Print Edition - 2015-06-21  |  Free the Words

Caribbean lessons

  • Now is the time for Nepal to capitalise on its citizens skilled in urban planning and civil engineering
Caribbean lessons

Jun 20, 2015-

We often hear people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” This is comforting in difficult times when there is little hope that something good is going to come out of it. The statement also implies that we have either no or very limited role to play in the way things are. This is where I have a problem with this widely used crutch to support a range of difficult situations.

The earthquake of April 25 and its 7.4 magnitude aftershock have changed the course of development for Nepal. Hopefully, we will emerge victorious from these challenging times, but hoping does very little.We need to act, plan and act. Yes, in that order.

Haiti after the quake

These were the thoughts running through my mind as I was talking with the people in Haiti and while being driven around in a ‘safe vehicle’ in Port Au Prince earlier this month. On my flight to the city, I happened to sit next to a Haitian architect who told me that right after the quake, people organised themselves. For two months, their business was shut down but they were fortunate that their lives and assets were intact. The architect’s family had a boring well and they went around the city distributing water to those in need. This sense of responsibility towards fellow countrymen was palpable in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake as well. My inbox and Facebook page were abuzz with friends and family in Kathmandu and way beyond trying to assist those in need in the affected areas.

So I was curious to know how Haiti was faring  five years after the devastating earthquake that took hundreds of thousands of lives? I wished to get an answer which would contradict the negative news and reports we normally hear of outside the country. My fellow passenger, as an architect, could tell me exactly how houses were being built post-earthquake. To my disappointment, she said not much had changed in terms of residential buildings. Yes, there were building codes, but they were not enforced. She had been involved in the construction of earthquake-safe residential apartments, but in all the cases, the building codes were self-enforced. She lamented the lack of oversight and the inability of institutions to implement the improved policies regarding building and planning.

The city, Port Au Prince, is built on rolling hills that have very limited natural vegetation at this point. They are covered with big patches of one or two-storey, small concrete houses stacked up against each other. There are no street signs or evacuation routes in case of another such disaster. I heard our local companion say that heavy rains caused regular landslides, and that it was common for houses to be damaged. I wondered: having gone through such a massive disaster, living the aftermath, what prevented improved urban planning that allowed for planned re-vegetation to avoid erosion and proper zoning?

 In our conference, a colleague shared that large commercial buildings abided by the building codes set to protect them against earthquakes. He assured me that the building we were holding the meeting in was Miyamoto-certified (earthquake resistant per standards of Miyamoto International). But what about hundreds of thousands of people in Port Au Prince who live in houses which have not been retrofitted or constructed to prepare for earthquakes in the future? They are once again expected to believe that everything happens for a reason?

Case of Nepal

After spurring into action for relief work, in the coming months and years, Nepal needs to gear up for planning strategic actions to limit losses due to inevitable disasters, and to move towards more sustainable development.

In the immediate aftermath, as things settled down in Nuwakot, Sindhupalanchowk, Kathmandu, Namche Bazaar and other majorly hit areas, locals did lend a helping hand to each other, and various agencies did manage to get help from within and outside the country to provide food, tents and immediate medical care in the affected areas. This may not be perfect or every affected person may not have received help from well-meaning volunteers, but these uplifting actions on part of the willing and able did make a difference. As the frequency of aftershocks decrease and lives slowly return back to normal, serious thought needs to be given to plan for better disaster risk preparedness and to build systems and infrastructure able to implement them.

There is a surge in assistance being mobilised from personal channels, bilateral and multilateral sources. After the brief period of relief work, resources need to be put into building structures resilient enough to withstand disasters that Nepal is prone to (such as earthquakes, landslides, glacial lake outbursts and floods, to name a few). Projects have been underway to respond to such needs for a while, but the recent events have made us more cognisant of the immense risks if Nepal does not make the most of such projects.

Tap the potential

In Haiti, I met an engineer who decided to move back to Haiti after the quake to help rebuild his country. Groups of Nepalis, including some of my friends, rushed back home to participate in relief work. Such strong willingness to contribute should be tapped in for the short- and long-term. The Haitian engineer confided that he got a long-term position in the country because he was well-connected. Now is the time for Nepal to capitalise on its citizens skilled in urban planning, mapping, seismology and civil engineering within and outside country so that they can contribute to rebuilding the country in a systematic manner.

Immediately after the big shocks, it was very heartening to see everyone contribute towards providing for the most-affected. Recovery and rebuilding is a longer process that requires entrenched commitment coupled with various skills and monetary resources. In many ways Nepal has all three. It is just a matter of how it decides to utilise them.

Shrestha is an environmental specialist


Published: 21-06-2015 08:16

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