July 16, 2020

Sometime in Nepal

Elizabeth Rees

Earthquakes destroy homes and livelihoods.

Nepal lies in one of the most seismically active regions in the world and has a long history of earthquakes. Globally Nepal ranks number eleven in vulnerability to earthquakes.

In April 2015, the 7.8 magnitude Gorkha earthquake, which was followed by the 7.3 magnitude earthquake of Dolakha, led to over 90,000 casualties, affecting one-third of the Nepalese population. There was extensive damage to both public and private buildings. In total, approximately half a million houses were destroyed and more than 250,000 houses partially damaged, resulting in thousands of families living in temporary accommodation that was both inadequate and unsafe.  The necessary skills for building safe earthquake-resistant housing were not in place.

It was not until December 2015 that the central government appointed the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) to lead the post-earthquake reconstruction process. Following this decision, Build Change set up its Nepal office.

In 2019, during my time volunteering for Build Change Nepal, two programmes were ongoing:

  • The Socio-Technical Facilitation and Consultation (STFC) project was a three year intervention covering three consecutive construction seasons (March 2018 – February 2021). Funded by the Government of India (GoI), it was supporting 23,088 earthquake affected households in two municipalities and eight rural-municipalities of the Nuwakot district.
  • Seismic Retrofitting of Unsafe Housing in Nepal was funded by the Department of International Development (DFID, UK)) to increase awareness of retrofitting across all 32 earthquake-affected districts.

Both programmes helped rebuild safe homes, increase homeowners’ awareness of earthquake-related disaster risk and their understanding of earthquake-resistant construction.  Both programmes trained local masons and other homeowners, providing theoretical and practical knowledge, as well as guidance on how to obtain government housing grants. Not only did this increase awareness about the importance of safe construction, but it created jobs and improved the local economy.

In earthquake-prone areas, teaching communities how to build their own affordable, earthquake resistant houses is fundamental to a safer and healthier future.

Following a MSc in Geophysical hazards and a few years working in Exposure Management in the Reinsurance Industry, I got the opportunity to volunteer with Build Change Nepal. Keen to support the Nepal team and learn how post- reconstruction programmes are implemented, I left for Kathmandu in 2019.  I flew immediately after a best-friend’s wedding — perhaps not wise in retrospect — so what stood out when I arrived bleary eyed? Not the majestic mountains (which were sadly hidden behind a dense carpet of fumes) but the warm smiles and holey roads!

Living and working in Nepal I visited places tourists never see. I visited residential homes which had been particularly badly damaged due to them being constructed from traditional stone masonry in mud mortar (these buildings lack any seismic-resistant features). I was welcomed by families who offered me pints of yak milk — the motto was ‘better and stronger than water’. I was repeatedly complimented on how extremely tall I am (I’m 5’9 by the way). I had innumerable conversations with engineers and architects who had worked on reconstruction projects since 2015: how were their past projects run,  were they successful, and why had the donor money stopped or disappeared?

I also experienced skilled Nepalese driving (not for those with a weak stomach) and the odd landslide or two delaying your journey for… well, how much time do you have?  There was no Royal Automobile Club or other commercial roadside assistance, just large dollops of community strength, determination and grit, to solve whatever problem needed solving together.

My task was to support the programme manager in the two existing programmes and develop Build Change Nepal’s internal and external communication. A broad and exciting role.

Although run differently, the two programmes ultimately had the same goal: to save lives and livelihoods.

The sheer scale of the STFC project (reconstructing 23,088 houses compliant to NRA guidelines) meant coordination was set up in a tightly-tiered framework. The framework worked, milestones were met, but communication was crowded within the programme. One of the many important aspects of this project was visibility; branded uniforms felt like a milestone itself.  Donors deserve to be recognised for the role they have in all projects and showing the impact they are having is a key part of this.

The Seismic Retrofitting of Unsafe Housing project was smaller and less rigid. From the outset of the reconstruction effort retrofitting was seen as key, with 63,000 homeowners listed by the government as retrofit beneficiaries. However, due to various factors (e.g. very low level of knowledge on retrofitting, changes in tranche deadlines, delays in MOU signing and project rescoping) the project needed to revise its approach. That said, how the local team adapted to these changes was impressive, showing resilience and determination. There was real belief in the project, which kept the participants and the project going.

Food for thought

Working on both these programmes made me think about the following:

  • The reconstruction process can be very slow; timing is everything. Many houses had been built before our programmes even started, and these houses were often not compliant with NRA.
  • The superhuman efforts people go to make a project happen and succeed is phenomenal and inspiring. Truly.
  • Communication, transparency and accountability are key when development agencies work together.
  • Is there space to set up Disaster Risk Financing in Nepal so that the delays between earthquakes affecting communities and state institutional response funding need not happen?

Having the opportunity to volunteer and live in Nepal was hands-down one of the best things I have ever done in my career and has helped me understand the complex nature of recovery and reconstruction. I am fortunate that I am able to take this experience with me in my new role at Start Network – a disaster risk financing organisation for emerging nations.

I would like say a special thanks to Mobina Ghimire, Alastair Norris, Arun Kumar Sharma, and Sandeep Shakya, who supported me during my time at Build Change Nepal and made my experience one I would never forget.  I learned more from them than vice versa.

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