Build back better

  • Govts have moral obligation and social responsibility to protect civilians during natural disasters

Jan 18, 2016-

In January, researchers from Oxford University were quoted in The Guardian that another “major tremor could hit Nepal’s Gorkha district within years or decades rather than the centuries that typically elapse between quakes.” Their prediction is based on Nepal’s geology: It sits on a major fault line between two tectonic plates and because the unbroken upper part of the fault is continuously building more pressure over time, the future rupture of this portion could have much greater impact on Kathmandu. This finding, which was originally published in the journal, Nature Geoscience, has once again raised questions about Nepal’s capacity to take immediate measures to ensure the nation’s seismic safety.

Same concerns

Last May, when the ground was still shaking from the aftershocks of the April’s earthquake, I returned to Nepal to make a comparative assessment of seismic safety measures between Nepal and California. Though California and Nepal are located in high seismic zones, California has been proactive and sensible regarding its seismic safety measures, whereas the Nepal government has not been that wise. The key reasons why Nepal has lagged behind California are obvious—legal obligations and red tape, civil war and political distractions, weak institutional capacity and lack of awareness on the part of the people and institutions regarding the need for more stringent building-safety codes.

To implement seismic safety in Nepal, it is essential for the government to collaborate with the financial sector. The Chief Executive Officer of Nepal Mega Bank Limited, Anil Keshary Shah, believes that if there is a directive from the Nepal Rastra Bank (The Central Bank) or the government to the financial sector that while providing property loans or insuring property, certain building codes should be followed, then the financial sector will check if the structure is following proper building codes. The financial sector will share the responsibility with the government since there are very few people who can build entire structures without a loan from a bank. So, once the financial sector is there to ensure that new structures are following building codes and seismic standards, the financial sector can play a crucial role in the process.

Finding ways out

But right now, the biggest challenge for the government is to find a way to demolish illegal houses, that is, those that have not followed existing building codes. Those illegal houses have become risky not only for the owners but also for the community. There are so many of such houses and the government lacks the resources to demolish them. If the government stops providing all the municipal facilities to those houses including electricity and water and double the tax, it will create pressure on the house owners to demolish the houses themselves.

Currently in Kathmandu, there are thousands of houses that should not have been approved for construction because they do not follow the building codes, but were approved by engineers and architects. One way to change this situation is for the government to enact legislation that will make architects, engineers, and other builders liable for approving and building structures that do not adhere to standards of seismic safety.  Such legislation will increase the incentives for engineers and architects to do their jobs properly.

Nepal is a developing country and its government faces significant financial challenges. So it cannot afford to implement an expensive project like ensuring seismic safety all over the country. However, many Nepali engineers and architects are now currently studying inside or outside of the country through government-funded scholarships or through scholarships funded by international diplomatic missions in Nepal. If  the government, like that of the Republic of Singapore, would offer full, four year scholarships to those studying civil engineering in exchange for a four-year commitment to work for the nation on seismic safety, this could enhance the students’ careers and help raise the government’s institutional capacity, a win-win situation for both.

It is also important for the government to create civil liability on its citizens. Since Nepal is a democracy and advocates the concept of private property, it can be difficult for the government to implement policies that regulate the actions of private property owners including ensuring seismic safety. If the national legislature created policies that required all property owners to construct new buildings or retrofit older ones according to rigorous seismic standards, or else the owners will be held accountable for the entire loss if the building collapses and affects other people of the neighborhood, it would add a serious incentive to the public to construct seismic-safe homes and buildings, and to demand such construction if such structures do not already exist.

Baburam Bhattarai, former prime minister, said, “A substantial number of farmers reside where they can find free land to do farming; as a result, many poor peasants are staying in places that are geologically not suitable for settlement and are on the frontline during any natural calamity like earthquakes or landslides.” The government should underwrite a nationwide geological survey of fault lines to determine which areas are suitable for human settlement. It is time, in short, for the national legislature to implement a robust land-use policy across Nepal.

The concept of private property is also becoming a major challenge for the government, as it seeks to develop serious land-use policies. Marcom D. Carson, a member of the California Building Standard Commission, told me that the California government uses its ‘eminent domain’ powers to purchase private property at a fair market price, if necessary, to protect the community’s health and wellbeing. Nepal government should also implement laws like this, as necessary.

Since Nepal lies on an earthquake sensitive zone, it is very important for it to implement building codes properly to minimise loss of life and property during future earthquakes, a future that could be sooner than we expect, judging  from the prediction of the Oxford researchers. As California has demonstrated, governments have a moral obligation and social responsibility to protect their civilians during natural disasters. It is time for Nepal to ensure seismic safety measures across the nation.

Shiwakoty is a student of International Relations and Foreign Policy at Pitzer College, the US

Published: 18-01-2016 08:04

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