25.05.2016 : Andrew Stirrat

Rebuilding Nepal – one year on

12 months on from the devastating earthquake, how is Nepal faring in their quest to build back better?

Twelve months ago, Richard Sharpe invited me on the ultimate take-a-mate initiative – accompanying him on his trip to Kathmandu in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck nearby on 25 April 2015.

The earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks were devastating for an already fragile country. Nearly 9000 people died and more than 600,000 homes were destroyed along with thousands of schools, health facilities and culturally significant structures. The cost of these losses were estimated to be US$7 billion - one-third of the country’s GDP.

Last year Richard reflected on our trip in Nepal Then and Now and concluded the efforts of his team that wrote and implemented the Nepal National Building Code Seismic Standard nearly 25 years ago, had sadly seemed to make little difference to the resilience of the nation to earthquakes.

In the wake of the disaster, it was widely trumpeted that the earthquake, while devastating, presented a golden opportunity to improve the country’s resilience by learning from past mistakes and building back better.

So, in that context and one year on, how is the country faring, and what does the rebuild situation look like?

A common sight on our trip two weeks after the first quake were public spaces and roadsides filled with temporary tents and awnings. They were a dubious form of shelter for people either displaced from, or too afraid to sleep in, their homes. With the monsoons approaching, followed by the cold winter, the first priority seemed to be to find more permanent and suitable shelter for these people.

Now one year later and on the other side of winter, it is alarming to read in a Save the Children report that “Twelve months after the Nepal earthquakes, which affected 8 million people, homeless families are still living in temporary shelters covered by tarps, under bridges and in unsafe buildings, as 600,000 households remain without permanent shelter.”

Why is this still the case?

Two months after the earthquake the government formed the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA) - think CERA following Christchurch’s earthquakes - who would be given full authority to attempt to complete the rebuild within five years. After dragging its heels to ratify the NRA, it wasn’t until December that the authority became official.

One of the most significant announcements made by the government was a grant of Rs 200,000 (NZ$2,700) would be available to those whose houses required rebuilding. However, due to these delays, most are still waiting for their money. To makes matter worse, some of the US$4.1 billion pledged by the international community for rebuilding Nepal is being lost due to the governmental delays.

This has generally had one of two effects: people have just got on with rebuilding their houses using what they could salvage from their old homes, in the same manner as they always have. Or they have been waiting and living in temporary shelters in the meantime. Not a promising start to achieving the vision of building back better and improving the nation’s resilience.

Further complications have risen over the past year including the fuel blockade. Highlighting its fragility as a nation, Nepal, a landlocked country, imports all its petrol supplies by land from India. Due to political issues associated with the Nepal-India border, the number of fuel trucks entering Nepal was slashed from 300 a day to only a handful. Ramifications of the fuel shortage were wide-reaching, cascading down to nearly all sectors of the economy including tourism, industrial, transportation and construction, and also humanitarian as a result. It wasn’t until the country’s Constitution was amended months later that the blockade was lifted, a task which further distracted the government from focusing on relief and rebuilding after the earthquake.

From an engineering perspective, improving the resilience of the building stock means both building back better, and the effective repair and strengthening of existing buildings that weren’t damaged or demolished. To achieve this would be no mean feat, with many issues identified with current industry practice. These include a lack of skills and knowledge of tradespeople, a lack of seismic engineering knowledge and experience generally across the engineering fraternity, a lack of implementation and enforcement of the building code and the lack of a regulatory environment setting seismic standards for existing buildings.

Apart from some encouraging pockets of the industry such as the National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal (NSET), it was apparent to us that they were few and far between and a lot of work was required to train and up-skill local engineers. This is further challenged by the lack of earthquake engineering taught at undergraduate level, and the tendency for the most promising young engineers to head offshore to pursue further training and more lucrative employment opportunities.

So, as an outsider looking in on his first trip to the country, what is my view of the challenge faced by Nepal?

Going back to the earthquake, the type of damage I observed in Kathmandu was no surprise to me – it was mostly ‘soft storeys’, out-of-plane failure of unreinforced masonry and damage to unseparated secondary elements (often within a well-engineered structural skeleton). Out into the regions where the loss of life was more severe, we understand the devastation was mostly due to collapse of heavy, poorly tied together, masonry houses. None of this is unexpected, even to local engineers with no formal training in earthquake engineering. So, it begs the question, why do earthquake-prone buildings continue to be built in Nepal?

The answer lies in another question that I ask myself – Is it possible for a country like Nepal to make a significant improvement to its resilience to earthquakes? Perhaps their inherent challenges of difficult terrain, isolation, political instabilities, relatively low-income economy and high rate of perceived corruption present a mountain that’s just too difficult to climb.

Looking at New Zealand’s path to seismic resilience from the 1931 Napier earthquake through to the 1960s and 70s and on to today, Nepal’s best chance is not going to come from flash-in-the-pan international aid or a knee-jerk revision of the Building Code. It comes from a dedicated and coordinated effort by the local engineering community to drive advancement in all sectors of the profession, assisted by long-term investment of time from international engineers with a passion for improving Nepal.

About the Author

Andrew Stirrat

Senior Structural Engineer

Andrew is a senior structural engineer with a passion for earthquake engineering. His experience spans a wide variety of projects including building and portfolio assessments, collapse investigations and seismic design of new and retrofitted buildings.

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