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Homeless in Nepal

Thursday, May 14th, 2015
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The challenge now is to provide both short-term shelter and long-term housing, mainly in rural areas but also in ravaged urban centres

editorial

Photo: Sarbendra Pachhai

The numbers are staggering: 600,000 homes destroyed, 20,000 schools in ruins, government buildings reduced to rubble, dozens of bazar towns that look like they are carpet bombed. And that was before Tuesday’s 7.3 aftershock which finished off the houses that were left. No one has even bothered to revise the figures.

As logistical hurdles and bureaucratic delays¬†overcome to get more emergency shelter, medicine¬†and food to the affected areas, attention has started¬†turning to the enormous task of rehabilitation and¬†reconstruction. As we report in¬†the 15 May edition¬†of¬†Nepali Times, there is the urgent need for shortterm¬†emergency shelter so families can tide over the¬†approaching monsoon and winter. Then there is the¬†longer-term need for massive reconstruction which¬†could be financed by remittances, government grants,¬†subsidies and soft loans ‚Äď all with the intention of¬†creating jobs at home to stem the expected exodus¬†of even more Nepalis going abroad to work.

Short-term shelter requires coordination between government and agencies like UN-HABITAT as well as smaller relief groups in order to quickly cover the sheer geographical scale of the affected area. It is important that these temporary shelters not become permanent homes, and that people are given the financial means and technical assistance necessary to rebuild in the longer-term.

Future reconstruction of the devastated Kathmandu¬†Valley towns, urban centres and district headquarters will¬†need a different kind of focus: how to brace ‚Äėnon-engineered‚Äô¬†unreinforced masonry buildings. There is no strict code for¬†these kinds of houses, but there are ‚Äėrules of thumb‚Äô that¬†need to be followed and monitored. As Sonia Awale reports¬†the fact that so many of the reinforced concrete¬†buildings are standing and the traditional clay-mortar brick¬†houses crumbled after the earthquakes has bolstered public¬†perception that concrete is good. That would be fine, except¬†that reinforced concrete construction demand that¬†rules about preparing and using cement are strictly¬†followed.

So, like everything else in Nepal, it comes down to implementation. The 1993 building code needs to be updated and enforced, masons must be trained in reinforcing brick and their work monitored, safer and cheaper designs need propagation. There many alternative housing solutions (some of which we have listed on page 15) but the trouble with alternatives is that they are difficult to scale-up to a national level and be accepted by the mainstream. The lesson from Haiti is not to have grandiose and expensive government housing projects. Efforts by individual families to rebuild on their own should not be derailed, and government must not be bypassed. However, the state must be put on notice that it can’t botch reconstruction assistance like it messed up the distribution of compensation for conflict victims in which many genuine families never got help.

Most rural rebuilding will have to be (and should be) household-led under benign but vigilant state regulation. The role of local government in the districts should be to provide financial support, enforce technical standards, monitor reconstruction without actually building homes. Proposed housing types should be specific to each community and use existing local materials and skills. A lot of this is already starting to happen, and much of the reconstruction will by default use local materials. However, many will opt for reinforced concrete which needs training and oversight. Unless locals have a sense of ownership (of both private houses and civic buildings like schools) the new construction will not be maintained and looked after.

In some places most families can only afford and understand local construction practices (Tsum, Langtang and other remote areas). In others there will be even stronger aspiration to rebuild concrete houses, especially in urban centres like Dhadingbesi, Charikot, Gorkha or Chautara.

Traditional masonry buildings, whether made of stone or mud-brick, can be reinforced with concrete tie-beams and steel columns but this is neither feasible nor desirable in many contexts. There will be a need to promote earthquake-resistant building methods and planning strategies that are appropriate to particular communities. Schools and homes that are intact or only slightly damaged need to be retrofitted.

Following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the local practice of using timber bracing (dhajji dewari) was widely adopted and over 120,000 houses were rebuilt using this technique in Pakistan. Similar methods have been adopted in Turkey, Italy, and Portugal after major earthquakes. There are other ways to build stronger homes using locally available materials, and this knowledge needs to be shared widely and conveyed to people engaged in reconstruction so that they can choose for themselves.

Transportation planning needs to be considered alongside rural reconstruction, given the impact of roads on a mountain landscape already prone to landslides. The survival of our towns and villages depends not just on their reconstruction but also on their ability to tread the ground lightly, respecting an unstable geology and climate.

In urban centres, there is an imperative to implement settlement planning that incorporates new open public spaces, earthquake-resistant community centres, and evacuation routes. Rebuilding of towns and urban centres must strengthen both community-level and government institutions, not undermine them. The idea to limit the height of buildings in the Kathmandu Valley may be misplaced since this can create other problems such as sprawl, which is disastrous in itself.

So far, there is little reason to hope that our elected leaders have either the understanding or the willingness to learn. The culture of business as usual was on full display on Wednesday as CA members scrambled shamelessly to hoard tents for themselves in the full glare of the media. However, we do have a savvy Minister of Urban Planning and officials with experience in relief and reconstruction in other parts of the world. They should be more assertive
and proactively overcome the state’s paralysing inertia and ignorance.

Read also:

A state in aftershock Victor Rana

Learning from disasters Vinod Thomas

A concrete future Sonia Awale

A more responsive state David Seddon

Moving to safer shelters Om Astha Rai

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