While the emergency response effort accelerates in the wake of the April 25, 2015 earthquake near Kathmandu, Nepal, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations are already raising money to help the Nepalese people reconstruct their schools and homes. Often lacking any experience or expertise in building structures that can withstand Nepal’s inevitable earthquakes, these well-meaning organizations may inadvertently recreate the conditions that made the recent earthquake so devastating.
“Unlike disasters in ‘developed’ countries, many if not most of the decisions about how Nepal will be rebuilt will presumably be made by non-Nepalese, because foreigners have the required funding,” notes GeoHazard International’s president and founder Brian Tucker.
These foreign organizations have both the opportunity and the imperative to influence Nepal’s reconstruction so that new structures are resilient to the inevitable earthquakes of the future.
Note how Kathmandu’s skyline evolved from 1930, top, four years before the devastating 1934 earthquake, to 1970. The tremendous urbanization that occurred after the city’s post-earthquake reconstruction has accelerated. [All photos courtesy of the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ)]
Rapid urbanization with high earthquake risk
Nepal has a history of destructive earthquakes. The region’s seismic record, dating back to 1255, indicates that such earthquakes occur approximately every seventy-five years. The last major earthquake occurred in 1934. That event, known as the Nepal-Bihar earthquake, is thought to have caused approximately 10,600 fatalities in the region. A quarter of Kathmandu’s homes were destroyed.
The government did not control Kathmandu’s Valley’s rapid reconstruction. In the absence of any building code, nearly all development took place without consideration of seismic force concerns. Brian Tucker witnessed the effects of this rapid growth during several visits over the last two decades.
“Kathmandu’s side streets were so narrow that walking down them you felt that you could touch the buildings on both sides with your outstretched arms,” Tucker recalls. “And the unreinforced brick buildings rose on both sides above you for many stories. They made any seismologist or structural engineer shudder.”
When GeoHazards International began working in Nepal in 1997, the country’s population was growing at a rate of 6.5%. Kathmandu Valley had one of the highest urban densities in the world, with 1.5 million people. By 2013, the population had grown to 2.5 million.
Opportunity rising from the ruins
Although future earthquakes are certain, future fatalities and destruction on the level that we are seeing today are not.
“Providing shelter quickly for all the homeless is a priority,” notes Tucker. “At the same time, we have a fantastic opportunity to use this construction activity to train local masons on earthquake-resistant construction methods.”
GeoHazards International specializes in mitigation and preparation before disasters, not post-disaster recovery and reconstruction. There is, however, a relationship between the two. If foreign organizations insist that their funding be used only to raise buildings that are designed and constructed according to modern codes, they will help ensure that Nepal rides through the next major earthquake with minimal fatalities.