Planning for the future

  • This is an opportunity to build clusters of interdependent, energy efficient, sustainable eco-communities in rural Nepal
- Rajju Malla Dhakal
Planning for the future

May 14, 2015-

The deeply distressing April 25 earthquake was inevitable, as Nepal lies on a tectonic fault-line. The quake came at a time when the country was just recovering from a decade-long conflict and instability, which caused unprecedented destruction of property and lives. Further, the economic damage wreaked by the disaster could set the clock back by decades in terms of growth and development and mess up the country’s goal to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2022.

Many feel that the quake could have been worse, given the notoriously poor enforcement of building codes, among other things. Haphazard urbanisation, particularly in the Kathmandu Valley—uncontrolled sprawl, substandard construction, and inaccessible housing development—in addition to the loss of open space and decreased livability, has amplified risk. In the Valley’s rural outskirts, satellite towns with haphazard dwellings have been built overnight without paying any need to government regulations. The cliché that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do’ has now been proven right.

Building codes

Old buildings, or those built without adopting building codes, suffered massive damages on April 25. While legislation has made compliance with building codes mandatory, municipalities often fail to enforce them. It is not clear whether this is due to a lack of appropriate mechanisms or technical capacities for building code implementation, or both. A survey by USAID indicates, on average, two engineers are available in a municipality in Nepal, which issues roughly about 400 new building permits every year. It must be noted that until last year, building codes were only enforced in municipalities. The government decided to extend the code in all urbanising VDCs within the Kathmandu Valley only a year ago.

It is apparent that building codes have yet to be extended to the rest of VDCs across Nepal. This means that there is no land use plan and building permit system in the villages. Hence, dwellings are constructed in any place the owner wants to, without assessing whether or not they are in compliance with hazard standards. No wonder, the extent of damage and loss of lives in the aftermath of the quake showed the extreme vulnerability of rural areas, more so than urban ones.

Inadequate awareness among building professionals regarding seismically safe construction practices, coupled with a lack of awareness among the people, resulted in resistance, instead of compliance to building codes. This fact alone should force concerned policymakers and planners to think out of the box and take this opportunity to create sustainable communities in Nepal.

Opportunity to rise

Surprisingly, crises have always brought the Nepali people together and the recent disaster was no exception. It is heartwarming to witness the spontaneous outpouring of concern and support from all Nepali people residing in Nepal and abroad.

For once, the so-called divisions along ethnic lines look unreal. For once, every individual acted as a Nepali, no one else. It certainly helped to restore faith in goodness and humanity. And hopefully, this spirit will be retained, which is crucially important for overcoming this disaster and beyond.

Presumably, the disaster has opened the eyes of the people (urban and rural) and the government in terms of greater seismic safety concerns enough to catalyse policy changes, their implementation and compliance. No doubt, the country needs appropriate reconstruction policies unique to urban and rural areas. It is important to formulate and implement one as soon as possible. Experiences from many countries show that people tend to get complacent as the fear of another huge earthquake gradually starts diminishing.

It is only natural for policymakers to focus on the construction of seismic resilient houses in the wake of a massive earthquake. For a poor country that aspires to graduate from LDC status soon, this is not enough. We must think beyond resilient houses and turn this distress into an opportunity to build sustainable communities, particularly in rural areas.

The haphazard construction of dwellings must not happen again, which is not only expensive in terms of availing utilities and services by the government but also environmentally and socio-economically unsustainable. The need of the hour is to build small clusters of interdependent, energy efficient, and sustainable eco-communities in rural Nepal, which comply not only with land use plans and building codes but also confirm with rural values and cultures. The rural population of Nepal certainly deserves a decent shelter that enables it to lead a dignified life, which will help improve the Human Development Index of the country.

Inclusive planning

Towards that end, it is heartening to learn that the National Planning Commission (NPC) has spearheaded consultations with donors regarding relief and reconstruction. However, the NPC should not neglect to convene a multi-disciplinary consultation of Nepali experts at the outset, which should be inclusive in terms of sectoral expertise, ethnicity, and gender. The emphasis on inclusiveness is because reconstruction of disaster-ridden communities is not just a technical issue, but an investment for long-term sustainable development of rural communities. Planning the location of infrastructure, their design and strength to withstand a quake is as important as their environmental sustainability, their ability to provide decent shelter and foster sustainable livelihood opportunities. In this context, ownership of the target group is imperative.

Poverty limits choices but social structures, values, and economics influence the ability to recover, and vice-versa. The concept of sustainable communities is developed on the basis of environmental friendliness, use of renewable energy, and a cluster of small yet functional dwellings. Eco-villages also bank on social cohesion in terms of sharing and working together in order to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible. Examples from Nordic countries show that sustainable communities do not have to be expensive.

Published: 15-05-2015 08:31

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