Rebuilding Nepal to Survive the Next Quake

The powerful earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25 razed Anantaling, a small, ancient hill settlement 15 miles southeast of the capital, Kathmandu. Each of the 60-odd houses in Anantaling collapsed into rubble, and throughout the Bhaktapur district, 120,000 people were displaced.

“Our houses were old, construction was of poor quality, and even the stone used for construction was soft,” says Kamal Nyaupane as he shows me the remains of his wrecked home. “Not a single house survived the quake.” After the disaster struck, the rich quickly migrated out of the village to the lower lands where there were roads, electricity and a market, leaving only the poor up in the hills—with no relief, no outside support and no place to live.

Until Manabiya Astha Nepal arrived. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) constructed temporary shelters for the villagers by arching corrugated tin sheets into a tunnel-like structure. The transitional metal shelters, as they are called, came as a huge relief to villagers at a time when they were unable to make even simple bamboo huts. “People were too traumatized,” says Nyaupane. “They were not in position to help each other as they do in other normal times.”

Encouraged by the reception of the transitional shelters in Anantaling, Shree Kumar Ranjit, chairman of Manabiya Astha Nepal, raised funds for the construction of similar shelters in other villages. Ranjit says they have now built almost 200 houses.

The design has a long history of success. In 2005, a German technician living in Kashmir named Titus Gall developed it to create shelter for victims of a 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Then, in 2010, a tour company owner and operator named Eli Kretzmann implemented the design to help bring relief to some of the 8 million people displaced by a huge summer flooding in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ranjit had heard about the transitional metal shelters through Project EK, an informal citizen action group that had done some work to adapt it to suit Nepal’s unique weather conditions.

Nepalese version of the dome houses has three metal pipes bent into arches and arranged in a row, their ends screwed into steel rods with the help of J-hooks. The rods are driven into the ground, and then nine corrugated tin sheets are placed over the metal arches, creating an 11-by-12-foot dome, which is tied up with galvanized wires to prevent the high winds of the Himalayan foothills from blowing away the shelter.  The open sides can be closed with tarpaulin, brick or stone. Some villagers have also added their local construction techniques such as using mulch or thatch atop the corrugated roofs to protect from heat and cold.

The cost for one of these shelters is only about $100, and the whole thing takes just two or three hours for two people to build. In addition, the materials are reusable.

“After we finalized the design…we took it to the village of Shikarpa in Lele,” says Prachanda Shrestha, a member of Project EK. “The villagers watched us install the dome house with incredulity. When it was installed, they liked the house and wanted us to construct more.” The design has spread quickly. Youths from Shikarpa went around to other nearby villages, training those interested. Soon about 500 dome-houses went up.

“The transitional shelters have gone viral, which is what we wanted to do from the beginning, with dozens of organizations and villages deploying [the design] independently,” says Soham Dhakal, another Project EK member. “It is the only way to meet the needs of the masses before the monsoon arrives.” Impact Nepal, an NGO, is helping to build transitional metal shelters for 700 households in Kalika village, about 50 miles east of Kathmandu.

Cost, though, remains a limiting factor—$100 is still a significant sum in a country where the annual per capita gross national income is $730. And with the exception of a few thousand households that have received assistance, most residents of rural Nepal who lost their homes in the quake have been left to construct their shelters for the monsoon season themselves.

In the village of Dadhikot, some 15 miles southeast of Kathmandu, Shobha Nyaupane is busy retrieving useful materials from her damaged house. Men are clearing rubble from the upper stories. Nyaupane wants to salvage the ground floor. “It’s not safe to live in this house,” she says, “but we can use it as a grain store and to keep cattle.” A few meters away, in the open field, her husband is hammering wooden beams to bamboo poles to make a temporary shelter with the help of his neighbors.

“We have been living in that tent so far, but we can’t continue living in it for long,” says Nyaupane, pointing to a tarpaulin tent her family has been sleeping under for the past three weeks. At first, the people in her neighborhood and the adjoining one waited for the government or some other organizations to come up with schemes and resources to rebuild their houses. However, they cannot bide their time any longer.

“We are doing it on our own. We will try to do it by ourselves,” says Nyaupane. “We can’t wait for the government or an NGO to come and build our house because monsoon is approaching fast.” Nyaupane’s concerns are echoed across the country; more than half a million households still do not have a reliable roof, and the rainy season is less than a month away.

There might be more help on the way. The state government has allotted $40 million to be distributed as cash subsidies of $150 to each family that lost its home. The money is meant to be spent on construction materials to build transitional metal shelters. The government had announced it would provide two bundles of corrugated sheets and 3 kilograms of iron nails for each family, but it backtracked on that and announced the cash subsidy instead after realizing it could not secure a supply chain for the tin sheets.

Corrugated tin sheets are in short supply in Nepal. The country’s four major corrugated sheets manufacturing companies produce a total of 1,000 metric tons of corrugated sheets per day—enough to roof about 6,000 houses of average size—according to Hitesh Golchha, executive director of Hulas Steel. Meanwhile, demand is far outstripping supply: With almost half a million houses demolished, tens of thousands of houses must be built each day to shelter the populace before the monsoons come. That’s one major reason why the affected people, the government, donor agencies and suppliers have been thinking about options that are affordable, earthquake-safe and sustainable.

The Himalayan Climate Initiative, for example, has come up with what it calls “resilient home designs.” The two-room, 18-by-9-foot designs are meant to be customizable and modular: steel frames that can be dismantled and reassembled in a few hours. “We will give the structure and the roof to the villagers, and they can customize the walls and flooring depending on their interest, affordability and the local materials available,” says Dawa Steven Sherpa from HCI. The basic structure, made of steel and corrugated galvanized iron sheets, is estimated to cost about $850—not insignificant, but for a long-term solution, relatively affordable. In addition, says Sherpa, “this house doesn’t need highly skilled technicians to set up.”

One of the chief concerns in reconstruction in Nepal is whether the new construction over the next few months will be sustainable. Experts look at Haiti for examples of what not to do. They say one of the primary reasons for the failure of housing projects initiated after the 2010 quake in the Caribbean island country was their ignorance of local materials and technology and the fact that they did not cater to people’s needs.

“While designing new housing structures, we should consider everything of the locality—the topography, weather and also custom and culture of the country,” says Jiba Lal Pokharel, vice chancellor of Nepal’s National Academy of Science and Technology. “From the international experience, we have seen that the designs that use local materials and technology have become most successful.”

Bamboo, for example, is cheap and almost everywhere in Nepal. The nonprofit Abari Bamboo and Earth Initiative designs and builds eco-friendly structures using, well, bamboo and earth. “We have designed transit homes costing about $400 to $500 that last two to three years,” says Nripal Adhikary of Abari. “We are building 1,600 such houses…with financial support from ActionAid,” an international NGO.

Abari is preparing to release a do-it-yourself manual for villagers to put up low-cost, eco-friendly bamboo and earth housing on their own, Adhikary says. The group is also constructing 80 community halls and small, transitional health care centers in villages.

With several suppliers and organizations proposing ideas for housing, Nepal’s National Planning Commission has called for an exhibition and exchange of ideas next week. The goal is to develop a cohesive plan for reconstruction that addresses some of the regulatory and building mistakes of the past. “The scale of damage by the recent earthquake has proven that our existing structures in rural areas were not safe,” says Bhai Kaji Tiwari, a senior urban planner at the Ministry of Urban Development. “Earthquake safety could be improved with only a slight modification in our existing housing designs. Whichever plan we choose, the design and construction need to follow proper, internationally accepted engineering standards.

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