Rebuilding Nepal

It has been twelve months since I first visited Nepal, spending two weeks with Build Change, an earthquake engineering charity and RMS partner, to experience first-hand the impact that they are having in the country. Back then, Nepal was only just starting to come to terms with the huge amount of reconstruction work that lay ahead after the 2015 earthquake. While there was hope that the country could “build back better” it was going to be a long, hard road ahead, as I observed in my blog in January this year.

After my first visit, I made the decision to return to this remarkable country and volunteer with Build Change for a longer period. My ambition was to become more involved in the rebuilding work, and help Build Change plan for future post-earthquake reconstruction. Since arriving I have been struck by the contradiction that although so much has progressed, a lot of the same issues are still prevalent and are holding back real change.

Arriving in Kathmandu, your senses are bombarded as the city is still a mass of activity. It is fast becoming an urban sprawl, with around 2.5 million residents in the city and surrounding districts and signs of poor construction and infrastructure are never far away. The concrete jungle constantly encroaches into the paddy fields that lie just outside the city limits, whilst gray, dust-filled pollution hangs over the city, often blotting out the distant snow-capped mountains. However, once you leave Kathmandu and head into in the hills you are rewarded with breathtaking views.

What has united residents in both urban and rural areas after the 2015 earthquake is an ambition to construct homes using Reinforced Concrete (RC) construction. Even poorly built RC buildings were largely unaffected by the earthquake shaking due to non-resonance. All building types have a particular frequency, and when ground motions coincide with this, you get resonance subjecting the building to stronger forces, resulting in greater damage. Owning a RC building is a status symbol and as these buildings sustained limited damage, homeowners now want RC construction more than anything else. Unfortunately, they often do not conform with current Nepali building codes and the next earthquake could easily have a different frequency.

Government Response

Homeowners in properties affected by the earthquake are entitled to a 300,000 NPR (around US$3,000) grant from the Nepali government and the grant distribution process is well underway. This amount does not cover the full cost of building a new home but it does provide a good step-up.

Grants are distributed in three tranches. All buildings must be approved by local government or follow one of the approved designs, and a government engineer must inspect and sign off the construction before the next tranche is granted.

Typical example of a house damaged by the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

Although a large majority of first tranche payments have now been handed out, depending on district, just 14 to 47 percent of homeowners have started construction, with an even smaller 3 to 25 percent having completed construction. There are several reasons why homeowners who received the first tranche have not begun building. Some have spent the money on other things, others have limited understanding of how the government process works, or have no access to the skilled labor required.

The situation is compounded by the fact that Nepal is going through a series of elections to implement a federal system of government. Decentralization will provide local government with greater decision-making power. This has had an impact on the reconstruction process, with the government recently changing the grant process to hand out all the grants in a much shorter timeframe. With a concerted effort, these take-up rates can be improved and in areas where Build Change provide full technical assistance the percentages at each payment tranche are up to 43 percent, 39 percent and 24 percent respectively.

Build Change in Nepal

For Build Change, much has progressed since my last visit with many of last year’s active projects now complete. They have had success in driving forward the acceptance of retrofitting and are starting to implement both new construction and retrofitting at a much greater scale.  For anyone unaware, retrofitting is a cost-effective method of seismically strengthening existing houses by adding or strengthening structural elements and stabilizing the current structure.

Earlier this year, Build Change were successful in getting two key designs approved by the government and therefore accepted for use in the reconstruction:

1. Confined Masonry

Build Change has promoted confined masonry in several countries as a safe form of construction for earthquake prone regions. This design involves hollow concrete block or brick walls sandwiched between reinforced concrete columns and beams. Order of construction is very important, as are the connections between concrete members and these with the walls.

Example of house built using Confined Masonry construction method.

Build Change has used this construction method at many of its sites in Nepal with varying degrees of success. Communities were initially slow in adopting the design, but this is now changing with many homeowners in Sangachok district recently requesting this house type. Most of the construction I observed still used reinforced concrete frames with brick infill.  This design type can be resilient to earthquakes if it is built and detailed well, but this rarely seems the case either in rural or urban Nepal.

2. Retrofit Design

In all countries where Build Change operate, they advocate retrofitting as an alternative to demolishing and rebuilding damaged homes. Retrofitting is around a quarter of the cost of a newly constructed home, and therefore would provide many more homeowners the option for a safer home.

Example of a building being retrofitted to enhance earthquake resilience.

The Build Change retrofit design developed specifically for rural, stone masonry with mud mortar houses in Nepal, involves strengthening the building using concrete columns, ring beams, and strengthened floor diaphragms (see pictures at end of this web page). This design is the only retrofit design approved by the Nepali government and could offer great potential for rural communities. However, homeowners are uncertain how much government money they will receive when retrofitting rather than rebuilding, and this is significantly holding back adoption of the design. Homeowners need to be continually reminded that it is a win-win as they get a safer house, quicker and at less cost.

One critical thing identified by Noll, country head of Build Change Nepal, was the need to scale their efforts to reach more people. Through a strategic gap analysis earlier this year, Build Change highlighted the major challenges faced by the post-earthquake reconstruction and designed a technical assistance platform to address them. This work should enable Build Change to scale-up their work in providing retrofitting and new reconstruction solutions.

The technical assistance platform is designed to address the major challenges currently faced by the post-earthquake reconstruction process in Nepal and enable homeowner-driven reconstruction.

Initiatives to enable this approach include:

  • Forming Technical Support Centers (TSC) in multiple districts to provide communities, and those who are not financially capable, with information on legal procedures for claiming government subsidies, remote technical assistance on safe construction, design of drawings and distribution of government approved documentation.
  • Creating a design library containing over 200 design drawings for Nepal covering many different configurations and materials. These drawings are available for the TSCs to provide to homeowners.
  • Maximizing the use of technology in helping support the reconstruction process. This ranges from designing a free government mobile application, providing homeowners guidelines for safe construction, to using drones to scan villages to get an early assessment of building damage and tablet-based methods for collecting data.
  • Training of government/INGO/NGO engineers, masons/builders and homeowners on new construction and retrofitting.

My Experience

I have seen real progress in some of the worst hit districts, with examples of high quality construction using masons/builders overseen by trained and proficient engineers. But I have also seen many examples of poor construction, often where the homeowners/masons have undergone very little training. These issues are mostly associated with poor concrete compaction and reinforcement detailing.

Buildings are often signed off as acceptable by government engineers even when issues are present, but they face the uphill task of approving enough buildings for the government to reach its targets. This poses a worrying question as to the safety of the post-reconstruction of Nepal.

As I have experienced elsewhere in the world, success comes in providing effective incentives for homeowners to design and construct their houses to be more resilient to future earthquakes. There are good examples of this being achieved in other countries, such as in Chile. My hope is these learnings can be transferred to Nepal for both post-earthquake reconstruction and prevention. Who knows where in the country the next earthquake will strike?

On a positive note, the government have made resilience and disaster risk cornerstones of their plans in relation to all three big global agreements from 2015 (Paris Climate Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals, and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction).

As I found a year ago the community spirit and endless positivity of Nepalis provides hope that with some help they will emerge much stronger from this disaster.

Senior consultant, client solutions, RMS
Alastair Norris is a senior consultant in the client solutions team at RMS where he works across both the insurance and disaster risk reduction sectors. He has worked on projects including assessing the maturity of insurance companies; helping write the Overseas Development Institute report on setting and measuring targets for disaster risk reduction, as well as working on the 2014 “Risky Business” report on the economic costs of climate change in the US. Alastair earned his masters in Civil & Architectural Engineering from the University of Bath.

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