20.07.2015 : Richard Sharpe

Nepal then and now

My view is that getting behind the professional engineers in Nepal and helping them solve their own country-specific problems is a sustainable and worthwhile assistance.

Two weeks after the Nepal earthquake in April, Andrew Stirrat and I arrived in Kathmandu – we were there for a week assisting the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction by assessing Nepal’s major buildings. My expenses were paid by the New Zealand Government, but our time was a gift from Beca – perhaps reflecting that some 23 years before, Beca had won the job of drafting Nepal’s current building code, its implementing legislation and a management plan for implementation.

For 'take a mate' Andrew, a young structural engineer, it was all new, but for me, it was a trip down memory lane. I’d previously spent more than 18 months living in Kathmandu with my family while leading the team. The biggest difference was the bigger, taller buildings and how everyone now had a mobile phone. But underneath it all, it was the same loveable country I knew from that previous time.

On the second day we were subjected to the biggest aftershock which softly moved us backwards and forwards for what seemed like much more than a minute. Somehow, Kathmandu largely escaped the worst of both earthquakes, and it was clear that the real tragedy was in the remote areas in the mountains to the north where small towns and remote housing were devastated.

So, had our efforts nearly a quarter of a century ago made any difference to the resilience of the nation to earthquakes? Overall – not much, I concluded.

Yes - the wonderful efforts of the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET), which had its origins in our projects’ Nepali team, could be seen in the post-earthquake assessments they organised, the placarding system used by government engineers and the signs of preparation for earthquake in one of the hospitals. However, the thousands of tents and awnings pitched in every public space showed that the public were very scared.

The details of the reinforcing being prepared for reinforced concrete elements of buildings have improved. The reinforced concrete elements in the latest 20-storey apartment buildings seemed about the size one would expect, and were apparently undamaged, but the ubiquitous brick is still at the root of the city’s structural problems.

In peacetime, bricks are apparently considered desirable because of the ease of construction, their solid feeling as external walls and between internal spaces, and low maintenance. In earthquakes, they cracked easily and interfere with the reinforced concrete frames designed without reference to their structural preference. It seems that the design engineer is not involved after construction commences and the contractor rules the roost.

So, what right do we foreigners have to comment? The Co-chairs’ summary of the recent World Humanitarian Summit regional consultation for the Pacific in Auckland makes one reflect on this. In one place they say:

“In this context, investing in disaster risk reduction, preparedness and strengthening resilience are paramount: an investment which eventually saves lives and money. This became evident through focused discussions on the recent response to Tropical Cyclone Pam. The discussions also revealed lessons about how the structures of local communities and governments could be overwhelmed by an international system that, despite best efforts, does not adapt itself to effectively support local contexts. There was also recognition that there are ongoing capacity development needs in local national disaster management offices (NDMOs) that need sustained support from international and regional organisations. In that context, long-term relationships of trust and cooperation between partners were highlighted as critical for effective response.”

Later on, they report:

“Participants noted that communities, civil society groups and governments are the first responders in disasters, and remain when any surge of additional assistance wanes. The discussion focused largely on the interaction between local, national and international actors, highlighting some of the tensions when international actors “parachute in” during and after disasters without paying sufficient attention to local dynamics and coordination arrangements. Government and local communities need to take the lead in defining what they need and providing information about what is available. New technology has provided the opportunity to enhance the involvement of remote communities in this process more effectively and quickly.”

Many well-meaning international experts are champing at the bit to help Nepal “build back better” both in Kathmandu and in the remote rural areas. They are offering solutions from their experience in other countries, and sometimes utilising exotic materials.

I came away thinking that what we started 23 years ago is on the right track. I now read that NSET-Nepal is running technical workshops for the Shelter Cluster organised by the International Red Cross & Crescent, and that some of the training resources being used are the Mandatory Rules of Thumb and the Guidelines produced by Beca’s Nepali sub consultant TAEC during the National Building Code project. These documents and their contents (downloadable from www.dudbc.gov.np/buildingcode) are as relevant as they were when they were written, and specifically target vernacular residential construction in the urban areas and the remote villages.

Calls by locals to “revise the building code” and “strengthen existing important buildings” have no context to be advanced in Nepal. New Zealanders can reflect on how useful it is in our community to have a government-mandated earthquake-prone building regulation and a market-led aspirational strengthening target of 2/3 of the current building code. One suspects that it would be a brave politician in Nepal who committed the country to such targets even if they are only aspirational. Nevertheless, their government would surely want to know how vulnerable their key infrastructure is seismically. Low probability/high consequence natural disasters must be hard to address when poverty is a more frequent concern.

Nepali developers are learning the same in Kathmandu. Brand-new 20-storey apartment buildings have become un-tenantable because of cracks in the non-structural walls in low intensities of shaking.

One developer told us that the cost of removing and replacing the bricks was economically unviable – new bricks are becoming scarce in the Kathmandu Valley because of urbanisation encroaching on the brick-clay fields, and the necessary labour is very scarce because of the hundreds of thousands of Nepalese now working in the Middle East so that they can repatriate their earnings to their families still in Nepal. Interestingly, his development was insured – a requirement by his lender of finance. That is a big change for Nepal and very helpful after a major earthquake – as we have learnt in Christchurch.

On reflection, those of us in New Zealand have traditionally found it hard too. Four years ago, after the Canterbury earthquakes, we woke up to how lucky we were to have been incorporating seismic resilience into our buildings. And we started to realise that minimising damage in quite-likely smaller earthquakes was needed.

My view is that getting behind the professional engineers in Nepal and helping them solve their own country-specific problems is sustainable and worthwhile assistance. Right now, they need (and are requesting) assistance to undertake more detailed assessment of existing structures, and to introduce competence-based recognition of professional engineers. I’ve heard that the practical low-key practical approach of New Zealand engineers is particularly sought. For it to work, this needs to be based on long-term relationships and helping both those in the public sector and in private practice.

It makes you think!

About the Author

Richard Sharpe

Senior Technical Director - Earthquake Engineering

Richard has over 30 years’ experience in earthquake engineering. In 2007, he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand in recognition of his earthquake engineering contributions. He’s also a past President and Life Member of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering and has been a keynote speaker at international earthquake conferences in Turkey, British Columbia, India and Nepal, as well as in New Zealand.

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