Sustainable construction: Where are local resources?

The practice of using cement and reinforcement bars to construct ‘pakki ghar’ is rife everywhere, including in hills and mountains, which is not going to contribute to sustainable development. We are ignoring local resources as we rebuild

The idea of sustainable constructions seems to be getting buried into concrete reinforcement. Up above the Shailung neighbourhood of Dolakha to the dunes of Sindhuli, one can witness what we can call non-native construction practice. The notion has gained traction that “if you go for concrete construction, you are green-flagged during earthquakes and natural hazards”. Is it true? If true, to what extent? How reliable, rational and sustainable is that notion? In fact, the statement was very true for the urban people where resources were inhibited, the population was growing and housing demand was on upward trend.

But think beyond the Kathmandu Valley.

Is the land plot so scarce? No! Are the construction materials available locally? No! Is skilled labour immediately available? No! Is the quality of construction assured? Hard to say.

There are several issues that make the current construction scenario questionable, especially beyond Kathmandu.

For instance, we hardly see wooden houses in areas where deep dense forests are available. What I saw in the high mountains of Dolakha last spring left me dumbfounded. People were running a sawmill and exporting woods. And they were importing cement and reinforcement bars to construct houses or “pakki ghar”. The practice is so unsustainable.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), which was established after the Gorkha Earthquake to construct nearly a million houses, has failed to address the issue of sustainability. Last winter I proposed before the engineering community regarding the sustainable construction practice in Nepal. I started with a focus on local resources. Using local construction materials can bring overall construction cost down, as the transportation cost would be low. Similarly, this will help reduce carbon emission. But still many people seem to be reluctant to take cognizance of this concept.

There is a lack of awareness about using local resources at the community level. People still do not believe that houses built with local resources also can perform satisfactorily during earthquakes. Moreover, another major concern is how can the building prototypes developed in Kathmandu comply with the sloped terrains susceptible to a landslide?

I spoke with quite a few homeowners and all of them would tell me that they just wanted to construct “pakki ghar”. And for that, they are travelling to hundreds of kilometres to buy cement, sand and reinforcement bars. How fair is that? The NRA and local and central administrative bodies must answer.

Now onwards, multi-hazard sustainability should be taken into account while developing building prototypes.

Several prototypes do exist, but they do not comply with the existing multi-hazard scenario of Nepal. For instance, recently two buildings reconstructed by the NRA and declared earthquake-resistant or “pakki ghar” were heavily damaged by a minor landslide in Nuwakot.

Does the government refund the households for re-reconstruction? In case they do, where and how do they re-reconstruct? And what sorts of natural hazards do they take into account? Do the families travel tens of miles downhill to fetch construction materials again?

It is not too late to revisit our approach; we must change the mindset that only cement and reinforcements are strong, and other materials, which are locally available, are not.

Actually, the performance level expected by the NRA can be easily achieved by the use of local materials like stones and a better performance level is assured if people go for wooden construction.

Most importantly, the sustainability framework recently formulated in Nepal by our research group says that resources should be available within the five-kilometre radius in hills and mountains whereas that for the Tarai should be within a 20-kilometre radius. Moreover, the labour issue is also grave.

Nepali youths are flying to Gulf countries and Malaysia for jobs.

It is high time we provided skill training to the local unemployed youths related to masonry, carpentry and plumbing among others to create opportunities locally. That would help retain Nepali youths in the country and ultimately ensure sustainable construction.

Sustainable construction means sustainable neighbourhoods and in doing so multi-hazard issues should be taken into account.

Local level training and capacity building and resource mapping can easily provide information regarding the resource availability. In the meantime, multi-hazard risk identification would trigger innovation in developing multi-hazard resilient structures and infrastructure.

Without the local people and resources, construction would not last long as the government doesn’t fund relentlessly, and people would be in a dilemma whether to continue the reinforced concrete construction or to switch to traditional methods of construction.

An improved version of vernacular construction system is a must and all impending hazards in particular localities should be taken into account. Imported materials may change the neighbourhoods into “smart neighbourhoods” but they won’t be sustainable. It’s time we went local.

Gautam is a researcher on multi-hazard sustainability of structures and lifelines