Post-quake reconstruction: Time to rethink

After the devastating earthquake of April 25, discussions are taking place for reconstruction. This is justified as there are around 300,000 houses either collapsed or partially damaged. The concern here is whether to replace the houses or to build new ones. There is a strong concern over rapid and ad-hoc reconstruction. This sounds logical but we must rethink this carefully. There is strong agreement that the people under the open sky should be given a verdict to their fundamental rights. On the other hand, if we are reconstructing the same card-houses, moreover threat-shelters, the vicious cycles of disasters and impending events would be more catastrophic than this time. As the population goes up, more people would be under threat of increased integrated natural disasters.

Rather than going for modern sophisticated reconstruction in traditional settlements, heritage sites and monumental buildings blending the earthquake and other disaster resistant features along with cultural dimensions may be logical

Most of the houses outside the Kathmandu valley were devastated due to poor workmanship during construction and unnecessary accumulation of mass in upper stories. Why didn’t we think about the loose and organic clay bonded ties between stones? This is the most significant reason for buildings damaged outside Kathmandu valley. In Kathmandu valley, people still stay in houses older than 70 years, constructed from crude clay bricks where mud mortar is the only option to bind and tie the frigid clay bricks. There were several talks regarding ‘urban regeneration’ in star hotels of Kathmandu and donors disbursed dollars for that as well. However, they never reached the affected sites.

The bitter outcome is we lost invaluable monuments and heritages. How indifferently we treated those sites and only eyed the taxes just by displaying them is now well reflected. If we believe that a traditional house within an urban neighborhood stands for more than 70 years even after a strong earthquake with epicenter around 70 km far, it is obvious that we still neglect and endorse the status quo. The codal provision outreach mustn’t be only on the urban nucleus and VIP areas, rather livelihoods should be accounted in parallel stratum so that everyone could survive.

There are several loopholes in reinforced concrete constructions. However, attention should be paid more towards the wiped out traditional/historic settlements and barren villages where only rubble is found these days. While reconstructing, from heritage sites to squatter settlements, now underlying threats are to be researched first. If we consider only earthquake resistant construction and landslide hit areas, we have to bear irreparable loss. Ad hoc reconstruction might invite several such paradigms so that investment would be meaningless and resilience can’t be expected from such hurried efforts. The positive vision of government level responsibility might be effectively implemented for assuring Shelter Policy 2006 as well. If the government could reconstruct all buildings, why not multi-hazard resilient houses then?

However, we are lagging in identifying multi-hazards and effective land use planning is a must for reconstruction as well. The government can develop clustered urban and rural nuclei so that people could stay in relatively safe areas, where amenities would be easily available. This is time to rethink the hedonistic and haphazard constructions in urban as well as rural areas. We should follow the international practice of constructing similar types of houses endorsing revised local cultural dimensions. There are many things to be endorsed from traditional Newari houses (Chhen), rounded houses of mid-hills (Ghumauro dhi) and others. Particularly their components would be instrumental in preserving culture as well as ensuring resilience in the case of disasters.

Now, Nepal is in a phase of implantation of Sendai Framework (2015-2030) which engrosses build-back-better, so this opportunity shouldn’t be missed. As there are no substantial changes during the phase of Hyogo Framework of Action (2005-2015), this is the proper time to invest to assure livelihoods across the country. Onwards, we shouldn’t be messed with response and recovery, rather prevention is the only option to save property and life. Reconstruction framework should be accompanying the existing cultural practices like rebuilding Chhen with earthquake resistant features. Yet, we shouldn’t miss those unique features traditionally practiced, like the wooden bands which performed well during the 1934, 1988 and 2015 earthquakes. If we are thinking of replacing the traditional houses with modern ones, there would be cultural landslides and social dynamics and tourism would be ruined in Nepal.

So, rather than going for modern sophisticated reconstruction in traditional settlements, heritage sites and monumental buildings blending the earthquake and other disaster resistant features along with cultural dimensions may be logical. Rather than ad-hoc construction, the building code improvement, multi-hazard risk mapping, land use planning and zoning could be done before switching to the phase of reconstruction. However, the adobe construction technologies, traditional masonry houses, modern reinforced constructions and similar other types of buildings should be framed under the guidelines of code based practices. Yet, the big ridge in front us is the adequacy and sufficiency of building codes in Nepal. This must be well accounted for before starting reconstruction in devastated areas.

Gautam is an engineer at Center for Disaster and Climate Change Studies Nepal