It’s more than 20 months since a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, swiftly followed by another earthquake of magnitude 7.3 the next month.
Nearly 9,000 people died. More than 600,000 houses were destroyed and around 290,000 were damaged, according to the United Nations.
On the face of it local people now appear to be getting on with life as normal but look closer and reminders of the disaster are never far away. Whether it be a snaking crack in a wall, large enough to put an arm through – or the still air now taking the space where temples once stood.
International donors have pledged some $4 billion following the earthquake but this is yet to produce the required progress in Nepal’s rebuilding or significantly improve the life of people on the ground.
Framing of a schoolhouse in village hit by earthquake
The scale of the damage is huge and the reconstruction costs – to a country already poor – are overwhelming. The challenge is to rebuild in a way that makes Nepal more resilient to future earthquakes which, in such a seismically active region, are more a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
The capital, Kathmandu, wasn’t affected as badly as many feared but as you head out into the hills you see conditions deteriorate considerably. Partially collapsed buildings and piles of rubble are a common sight. Rural Nepalese houses normally consist of three stories, with the first used for livestock, the second for living and the third for agricultural use. These tall buildings are made from heavy and brittle materials, typically stone and mud mortar, which produce a vulnerability to earthquake to match that in many other regions of the world.
Earthquake damage to a traditional three-story house
Recently I saw the damage for myself. Along with four of my RMS colleagues, I travelled to Nepal to support Build Change’s work to strengthen the resilience of rural communities. It’s an organization focussed on helping people in developing countries make their homes and schools better able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.
Immediately after the 2015 Nepal earthquake it deployed teams to the affected areas to perform surveys of the damage and validate engineering assumptions as to why some buildings remain standing when others had collapsed.
Build Change’s site engineers oversaw the retrofitting and rebuilding work carried out by local builders who themselves had been trained by Build Change. Being scientists and engineers, the RMS team was impressed to see the high quality of workmanship and design, the positive response of Build Change’s staff to our suggestions for incremental improvements – as well as the engagement of the wider community.
RMS and Build Change staff advise on house retrofitting
And on a personal level, it was this community which made an especially powerful impression on me. Kindness and generosity were shown by the Nepalese who have been hit so hard, yet are so willing to share – we were routinely offered food by the local people who were so interested to know why there are foreigners in their village. Perhaps they took hope from seeing that they hadn’t been forgotten.
Money is not abundant in Nepal, but the engineering expertise is developing. And along with this expertise there is more than enough human grit and determination among the Nepalese people to rebuild their country stronger.