Ramblings on reconstruction

KATHMANDU: Nepal will show the world that they can rebuild the country within a few years. This enthusiasm is refreshing and much needed in a country that has been struggling for the past seven years to put together a new constitution. It has taken the massive tremors for the first draft to be prepared, though there are still some major flaws. The question arises whether these flaws that seem to still be deep rooted in the minds of our leaders will allow for reconstruction to be as exemplary as it is being proclaimed. What impact will the restructuring of the governance system have on reconstruction? If we take the restructuring of local government with the establishment of municipalities last year as an example of what is to come, we must be aware of the possible chaos the country will be experiencing.

The restructuring of the country as with the reconstruction must be planned out over time. Pacing out the transformation will be critical to ensure that the country does not fail in its endeavours. We have recent examples from other parts of the world of how such post-disaster reconstruction can go wrong if the government is not in a position of control. The reconstructing of entire villages and the livelihoods of thousands of people will require inflated activities and inflated budgets.

A lot can go wrong.The wrangling over authority to control reconstruction shows that hidden agendas are at play. There seems to be certain interest to ensure that once the cloud settles that one is in an improved position. This is of course true for the politicians, the bureaucrats, the entrepreneurs, the start-up companies and non-government organisations and possibly even the international organisations. Making the most of any given circumstance is surely commendable as long as it does not have any negative impact. Some time back during a political rally, the party volunteers helped clear up, but unfortunately resorted to tearing down a damaged building within the World Heritage area. No one could stop them.

The need for reconstruction of the historical monuments has been highlighted by the media. This hype has led to donors and philanthropists bidding to restore key monuments or even entire sites. The rehabilitation of the cultural heritage cannot be done through such auctioning, since the monuments are not for sale. Who will implement the reconstruction? We have lots of experts with brilliant ideas, but we might be lacking the crafts-persons. The focus on design and structural stability of construction is given such great importance, that the implementation is forgotten.

This leads to the proposals for industrial production of dwellings, which further alienate both the crafts-persons as well as the inhabitants from the structures. These are accepted circumstances in cities where experts can be brought in to deal with the leaking roof, the burnt out wiring, replacing a door lock or cleaning out the blocked sewer pipes. In the villages all this has to be done by the inhabitant or a friendly neighbour and this means ‘low-tech’ and ‘local’ is appropriate.

The discussion on reconstruction has swamped the country and everyone has been participating in contributing their thoughts to the topic. In most cases the comments come straight from the heart, a direct response to the tragedy. In future such disasters must be averted. This means that we must take drastic measures. We have already heard of the 56 vulnerable settlements that are to be relocated with the next two weeks. There will be many more such decisions that the government will have to take which will further affect the lives of the people. Great care is needed to ensure that such decisions are justified and based on the best of knowledge and expertise.

Assessments will need to be done by experts so that the randomness of sticking red, yellow and green stickers on buildings is not repeated. Standards will need to be defined taking into account the theoretical knowledge of the academic experts as well as the practical knowledge of those who implement.

(The author is an architect and can be contacted through paharnepal@hotmail.com)