From Relief To Reconstruction Building Quake-Resistant Structures : Pranav Bhattarai

It has been more than a month since Nepal was jolted massively by a devastating earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on the mid-day of 25 April. People, especially the new generation who had only heard of the 1934 Earthquake but had never experienced tremors of this scale, were taken aback by the main shock and powerful aftershocks measuring above 4 magnitude, which had reached around 270 in a month. Besides the huge destruction and loss of lives in 14 districts, the earthquake has also offered us some lessons and opportunities to make ourselves more quake-resilient in the days ahead.

It is said that every disaster not only brings devastation but also offers lessons and opportunities to make corrections of the mistakes that have been made. It is also widely said it is not the earthquake that kills people and devastates property but the unsafe and risky infrastructure. Therefore, making structures and houses earthquake-friendly and resistant can save us from the tremors and make ourselves and our children safe during such times of disaster.

Had the earthquake struck us at midnight or on an office day, human causalities would have been of unimaginable proportions. Thus, we must be thankful to God because the earthquake took place on a Saturday.

Colossal damage

Home Ministry figures till date say that 470, 991 houses sustained partial or complete damage in the quake. The Kathmandu Valley alone saw damage to 67,188 houses. Similarly, 45,930 houses in the eastern region, 200,862 in the central region, 146,768 in the western region, 10,085 in the mid-western and 148 houses in the far-western region have suffered damages due to the quake and recurring powerful aftershocks in the ensuing weeks after 25 April.

Besides residential and commercial buildings, hundreds of temples and monuments dating back centuries and of immense historical importance and those enlisted in the World Heritage Sites including Basantapur Dubar Square, Patan Durbar Square, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Boudhnath Stupa and Changu Narayan Temple have also sustained damages. The historical tower, Dharahara, has also been reduced to rubble due to the quake.

At least 14 districts including Kathmandu , Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, Sindhupalchowk, Dolakha, Gorkha, Dhading, Makawanpur, Sindhuli, Rasuwa, Ramechhap, Okhaldhunga, Kavre and Nuwakot experienced the worst impact of the earthquake, which affected over 40 districts of Nepal.

The government has entered the phase of rebuilding after the search, rescue and relief operation in the immediate aftermath of the massive quake. As immediate assistance, the government has announced Rs 15,000 in assistance to the homeless quake survivors for purchasing zinc corrugated sheets to construct makeshift temporary shelters.

The government and people have drawn lessons from the quake, and are taking policy initiatives to stringently enforce the building codes. Flouting the building code and not getting the house design approved by the local government were rampant in the recent years because people traded on the absence of the local governments. Had there been an elected local government, it could have monitored the construction of buildings and their compliance with the building code.

Because of the political transition, unstable politics and bureaucrat-driven local governments, accountability of governments form the central to the local level has nosedived, encouraging people to flout the rules of construction. Neither could the local governments keep its eyes on those people breaching the rules nor could the central government structures stop and bring such people to book for non-compliance with the building code.

Many donors and international non-governmental organisations have been pumping funds into the Prime Minster Disaster Relief Fund, and the government has also scheduled a donor's meet on June 25 to accumulate funds for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. Whatever amount is received and whatever structures are going to be built in the coming years, the government must not compromise on the quality to make them earthquake-resistant. It should pay adequate attention to public buildings such as hospitals, shopping malls, schools, among others, to make them safe for the public.

Many community school buildings in the districts collapsed in the quake, and many more have suffered damages. Therefore, the government should retrofit its own public school buildings which have withstood this quake and obviously redesign new school structures in a way that they will be able to resist a quake.

Similarly, many private school buildings have sustained damages, which means that the government should come up with a policy of only three-storey school buildings in Kathmandu and outside. If any school wants to construct more than a three-storey structure, it should require government supervision and monitoring right from the design to construction to completion, and the Ministry of Education and Sports should issue certificates to schools complying with the government building code, and publicly announce the list of schools having earthquake-resistant buildings.

Event to residential buildings, strict provision of penalty ought to be in place for discouraging  construction disregarding building code. They must be immediately booked and penalized, their house be declared unsafe for the quake. Provision of issuing stickers upon completion of buildings must continue and house owners must paste such stickers in the open so that other can see easily.  Such stickers must be posted even in the public buildings such as hospitals, schools, shopping malls, high-rise apartments so that people can see and make rational decisions to ensure their safety.  

For private buildings in the villages, the government must encourage light and cost-effective buildings, which are quake-resistant and safe whenever a disaster strikes. Even in the cities, government should think of providing subsidies and incentives to those who build lighter and cost-effective homes such as pre-fabricated houses. Due to absence of such a policy and incentives, Kathmandu and other major cities of Nepal have turned into a jungle of concrete buildings without enough open space and green areas for the people to live out during natural calamities and disasters. The government also doesn't seem to have invested in building trained personnel in carrying out rescue operations, and there is inadequate awareness about disaster preparedness on the part of the government. 

Let’s be wise

Therefore, learning lessons from this Great Quake, the government should revise its policy and provide incentives to build constructions to minimise the damage from a quake in the future. Wise are those who learn from their own mistakes and wiser are those who learn from the mistakes of others. So, let's try to be wise at least this time.

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