The recent earthquake of 2015 in Nepal led to approximately 755000 buildings being destroyed and the death of around 9000 people, with many others injured.
The earthquake of 7.6 magnitude led to avalanches and landslides, wiping out valleys and leading to immense loss of property and life. When I decided to work in Nepal in 2018, post-earthquake rehabilitation practices, even though in their later stages, where in full swing. Conversations with colleagues, friends and residents of Nepal revealed harrowing tales of scrambling in the immediate aftermath, with resources in low supply, frequent aftershocks, and a blockade from India. The slow process of rebuilding lives commenced after the initial shock.
The UN along with the World Bank along with the GFDRR (Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery) provides an illuminating report on post-earthquake reconstruction. It gives a timeline that illustrates the recovery that is needed in the immediate aftermath, and a phase wise planning of creating an inventory of damage, policy strategy, institutional frameworks and long term recovery. It also talks about the role of government agencies, and the financial help to be awarded to those affected by the earthquake. The earthquake in Nepal is only a recent one, there are several examples of earthquake recovery frameworks that have been adopted all over the world. Notable examples include the earthquake in Haiti in 2010; in Japan in 1995, and the Bhuj earthquake in India 2001. There were several routes that were taken for post-earthquake recovery in different cases, and sometimes multiple solutions were applied to beget faster results. The Kobe earthquake in 1995 in Japan saw a state led recovery approach with land reorganisation and regulations as its prime criteria. The effort also saw a sustained community led approach to rehabilitation. The Bhuj earthquake saw the efforts of multiple NGOs collaborating with a state led Disaster Management Authority that led to remarkable recovery, plus an opportunity to rebuild structures with seismic considerations and retrofit old infrastructure. There are several examples of cities like San Francisco, which deal with an earthquake to emerge more economically efficient than ever. Post-earthquake rehabilitation therefore is not just recovery, but an opportunity to formulate better strategies and tweak faults within the system that existed prior to the earthquake.
Post the 2015 earthquake, the government of Nepal released a document called ‘The Nepal Earthquake – Post Disaster Recovery Framework’ a year after the disaster. The document outlines the summary decisions, policy outlines, and financial management tactics for the next 4 years. Since Nepal lies on a fault line that results in an earthquake every 80 – 100 years, the guidelines thus produced can be used in the future as well. Nepal is no stranger to the havoc caused by the earthquakes. Recurring quakes, primarily the one that happened in 1934 have changed the face of the country countless times. Though the residents of Nepal faced a warning for almost a decade of the impending earthquake, the disaster was still of an unprecedented magnitude. Come 2018, I encountered a number of architectural and planning practices operating in this context to rebuild Nepal, with varying levels of success.
Perhaps the biggest setback was to the heritage fabric of the country. Townships like Bungamati and Khokona, living examples of Newari traditional architecture were almost completely ruined. In 2018, when I visited Bungamati, almost all the houses were self-built in RCC. Within the fabric, the facets of Newari architecture was lost. The main temple square, with the Macchendranath temple, still lay in ruins, with the rebuilding on stay due to lack of funds. NGOs like CIUD and UN habitat are currently in the process of mapping and documenting the township, in order to create a comprehensive masterplan for future rehabilitation including guidelines for building in the Newari style, upgradation of pokharis (ponds), workshops to propagate traditional building styles etc.
Darbar squares, or palaces of yesteryear kings suffered almost irreparable damage. I worked in Kathmandu Darbar square, where a phase wise reconstruction effort is being undertaken for every wing that was damaged. A meticulous documentation and research is being carried out in order to identify existing damages prior to the earthquake to retrofit heritage buildings to survive further quakes.
Poster images of the Nepal quake, the Dharahara tower, which collapsed to its foundations and the Kasthamandap, the temple which named the city of Kathmandu, were until quite recently caught in a political tug of war; but are making headway. Primarily the Kasthamandap was the centre of sustained research by universities and the Department of Archaeology (GoN), which provided necessary information needed to reconstruct in the traditional way using mud mortar and by reusing salvaged material as much as possible.
A number of local and international NGOs have made reconstruction work possible in remote parts of Kathmandu. For example, Hunnarshala, an Indian NGO and architectural studio has conducted workshops for construction workers in seismically safe traditional building techniques to be used for reconstruction. Hunnarshala was conceived in the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake, and was invited to share their research and building techniques after the Nepal quake. Several others like BuildChange and the Nepali Lumanti foundation have also made contributions. Studios like Abari, propagate the use of low cost and sustainable efforts to rebuild using bamboo and earthwork.
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International aid poured in to finance the rehabilitation process, however, most of the housing so far has been self-built. If poorly executed, this new kind of precarious housing built with RCC with minimal structural knowledge might prove disastrous in the long run.
It is perhaps feasible to look into upgrading and seismically strengthening old and new buildings systematically and holistically to avert tragedies in the future. It may take years to rebuild a country after a devastating earthquake, and Nepal is well in the path of the slow, arduous journey of rehabilitation.