From Despair to Repair: An Opportunity for Inclusive Design in Nepal
by SUMAN PANERU, adapted by ALBERTO EMBRIZ DE SALVATIERRA
April 25th. The Day My Nation—History Crumbling—Came to Its Knees
At 11:56 am, the ground began to tremble. What began—or at least felt—as a small shock continued beyond the few seconds of a usual tremor. It did not take me long to realize this was a violent seismic event. I was back at the office having returned from a site visit at Bhaktapur to design a residence for a new client where I had hand-surveyed a plot. Despite it being Saturday, I routinely work on holidays to increase productivity and get ahead of deadlines. This morning, there was no indication it would be any different. Yet as soon as the ground started shaking, I rushed outside and met with a sight that I shall never forget.
The most powerful earthquake to hit Nepal since 1934 had struck, and with it came a powerful destruction that killed 9,000 people; injured more than 23,000 people; and left several hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal’s rural villages homeless—my own family included. People were running in the streets and wailing on the ground covered in debris and dust. Buildings all around were either partially collapsed, or had been turned entirely to rubble. There were lost children looking for their parents and groups of people maniacally searching through broken homes for signs of survivors.
Mobile networks shutdown. Electricity ceased to function. Water ebbed with broken infrastructure, and food was either being looted or had been buried amidst the rubble. I waited an entire day before I would be able to get in contact with my parents to learn they were safe.
I had been planning to eat lunch that day after finishing work at the office, but because I skipped breakfast I had not yet eaten anything when the earthquake struck. I would not get to eat until a day after. And as the hunger intensified, all I could experience was fear.
As I traversed a broken city, trying to get to my rented room in Balaju, the panic in the streets of Kathmandu only brought me profound grief. A proud nation now faced utter despair.
When I reached Tripureswor, the old Gumba’s style temple of Nepal was now in rubble. I found the Sobhabhagabati temple tilted unto a five-story building that had collapsed entirely. There I could see the Army pulling dead bodies from the rocks. Similarly in Machha Pokhari, many buildings had collapsed and numerous people had died. Working in construction, I have working knowledge about the soil condition in the Kathmandu Valley, and especially in Machha Pokhari, the soil is weak and poor, exacerbating the destruction.
My rented room was located in a reinforced building, and I found it unscathed. Gathering some essential provisions, I went unto to search for my siblings. I eventually found my uncle at his damaged shop. Thankfully, my siblings were with him as well. We relocated to an open-air clearing under a tarp (it could be generously considered a tent). There were about 200 other people crying and hungry—never had I experienced such dejected despondency. In one quick flash of released terrestrial energy, people had become orphans, widows, homeless.
Both national and international media were broadcasting news about the earthquakes. There would be tremors every 15-20 min for the next few days and over 38 significant aftershocks in the coming weeks. As an architect, I was observing and taking note of the structural failings of both the buildings and the city while also planning how might those in the rural areas of Nepal might tackle shelter. As the night set in, despite the cold, a tired body, an anxious mind, and a broken spirit lulled me away from consciousness. That first night, half the population of Kathmandu—over 400,000 people—slept on the streets.
An Opportunity to Begin Anew
April 25th brought to the fore many shortcomings of Nepalese planning and engineering policies. Most buildings in Kathmandu nowadays are constructed under the owner-build system where owners—who looking to save money—skimp on hiring skilled technicians or engineers, and instead rely on untrained, unprofessional, and unlicensed contractors with little to no experience to earthquake-proofing a building. Now is a good time to reevaluate our system, and prepare for a future were another earthquake is certain.
Mr. Pawan is visually impaired person who was on fifth floor of his apartment during the earthquake. Like many Nepalese, he is among the minority of physically impaired individuals for which everyday life in a city not built with accessibility or inclusivity in mind is difficult. It is estimated that after the earthquakes, now over half a million people have disabilities. In the past, these individuals have often either been denied access to the facilities and services that people without disabilities take for granted or experienced unnecessary difficulty and embarrassment in accessing and using them.
The difficulties that disabled people have experienced when accessing these facilities and services often relates, not to an individual’s disability, but to the lack of thought and lack of awareness of society when designing the built environment around us; establishing how services are provided. Fully-able elderly people, for example, might have a difficult time making it up several flights of stairs perched on Kathmandu’s mountainous terrain. Thus, for example, inclusive design aims to remove barriers like this one that create undue effort and separation.
Despite the Nepal Constitution guarantees equal rights to all people of Nepal, the rights of persons with disabilities has not extended beyond paper. Very few buildings follow laws of accessibility. There is lack of effectiveness in implementation levels as well. The accessibility to workplaces, schools, transport, and all public and private places open to the public is a civil right that Nepal lacks.
These issues of accessibility are drawn from global perspectives. In the United States in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was established and was the nation’s first comprehensive law guaranteeing equal rights to persons with disabilities. The ADA regulation inspired other countries around the world to see disability issues through the lens of equality and opportunity. But most sadly, in the Nepalese context these issues are not even being addressed in the planning or design level. The discussions on these topics are entirely nonexistent. Regrettably, not even government buildings adhere to their own standards.
Though the government gives special “accommodations” to people with disabilities in almost all sectors like education, employment, and transportation, it is still very difficult for people with disabilities to even be present in the workplace or schools or other public places. For example, despite public opposition, the former Prime Minister of Nepal Dr. Bhattarai forcefully widened key roads in 2010. Presented as a gesture to be more welcoming and inclusive, these wide roads lack sidewalks or pathways. Rather than encouraging pedestrians, it discouraged them! It was hard to walk even for able-bodied people. Imagine the disregard people with disabilities face. We are in dire need of new school of thought that addresses these needs.
There is hope in the horizon, however. The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal undoubtedly lead to a huge loss of physical infrastructures. To rebuild these, the government formed a new reconstruction authority. With high ideals, the ‘Reconstruction Authority’s’ main objectives will be to establish plans and policies for further reconstruction in rural and urban areas. If their policies work, Nepal has an opportunity to rise from its ashes. Expected to include a more holistic perspective, the voices of the elderly, women and the marginalized communities of people with disabilities need to be more acutely addressed, and young people should be unafraid to demand inclusive planning and design as a human right.
Of course, inclusive design is about making places everyone can use regardless of age, gender or disability. The way places are designed affects our ability to move, see, hear and communicate effectively: “Planning has a key role to play in ensuring that this issue is addressed at the earliest stages of the design and development process. Only at this stage is it possible to achieve an effective and truly inclusive end result.”
In the earthquake’s aftermath, Nepal now has a unique opportunity to repair and, along with it, be more cognizant of people with different needs. The reconstruction that is taking place will hopefully address new, previously overlooked problems. The policy maker, client, user and stakeholder must act in concert and hold other parties accountable. It is important to realize accessible or inclusive design is not only useful for individuals with disabilities, but for children, the elderly and pregnant women. A ramp is not only for a wheelchair, but could be equally utilized by a mother carrying her children in a stroller, or people hauling rolling luggage. Since inclusive design doesn’t negatively affect anyone, then why should we not make all our reconstruction efforts about accessibility? Facts and figures for sure will tell us now, more than ever, people are injured, demoralized and feeling despondent amidst chaotic structures. Let’s bring some warmth and perspective by including everyone as the constituents of our new city—not just the young or able-bodied.
At the moment, Nepal is in the stages of ratifying a new constitution through the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the new constitution should emphasize the Inclusiveness in all sectors of the country. From education to health, from the workplace to public spaces, the real demand for accessibility should be addressed. And not just the government, but the private sector would do well to remember as well: “It’s hard for disabled people to turn into abled-people, but only a minor accident will make abled-people, disabled.”
Suman Paneru can be reached at email@example.com.