The photos and reports on the earthquake and devastation from Nepal naturally do not tell the back story of the dedicated organisations in Nepal that have been desperately trying to get the country prepared for the inevitable event that occurred on Saturday.

The photos and reports on the earthquake and devastation from Nepal naturally do not tell the back story of the dedicated organisations in Nepal that have been desperately trying to get the country prepared for the inevitable event that occurred on Saturday.  Despite the country's political turmoil, over the last two decades great efforts - largely by non-government organisations - have been made by some amazing Nepalis to implement better construction practices and to prepare the country for such an event. New Zealanders have played a seminal part in this.

In 1992 the Wellington office of New Zealand consulting engineers Beca won a United Nations Development Programme project to draft the national building code for the Government of Nepal. This was an initiative of a senior official in their Ministry of Housing following the losses experienced in the 1988 Bihar earthquake, which did not badly affect Kathmandu.

As required, we had selected and assembled a local team of structural engineers, architects, and disaster response experts to partner with our team who had experience in writing the Indonesia and Papua New Guinea's national earthquake codes. Within offices in the grounds of an old Rana palace, Babar Mahal, we laboured for two years to collate all the known faults in the Himalayas, historic earthquakes, and ground conditions to produce a current zoning map of the country.

Alongside that, we produced a building code that not only covered modern high-rise buildings, but also provided rules-of-thumb for typical less formal buildings and guidelines for the improvement of about 100 types of rural houses across the country.

A law to enact the building code was drafted and we developed a training plan for masons and technicians. Unfortunately, the building code has yet to be enforced widely.

However, in retrospect, the best thing we did was late in the project to moot over a cup of chai the establishment of a lookalike to the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering.

In the years that followed, our Nepali deputy team leader Amod Dixit (a Russian-trained engineering geologist) corralled our project team and some retired government officials to form the National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal. Now an internationally-acclaimed non-government organisation, its members have doggedly taken the message to their government and the Nepal public about both the need for disaster mitigation and preparedness for responding on the day.

Impressively, they have undertaken strengthening of schools in the Kathmandu Valley, and have trained masons in the techniques that can make masonry buildings more resilient to earthquakes. Moreover, they involved the pupils and their parents in the process to the extent that some parents wanted their own houses strengthened.

Our other deputy team leader, architect Yogeshwar Parajuli, has recently become the head of the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA) – tasked with putting some order into the haphazard development rampant in the Kathmandu Valley. The valley is a dried up lakebed with all the inherent hazards of liquefaction and land instability on the banks of the rivers and on the surrounding hills.

There is a silver lining, and an opportunity, from Saturday's tragedy. Already, Yogeshwar Parajuli has been talking to us about the hope that the KVDA will now have the backing to sort out the land-use planning, and that the community will back the need for compliance with better building practices, if not with the building code. In the last few months, some smaller municipalities have been convinced by NSET-Nepal to implement building consent processes which have some teeth. The reported reasonable performance of modern buildings in the earthquake will hopefully reinforce this.

Recent visitors to Kathmandu will have surely been horrified by the high-rise apartment buildings sprouting up on the river banks to the south of the city.  Sir Bob Parker travelled to Kathmandu in early February 2011 where he told a special assembly of government, defence and municipal officials and elected leaders what Christchurch had experienced in September 2010.

When living in Kathmandu, we used to call it Aid City because of our encounters with so many international aid agencies and their 4WDs. We also discovered many New Zealanders there quietly working in hospitals, forestry, and procuring micro-hydro electricity generation in remote communities.

For a long time, New Zealand has provided Nepalis with training in forestry, national parks management and, to a lesser extent, earthquake engineering. Now we have Nepalis teaching us, such as University of Canterbury Civil Engineering Professor Rajesh Dhakal who specialises in earthquake engineering.

While New Zealand's gift of $1 million the Red Cross for the immediate needs of the people is admirable, in the recovery phase there are opportunities for us to contribute expertise and to help those dedicated groups in Nepal to "build back better". They told us 20 years ago that the New Zealand pragmatic approach to earthquake engineering inspired them to push on themselves. Saturday's tragic event is a chance for us to help them go further.

This opinion piece was first published in The Dominion Post.

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Richard Sharpe

Senior Technical Director - Earthquake Engineering

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