Print Edition - 2016-04-24  |  Year of Reckoning

Building back better?

  • Lack proper risk assessments of settlements in many of the worst affected areas are adding to vulnerability of the population, not lessening it.
- PRAGATI SHAHI
There are more than 31,000 earthquake survivors in 11 of the 14 worst affected districts who have already started rebuilding their homes on their own but have no way of knowing if the place where they have started rebuilding is safe or not

Apr 24, 2016- Bhola Nath Bajgain, 47, from Sundardanda in Kavre district started building a house on his own, after life under a tarpaulin tent became unbearable for his family of six. The Gorkha earthquake in April last year collapsed  Bajgain’s two-storied mud and stone house perched at the top of a hill in a village of around 50 households. “We lived under tented sheets for several months. The rain and wind made living conditions inside the tent difficult and it was then that we made a decision to build a new house,” he said, showing the under-construction house being built adjacent to site where the ruins of his damaged house from the quake are still visible. “I borrowed loans from the local financial institution to build the house but there is always a fear of another quake destroying it again,” Bajgain said. He added, “There is no one to tell us if the place where the new house is being built is safer from landslides and similar earthquakes in future.”

Like Bajgain, there are more than 31,000 earthquake survivors in 11 of the 14 worst affected districts who have already started rebuilding their homes on their own but have no way of knowing if the place where they have started rebuilding is safe or not, if not safer. “The government has promised money to rebuild homes to affected families but has failed to confirm where people can be safer than before,” said Ram Chandra Neupane, executive director at the Disaster Preparedness Network -Nepal, an umbrella organisation of over 65 non-government organisations and development partners working in disaster preparedness. “It is not a choice but a compulsion for earthquake affected families to start rebuilding on their own, lacking any knowledge of safety and potential risk from disasters in the future.”
It is evident from the devastation caused by the Gorkha earthquake that none of the essential risk-hazard assessments, mitigation or strengthening measures were implemented in the country in the past to minimize the adverse effects of natural disasters. “There are always lessons to be learnt from every disaster and it is evident that it is now up to the government to learn from the aftermath of the Gorkha earthquake and come up with a list of actions to follow in order to equip communities with disaster preparedness knowledge so as to minimize the risk of such disasters in the future,” said Tata Nidhi Bhattarai, professor of the Department of Geology at Tri-Chandra Campus. He further confided, “Unfortunately, from the way reconstruction is heading so far, it seems the government is least concerned about building safer communities and more so for the distribution of housing aid.”
From the second week of March this year, the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the sole authority responsible of carrying out reconstruction work in the country, has commenced distributing housing aid and other supplies to affected families. The NRA has come up with 17 earthquake–resistant house models for rural households; a praiseworthy attempt but modest of producing the results we need, experts say. According to government estimates, more than 770,000 houses were destroyed in the earthquakes in April and May last year. Immediately after the devastation, the government announced a provision of Rs 200,000 as grant and up to Rs 2,500,000 in subsidised loan to each family rendered homeless by the quake. However, despite such promises, access to financial support is still out of reach to many. 
The government has decided to mobilise over 3,000 civil engineers to carry out surveys and recommend building structures, but has not pointed out the need for engaging geo-technical expertise required to assess the geological state of the places that are prone to other disasters such as landslides. “Studying the geological and seismic state of the areas where rebuilding is ongoing or being planned is equally important as building earthquake-proof building,” said Deepak Chamlagain, geological expert from the Department of Geology. He added, “The big question now is: should we allow people to build their houses in the same steep terrain and fissured surfaces, or provide information to ensure the risks from future disasters are mitigated?”
It is crucial that the NRA develop a plan of carrying out risk assessment and developing new settlements in geologically safe zones. Yet the government has failed to develop a blueprint or plan that includes the geological and seismic study of vulnerable areas targeted for reconstruction and rehabilitation, which is of utmost importance to building safer communities in the future.
Soon after the earthquake, a team led by the Department of Mines carried out a rapid assessment of the 14 most affected districts and prepared a report which was the only survey carried out to assess the status of the areas affected by the earthquake. “It was more rapid assessment of the visible damages caused by the earthquake than a detailed study required to confirm the geological state and conduct hazard mapping to support future planning,” said Chamlagain who was one of the team leaders. 
While experts have criticized the government’s negligence of proper geo-hazard risk assessment to help in the building of safer communities, the authorities responsible for preparing policies and programmes say that the process is envisioned for the long term and at the moment, the government is more committed to short-term needs. “For now, our priority is to ensure that all affected families get reconstruction aid for rebuilding their homes,” iterated Ram Thapaliya, spokesperson from the NRA. 

Published: 24-04-2016 10:07

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