Build back badly?

  • The absence of a detailed scientific study on quake-hit mountains could result in futile reconstruction
- Navin Singh Khadka
Build back badly?

Jul 16, 2015-

Build back better, these are the three Bs that have gained currency in Nepal’s post-quake reconstruction discourse. The Post Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared by the National Planning Commission is peppered with them. The ‘successful’ donors conference Nepal organised last month was abuzz with the three words. And now the national annual budget speech too appears to have been guided by them.

The words, no doubt, formed a very strong slogan and gave hope to the shocked and shaken country. But the inspiring words now really need something to put them into action—something that is dangerously and worryingly missing. It has been almost three months since the quake, and there has been no proper scientific study on what the quake did to the mountains where the poorest of the affected population live.

That’s not science

If you look at the Urban Development Ministry’s recent decision to relocate people from the worst affected areas, it gives the impression that there has been a comprehensive study. It refers to, “reports prepared by the committees that had in them Constituent Assembly members from each of the affected constituencies as coordinators” and also one “prepared by geologists in each constituency.”

The reports prepared by non-scientific committees, of course, should be respected for local knowledge. The CA members, chief district officers, and local people would certainly know what has happened to their terrain. But this is something more than that meets the eyes. It is not just about the cracks that are visible on mountain slopes. It is also about how loose the soils have been set and which parts of the mountains have been rendered vulnerable.

And this is where the role of geologists comes in.

The decision by the Urban Development ministry reads, “The report prepared by the geologists deployed in each constituency was integrated with the reports prepared by the committees that had CA members as their coordinators.” In other words, it says the scientists have done their job.

In reality, they have not. Officials with the Department of Mines and Geology have told this scribe that they had just done a rapid geological assessment in the six worst-affected districts. “It was a very preliminary assessment to help relocate the affected communities to safe places,”said the department’s Deputy Director General Rajendra Khanal. “There has been no comprehensive study yet. For permanent relocation of communities we plan to do such detailed studies later.”

Where’s the study?

The national annual budget speech also has a similar line. “Immediate steps will be taken to relocate people who have been displaced by the earthquake. A detailed study will be conducted followed by a policy and plan under which people from risky areas will be relocated to nearby safe places.”   

And now the question is who will conduct the detailed study and what will its timeline be? So far, no one seems to have an answer.  In the days to come, you may see some reports in bits and pieces. But, as of now, there is no sign of any comprehensive scientific study yet.

And that begs an answer to this question: how will the government and donors now spend the money they have already pledged for reconstruction? They may, of course, not need such studies for, say, reconstructing the destroyed heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley. Building back houses and other structures in urban areas may not be so difficult either. But, resettling people on mountain slopes is a different ballgame altogether. Some international non-government organisations working in remote areas say several mountains

scarred by quake-triggered landslides have become totally inhabitable. They have found that flattening such landslide hit slopes will need massive efforts and also modern technology.

Dangerous mountains

“The whole mountain slope has become a death zone now,” Karma Singh Tamang, a local from Haku village development committee in Rasuwa district, said in an interview I did for the BBC World TV recently. “How can we live in such a devastated place, the whole terrain has become inhabitable,” he said pointing at the multiple landslides. “The cracks there are so big and they are widening still.”

Can Tamang’s village be reconstructed? Or, will all the villages from Haku VDC have to be resettled elsewhere? And how do we know that the new place for resettlement will be safe? These questions can be answered to a larger extent only if there are proper scientific studies of such mountainous ranges rattled by the quake. Reconstruction in such places can only take place once you have a solid foundation of science-based knowledge.

Boulders and landslides are still falling on buses and trucks on highways, afurther reminder that the quake’s aftereffects are not over yet. People are still dying and getting injured from  mountain slopes, destabilised by the earthquake, falling down.

Amid all these dangers, the slogan ‘build back better’ needs legs to stand. Or else, it never will.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London


Published: 17-07-2015 08:02

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