General

A year after: Lessons not learned

  • The call to improve engineering practice is often dismissed with comments such as ‘Nepal is too poor to apply modern technology’. Government apathy is inexcusable
- Naresh Koirala & Bishnu Pandey

Apr 24, 2016-

A number of geoscience and earthquake engineering experts inspected the earthquake-damaged buildings in Kathmandu in the immediate aftermath of last year’s M7.8 event. They compared the actual damages with the expected performance of the buildings as per Nepal’s National Building Code (NBC) and records of United States Geological Survey (USGS) station located in Kathmandu. The USGS records showed the earthquake induced only low ground shaking, much less than what code compliant buildings were supposed to resist.

The engineering analysis of records pointed that despite the scary swinging (displacement) experienced by people, the nature of ground shaking (acceleration) was such code compliant buildings should not have been affected. This conclusion pointed to serious deficiency in the enforcement of the NBC, both at the design and construction stage.

A member of foreign experts team, who is intimately familiar with the NBC (and who wishes to remain unnamed) commented: “It is very sad to see the lack of uptake of seismic resilience provisions by practicing engineers and academics in Nepal” and “I fear that there is a knee-jerk reaction within Nepal to ‘change the Code’ as way of atoning for the non-implementation of the NBC by those in a position to do so”. 

Who in Nepal is in a position to enforce the implementation of NBC? And why it is not being implemented? What is the way forward?

The Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC) is the official custodian of NBC and is responsible for its enforcement. It enjoys a wide range of powers to audit design and construction for code compliance and punish the delinquents. Apartment buildings cannot be constructed until their designs are checked for code compliance and endorsed by DUDBC. The DUDBC advises municipalities on code issues. 

Paradoxically, the DUDBC is also responsible for the design of all public buildings. DUDBC’s in-house engineers carry out these designs and supervise  their construction.

The DUDBC generally bases its in-house design and compliance checking on an obsolete Indian code. The seismic resistance requirements of this code are lower than that demanded by NBC, thus making DUDBC-designed buildings less resilient than required by NBC. The experts had noted serious design deficiencies in DUDBC-designed buildings. 

The DUDBC’s role, as design and construction engineers, is in conflict with and compromises their mandate as enforcers of the NBC. Enforcement will often require investigation of deficient buildings, but such investigation is not in DUDBC’s  interest. DUDBC, like all public agencies, does not like public scrutiny of their work and have an obvious vested interest to avoid it. 

It is no surprise that DUDBC refused to conduct a detailed technical investigation of the designs it approved or of buildings it designed in-house. Its response to the earthquake damages has been to initiate review/upgrading of the NBC. Whereas the authors believe the upgrading is indeed required, upgrading without a clear understanding of the cause of the April 25 earthquake damages is like putting the cart before the horse or “atoning of the non-implementation of NBC”. 

The public interest would have been served better if DUDBC had focused its attention in conducting technical investigation of the damages and exploring NBC enforcement issues prior to concentrating its efforts in upgrading.

The first step to improving earthquake engineering in Nepal is s to acknowledge that damage in concrete building in the last year’s earthquake was not due to severity of ground motion or deficiencies in the code, but due to poor design and lack of enforcement. The public already knows this: “engineered” buildings (besides old mud houses) suffered most of damages. Denying engineers role in the design flaw and the need for their re-education is counterproductive.

In India, the engineering design community owned to the damages due to Gujarat’s 2001 earthquake. The government promptly launched a campaign to re-educate engineering teachers and consulting engineers on seismic design.

The second is to acknowledge the importance of enforcement of building code. 

The remarkably low death toll (13) from Chile’s September 2015 earthquake was attributed to “those who are actually inspecting and approving the design and construction of buildings”. 

Unlike in Chile, besides institutional issues such as DUDBC’s conflicting role and wholly ineffective code implementation practice, Nepal’s technical capacity of earthquake resistant designs and construction quality control is very limited. 

Earthquake engineering requires multidisciplinary collaboration amongst geoscientists (seismologists, geologists), geotechnical engineers, architects and structural engineers during the design stage. Regulatory agencies must be knowledgeable enough to critically review designs submitted for approval and identify deficiencies/non-compliances. Engineers must be made accountable for their work. Quality control during construction is a must.

Nepal has very few geotechnical engineers with expertise in analyzing ground behavior under seismic loading. Laboratory facilities for soil and rock testing, even in the country’s premier engineering schools, are shockingly poor. The seismic engineering teaching is mostly limited to theoretical aspects of seismic design (structural) of buildings. Generally Nepal’s typical construction technique and architecture are not included in the course curricula.

If the prospect of earthquake engineering is to improve, in the short term the government must concentrate in capacity building and strengthening its regulatory agencies. It could conduct intensive short-term training in areas where expertise is

lacking-- for example, in geotechnical engineering. 

In the long term, capacity building has to be achieved by policy reforms to encourage the private sector to invest in procurement of geotechnical investigation and analytical equipment /tools and learning institutions to invest in improving

teaching standards. The government can start hiring academic institutes to conduct geotechnical research and support in purchasing equipment to conduct the research.

This will improve laboratory facilities.

The regulatory agencies need to be more knowledgeable, and demanding of private sector designers. The DUDBC cannot be both the enforcer of the NBC and the designer of buildings. The enforcer must be absolutely independent from designers and builders. The fact that no government department, no professional engineer and no contractor was called to account for the damages due to the April 25 earthquake is unbelievable. It speaks of the pervasive lack of  professionalism and accountability of people in authority.

The remarkably low death and destruction in Chile in 2015 was the result of the Chilean government’s efforts in improving disaster management and code enforcement after their devastating experience in the 2010 earthquake. Nepal

can emulate Chile’s performance if it is serious about public safety. 

Regrettably, our governments have a pattern of commissioning studies and ignoring their findings. It does not show any commitment for real  change. For example, in 2002, a Japanese International cooperation Agency report warned: “Once a great earthquake occurs, Kathmandu will suffer immense losses of life and property, and will be unlikely to be able to function as the capital of Nepal”. 

In a 2010 report, a consortium of Nepali engineering consulting companies identified a number of issues related to the implementation of NBC. The government sat on both reports and April 25 (the date for the “Big One” last year) happened. From a seismic engineering perspective, what hit Kathmandu was not great, yet it suffered greatly.

Government negligence in this very critical public safety matter continues. In August 2015, one the authors of this article (Naresh Koirala) was retained by National Planning Commission to review the NBC in the context of the April 25 building collapses and recommend improvements in earthquake engineering practice. Besides several recommendations, he also flagged concerns regarding the serviceability of the “Melamchi” pipes being installed in Kathmandu following a major seismic event. NPC turned deaf ears to his several requests to discuss the report.

A number of international experts visited Nepal after last year’s earthquake and presented their findings to the Nepali government. The government has shown little interest to learn from their observations.

The call to improve engineering practice is often dismissed with comments such as “Nepal is too poor to apply modern technology”.

A building’s response to ground shaking has nothing to do with a country’s wealth. 

Modern buildings and infrastructures cannot be built with old methods. Public safety is government’s responsibility.

Prime Minister Oli, NPC and DUDBC, please take note: April 25 was a wakeup call; a big one is on the way. Listen to your conscience and do the right thing.

Naresh Koirala, P. Eng. is a registered Professional Geotechnical Engineer in British Columbia, Canada. He was consultant to National Planning Commission in August-November 2015. Bishnu Pandey, Ph.D. teaches Earthquake Engineering (Structural) in British Columbia Institute of Technology, Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Pandey was the team leader of the Canadian experts team, which inspected the damaged buildings in Kathmandu after the April 25 earthquake.

This article is based on Mr. Koirala’s report to NPC and Dr. Pandey’s observations of the damaged buildings.

Published: 24-04-2016 09:25

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