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Asia

Nepal rebuilds with new approach

In the wake of the devastating earthquakes in Nepal, locals and NGOs are focussing on reconstruction - using earthquake resilient materials. Sophie Cousins reports from Kathmandu Valley.

In Kathmandu Valley, a group of young men are assembling an earthquake resistant home made of steel and corrugated galvanised iron sheets. The structure only takes four hours to put together; it's also lightweight, doesn't require cement, skilled manpower or electricity to assemble.

Dawa Steven Sherpa, from the Himalayan Climate Initiative, came up with the "resilient home designs" idea two weeks after the earthquake - a two-room, 18-by-9 foot design, which is customizable.

"Buildings kill people, not earthquakes," Sherpa told DW. "People need to have faith that their house is strong. No matter how hard this structure shakes, it's not going to collapse."

One of the impending challenges in post-earthquake Nepal after the death of more than 8,000 people and the destruction of 500,000 homes has been, and will continue to be, the reconstruction of homes.

New approach

But as the monsoon fast approaches and seismologists warn that the worst is yet to come, NGOs, donor agencies and suppliers are looking at housing options that are safe, affordable and eco-friendly.

They say they look to Haiti's post-earthquake management in terms of what not to do: to neglect people's needs and the local materials available.

Aside from the structure being earthquake-resistant, Sherpa also recognized that it was important that people felt they had contributed to the building of their home.

"Homes made from different materials is what gives a village its identity, if a villager is just given a complete home, he or she might not take pride in it. We didn't want people to feel like they were living in a UN refugee camp."

The estimated cost of the home is about $625 (560 euros) - not insignificant given that the annual per capita gross national income is $730, but the homes can be copied by anyone.

The National Planning Commission recently officially approved the design and the organization is currently in the process of building 71 homes in three villages in some of the hardest hit districts, including Sindhupalchowk and Lalitpur.

Award-winning technology

a makeshift building Copyright: Sophie Cousins

Will it hold up?

Another safe and affordable method being used in Nepal is interlocking blocks, which are made up of laterite soil stabilized with cement, developed by Nepali inventor Gyanendra Sthapit at the Habitech Centre of the Asian Institute in Thailand.

The award-winning technology was used for post-tsunami reconstruction in Thailand in 2008 and after Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2010.

Interlocking bricks can be made at the building site itself by mixing locally available clay with 15 percent cement. The walls are reinforced horizontally and vertically at strategic points, Sthapit said, meaning the structure is resistant to earthquakes.

Sthapit echoed Sherpa's thoughts about locals feeling a "sense of ownership" over their homes.

"Community participation in the project is vital for success. With our technology, we maximize use of locally available materials as well as local people," he told DW. "With little training and some supervision, local people can be involved in the production of the building components as well as in the construction."

While the cost of the house depends on the size and location of the home, the technology is 40 percent cheaper than houses built with the conventional system at about $20 per square foot.

The organization has raised funds to build 30 homes for particularly poor earthquake victims but the major challenge is scaling up.

Getting the message across

Sthapit said he was looking at manufacturing the equipment in Nepal to reduce costs and time associated with assembling the home. However, not all villagers have got the message that their homes need to be earthquake-resistant.

Roger Bilham, an expert in the region's seismology from the University of Colorado, said he was "appalled" to find out that local villagers in Bartak, near the epicenter of the mainshock, were using the same materials and assembly methods that led to the widespread destruction of their homes.

destroyed house Copyright: Sophie Cousins

Many villagers are still coming to terms with the destruction

"Brick or stones, held together by air or mud, is the cause of nearly all the deaths in Nepal. We must prevent them from ever being assembled again," he told DW.

"[However] villagers, through a lack of guidance about future earthquakes or how to strengthen their homes, are now re-assembling the same buildings as before. This is suicidal."

Jiba Lal Pokharel, vice chancellor of Nepal's National Academy of Science and Technology, said he too was concerned that construction in parts of the country were being done in the "old manner without the use of earthquake resistant technology."

Old habits die hard

"Though the government has publicly informed to stop construction until further notice, construction in the conventional method is unfortunately underway," he said. Pokharel added that he was concerned about "insensitive engineers" who he believes will neglect architectural identity.

"This is likely to be aggravated by foreign consultants and suppliers who are seeking to impose pre-fab constructions in Nepal. Unfortunately, the reconstruction works at the moment are at best a half-hearted attempt."

But for some, like Bisnu Shrestha, who works in Kathmandu and lost three family relatives in the first earthquake that tore down his home in Sindhupalchowk, rebuilding is his last concern.

"I lost my mother, sister and daughter. What can I do? I just keep working. I have to move on with my life," he said.

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