and featured in the BBC and The Washington Post, which helped Nepal gain global attention and support. Bringing the attention of the world to a small, environmentally sensitive country like Nepal is important because it is susceptible to natural disaster and vulnerable to climate change: “Globally, Nepal is ranked fourth, eleventh and thirtieth in terms of vulnerability to climate change, earthquake and flood risks respectively” (“In Depth | UNDP in Nepal”). However, these vulnerabilities aren’t discussed until a big catastrophic disaster like an earthquake or flood happens. Writing, discussing, and distributing information about vulnerabilities related to disasters and climate change is important for creating a global discourse, awareness, and opportunity to organize and create policies to mitigate risks. 

The impact of the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake was so huge that the government wasn’t able to handle it on its own. Another participant recounts:

Actually government was not working yet. We were, like--let's figure out how to see [that] the people are actually getting some relief. We were focused on, 'can they get help [at an] early stage?' So, we started working on that...making questions [on] what to ask. We decided to do the survey in [the] actual field, where there is the need of that. For example, we [sent] the volunteers team to Gorkha...to collect information.

The lack of action from the government motivated the emergence of transnational women to tackle disaster-initiated consequences and support the ongoing relief and rescue activities. As shared by the participant, they used their personal and professional networks to create surveys, mobilize volunteers to collect information, and share it with larger networks of volunteering agencies. Liza Potts argues that, “we often see volunteers eager to help, and in helping they can be empowered by each other and technology to help translate information across the network” (64). In managing environmental risks, it is important to value the work of the volunteers where information is translated to action and to realize the potential these actors have to disseminate information and spark action. Another participant spoke to the need to engage in organizing action: 

I posted on Facebook that we are meeting at X place to gather and discuss. It just grew rapidly and became a huge success. Hundreds of people started showing up on any given day (…) We also started to fundraise from two different friends from the USA and Belgium.

She initiated an assemblage, inviting hundreds of people to take part in this meeting in Nepal and beyond. While she territorialized her assemblage within the meeting space, the disaster relief work expanded beyond Nepal and started to conduct fundraising, which helped hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal receive disaster relief. Additionally, she later shared that some of the volunteers who had initially joined them later initiated their own relief actions and reached out to places in more rural areas, which demonstrated the continuous becoming of the assemblage as well of how assemblages deterritorialize just to emerge as another. The work of the assemblages that emerged during the earthquake will be pivotal for creating networks that can respond to climate change organizing and response, as such networks initiate participation of the community and volunteers who are quick in decision making, efficient in using digital platforms and knowledge creation (Potts). 

Enacting rhetorical agency and leadership is mentally and physically challenging, as another participant indicated, and this work involves the acquisition of new skills. One participant commented on the challenge of leadership and communication in her account of being involved in a research project that required fitting seismometers:  

Yes, I was out of my comfort zone, and it was challenging as well. I took it in a very positive way. I had to think like I wouldn’t think normally before. Before, we used to be in a team and work. But this time, I was kind of a leader. I think I was a leader, not technically but in overall perspective. I was the one to decide the place we stayed. I had to decide the space we would fit the seismometers. I was the one to take risks dealing with people/house-owners convincing them the placement of seismometers would benefit them, the community and us. I think those who take the lead of communication are the leaders. Technical or administrative leaders are there but the one who communicates is the leader of the leaders.

This participant was involved in both national and international research and scientific networks, emerging as a leader, a new position for her, which often felt challenging while enacting her rhetorical agency. As these interview excerpts demonstrate, transnational women, through their social networks, can take up the responsibility for community resilience by moving beyond their domestic roles into communication, organizational, and leadership roles (Mulyasari and Shaw). These skills were helpful in disaster responses, but also that will be helpful  in combating climate change because “[a]n effective response must therefore be organized globally and must involve international understanding and collaboration” (Stern 26). This international collaboration has been reflected in how the participants have managed disaster-related risk in Nepal.

Managing Environmental Risk via Ecological Literacies, and Technology

Women’s strong ties to the environment and roles in natural resource management make them powerful agents of change with knowledge and skills for building resilience to climate change, climate disaster, and supporting low emission development (“Gender, Climate and Disaster Resilience”). To share environmental risk awareness and ecological literacies, the participants used various communication technologies including radios and social media. One of the participants helped create a radio program designed to involve the community while curating knowledge and meeting the information needs of the people regarding environmental awareness. To launch this program, she sought help from potential international donors as well as her official networks and the local community networks. The participant recounts:

One thing we wanted to do quite quickly is to establish a recognizable program that people knew (…) I also got a couple of people to help design that program as well as people who could help us quickly gauge the public in terms of their information needs.

The radio program provided information to people about possible environmental risks and hazards in a post-disaster situation and used storytelling as a medium for community participation. Community members participated in knowledge creation about the environmental risks and ecological literacies surrounding the post-disaster situation, and they helped mobilize recovery efforts. By addressing the changes, risks, and challenges (including health) in the post-disaster situation, the program focused on meeting the information needs of the people by sharing ecological literacies and environmental awareness. Such programs in the future could be beneficial in sharing knowledge about climate change literacies in post-disaster contexts in which community is involved in creating knowledge about understanding and managing risks put forth by climate change.

Additionally, participants’ ecological literacies were also showcased by understanding the disaster-initiated ecosystem and by creating comprehensive information and distributing it to the community via social media like Facebook, Twitter, or blogs. One participant who was in the US during the time of earthquake shared:

I already used to share on Facebook (…). I was adding a lot of people online especially those who were doing humanitarian works, rescue works, and who were collecting resources (…) somehow I had become a source of information for people in Nepal.

The participant navigated and established herself as a source of information during the earthquake by sharing information about environmental risks. In becoming an information source for people in Nepal, she also shared that her work involved translating, verifying, and curating information about the environmental—as well as health-related—risks of the disaster. Her posts created a comprehensive understanding of the situation, including human ecology, natural ecology, and disaster relief networks. In addition, one of the participants pointed out that the basic hygiene needs of women during the earthquake were neglected. She shares:

Women do not have pads (…) Some news was like the stuff were stuck at the airport because there were boxes of pads. So, the needs of women which seems small but essential were neglected at that time. People would bring many tarps, but there were no pads.

The narrative shared by this participant highlights the ways in which women’s needs are neglected during disaster relief. She worked in an organization that was an assemblage of around 136 international agencies working in Nepal. Her official network provided appropriate resources and mobilized volunteers and workers to distribute feminine products and sanitary pads. She was able to create a comprehensive understanding among members of her assemblage of the ways in which environmental risks have different gender-based impacts.

Future Directions: Global Rhetorics and Climate Change Literacies

Five years after the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake, writing and research concerning it mainly foregrounds the work of men in responding to the earthquake. Sanaz Sohrabizadeh, in her article “The Neglect of Women’s Capacities in Disaster Management Systems in Iran: A Qualitative Study,” argues that men's skills and capacities were preferred for handling the affairs of the affected communities. However, my participants had a different story of agency and literacy to tell. This is why it is important to highlight Nepali women’s roles in managing post-disaster situations after the earthquake and why it is important to include women in organizing to address climate change, which is work that is being undertaken in Nepal by Radha Wagle.

Radha Wagle, Nepal’s first woman Joint-Secretary, in an interview with the World Bank, argues that women’s active participation and leadership in government, civil society, and the private sector can bring transformative changes in forestry, which is part of environment management (“Want to Protect Forests?”). Based on her experiences of discrimination in her previous work as a forest ranger, Wagle is proactively working to represent women by crafting a revised Gender and Social Inclusion Strategy for Nepal’s forestry sector. This sort of proactive policy working in the case of environment protection and climate change is beneficial in not only empowering disaster preparation, but also preventing the effects of climate change during or after disaster.

This article thus honors the role, the rhetorical agency, and the ecological literacies of transnational women in Nepal who were the focal point of various assemblages that addressed networks of response to the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake. The stories of women who have worked on small- or large-scale relief efforts related to disaster should be highlighted in work addressing climate change literacies and global rhetorics. While the environmental risks are increasing with climate change, it is evident that different populations throughout the world will not be impacted in the same ways, and women can play a significant role in developing community resilience through their rhetorical agency.

To facilitate this recognition, the rhetorical practices used by transnational women in Nepal to build community resilience and ecological literacies could be studied and replicated in training on climate change risks as well as disaster risk reduction training. Examples of Nepali women’s communication and organizing practices could be highlighted in these training materials along with materials that highlight women’s roles in creating networks for building community resilience.  As Jeffrey T. Grabill and W. Michele Simmons argue, “our claim is that the risk of a given situation is socially constructed by a number of interests and factors” (423). In this case, when women’s ecological literacies, networks, and communication practices are excluded from risk communication and participation, it creates a barrier for risk and disaster preparedness. Additionally, more research on women's roles in disaster relief should be conducted that will help not only to support communities vulnerable to climate change disasters, but also to mitigate the challenges of environmental risks and effects on vulnerable populations. 

Appendix A

1)    Where were you during the earthquake?

2)    How did you manage to contact your family or friends?

3)    After the earthquake, who came to support you and how long did it take you to get any help?

4)    Have you been involved in working voluntarily in your community or via any organization or network during or after the earthquake?

5)    If you were involved, could you tell me what did you do during the disaster to work, communicate, and support your community?

6)    How did you try to connect with other government officials or community members, media, health workers or any organizations immediately after the disaster?

7)    What do you think about the help you were receiving? Was it appropriate and effective?

8)    How did you use any medium of communication during the crisis? Cellphone, Phone, Radio etc?

9)    In the long term what groups or organizations have connected and what have fallen away?

10)  Did you form any inter-personal networks during and after the disaster?

Variations for the Officials:

1)    How did your organization network with other organizations?

2)    How did the affected people and their families communicate with you?

3)    How did you reach out to the community / people who were affected?

4)    Is your organization still part of the reconstruction efforts in the community?


[1] This study has been approved under IRB Protocol number 1811021345 by IRB at Purdue University.   

[2] See DeLanda.

[3] Some interview excerpts were lightly edited for clarity.

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