A Big Price to Pay: The Twin Earthquakes of Nepal
by SUMAN PANERU
The most powerful shocks had their epicenters in Gorkha and Dolkha—the 7.8 and 7.3 moment magnitude earthquakes that struck Nepal’s hilly regions in April 25th and May 12th, respectively. The most powerful and destructive earthquakes Nepal had recorded since 1934, the combined earthquakes killed nor only more than 8,000 people, but also injured 17,000 and included several billions of dollars in economic loss. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that around 5.6 million people were affected, with about 473,000 households being damaged or completely destroyed around both Kathmandu and the surrounding rural areas. A country with a stunning and ancient history that took millennia to forge was reduced to rubble in but a few moments.
Yet, this tragedy was not a surprise. There had been scientific evidence that an earthquake was bound to happen. However, insufficient attention was paid to earthquake prevention and resilience practices, especially in Nepal's rural communities. The shortcomings of Nepalese planning and engineering were brought to the fore while revealing the gaps of on-the-ground disaster preparedness. And due to this lack of preparation in both prevention and rebuilding strategies by the Nepalese government, the April and May earthquakes devastated a Nepalese society that has struggled to recover.
A country with a stunning and ancient history that took millennia to forge was reduced to rubble in but a few moments.
Although there are many dissimilarities between Nepal and Haiti, a poor economy, an unstable political environment and a huge and ineffective/corrupt bureaucracy make them suitable for comparison. Also having experienced its own destructive earthquake in 2010, Haiti’s earthquake and loss of human life is reminiscent of Nepal’s tragedy. Unfortunately, in the six years since Haiti’s earthquake, foreign aid doesn’t seem to have ever made a difference or even reached the ground. Their uncoordinated relief distribution and ineffective reconstruction plan can be considered a major problem that, aside from hurting Haiti’s image in the eyes of the world, are lessons that Nepal would do well to avoid—problems such as the lack of transparency and accountability in relief distribution, and a reconstruction process that only created deep distrust between donors and government agencies. While billions were pledged to help and reconstruct Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, it’s still unclear where the support was utilized. It is certain that many organizations, including Haiti’s government, made use of funding for their overhead and management cost more readily than in the building of resilient infrastructures. Ultimately the coordination between helping nations, funding agencies, and local communities could be considered a failure, extremely behind schedule, brilliantly mismanaged on a number of levels, and doing little to serve those most adversely affected by the earthquake.
While billions were pledged to help and reconstruct Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, it’s still unclear where the support was utilized. It is certain that many organizations, including Haiti’s government, made use of funding for their overhead and management cost more readily than in the building of resilient infrastructures.
And sadly, it seems Nepal is following in Haiti’s footsteps. Just as in Haiti, Nepal has responded to their earthquake by relying on foreign aid and establishing ineffective institutions. While the establishment of the Independent Reconstruction Authority has been a quite positive step taken by the government, it’s effectiveness has already been questioned: within the six months of its creation the organizational structure is still incomplete, and they have to rely on the decisions made by the government, with neither a road map for the future or assurance to the people that rebuilding will continue. In Nepal today, politicians, government and local authorities are blaming each other rather than accepting their own responsibilities—only deepening existing social distrust. Much like in Haiti, there is risk that the people, the government, and international donor agencies will be stuck in an environment of irresponsibility, where little hope for transparency might be found.
It’s not as though authorities have not tried, however: they are, in fact, not only supposed to be collecting data of the total loss—details necessary for a reconstruction action plan; they are also charged with allocating resources to help the most affected victims. Nevertheless, the situation of those victims today is much worse in part because of the winter season and an unofficial blockade imposed by the Indian government because of their dissatisfaction with how Nepal is utilizing its aid money. If vast homelessness and destroyed infrastructure were issues, now lack of fuel, food and emergency supplies can be added to a growing list of difficulties.
While the establishment of the Independent Reconstruction Authority has been a quite positive step taken by the government, it’s effectiveness has already been questioned: within the six months of its creation the organizational structure is still incomplete, and they have to rely on the decisions made by the government, with neither a road map for the future or assurance to the people that rebuilding will continue.
Having been one of the victims, interacting with my family and others can often bring tears to my eyes, as the situation is today quite pitiable. The fundamental needs for living are not being addressed. What a situation to live in, being stuck in temporary settlements for months on end despite a rainy summer season and a cold winter one! Almost a year after the earthquakes, the government is not acting decisively and families like mine are still in temporary tarp settlements, fighting for survival.
Yet, there might still be a, however trite, silver lining. The earthquake has changed the perspective of people living in traditional non-engineered houses—revealing the weakness of traditional construction. Now, many hope to switch to cement and concrete building to make themselves more safe and secure. However, replacing building materials and technology can be very expensive and time consuming. So, such proliferating concrete machinations might not be sustainable.
Moving forward, the solution is not skewing traditional building altogether, but designing those structures with added resilience and local materiality in mind. Any rebuilding, especially in rural areas ought to be be socially, culturally and economically sustainable. Our intervening architectural technology must be able to build resilient communities from both an infrastructural and social perspective. For instance, training local masons, providing technical guidance on how to build and how to prepare for disaster would not only helps to build a better nation but would pave the way for an international model of rural-vernacular building practices that can be cost-effective and structurally sound.
Moving forward, the solution is not skewing traditional building altogether, but designing those structures with added resilience and local materiality in mind.
Of course, another challenge for rebuilding, along with the poverty and difficult terrain, will be for political parties to reach out to the people and gain their trust and respect. Nepal current political gridlock is dire—crippled by long-term instability and partisan turmoil in the face of its government agenda. A decade long Maoist revolution just ended on 2006 with a comprehensive peace accord, contributing to a huge influx of people to the city in search for security and prosperity. A crowded and unplanned Kathmandu, which was never designed for such extreme changes of population, resulted in less open spaces and congested settlements. Furthermore, local council elections were not held for eighteen years which disrupted democratic communication between the people, and local and national governments. So, if progress is to be made, there also needs to be systemic political changes at a local level. Fractally organized, rescue and relief distribution networks could be accelerated systematically. Local authorities could also help facilitate job creation in their own districts, while shoring up the currently weak national government. Moreover, youth which currently emigrates to Doha, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates to work, could be employed domestically instead.
Ultimately, despite the big price that has been paid for inappropriate preparation, this tragedy could be mined for invaluable learning lessons and a motivation for unity and collaboration. From an infrastructural and building standpoint, innovation is now necessary if cost-effective measures are to be implemented in the capital and the surrounding rural areas. Politically, local structures need to be organized to shorted the distance from the national governing bodies and people on the ground—either homeless or under tarps. The choice is clear: either we repeat the mistakes of disaster mismanagement, and faith and trust is lost in our domestic institutions, or we organize in a way that is more transparent and accountable, becoming an example to emulate.
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