First things first: Rebuilding right and rebuilding better in Nepal

By Liana Barcia 20 August 2015

Volunteer Bryce Harris with Bhubaneswari Parajuli of the National Society for Earthquake Technology, inspect the reconstruction of a school building in Kathmandu, Nepal. Concerted efforts by international humanitarian and development organizations, local partners and the government are needed in rebuilding the country. Photo by: Jim Holmes / AusAID / CC BY

The cost of the damage brought about by Nepal’s massive twin earthquakes, which took place April 25 and May 12, is estimated to be at around $10 billion — or half of the country’s gross domestic product in 2014.

While large infrastructure such as the main airport, dams and communication and electricity networks endured the back-to-back disasters, hundreds of cultural heritage sites and more than 500,000 houses were destroyed — displacing millions of people and leaving development organizations, the Nepalese government and the international community with the gargantuan task of reconstructing and rebuilding the country.

At a donor conference in Kathmandu in June, international donors pledged to provide $4.4 billion of the $6.7 billion needed to fuel the reconstruction and recovery efforts in Nepal. And as the country moves from immediate disaster relief toward the recovery phase, there is much talk about “rebuilding right” and “building back better.”

But what exactly does this entail, and what should be prioritized during these early stages? Below, we list three crucial things needed to lay the proper groundwork for rebuilding Nepal.

1. Temporary support for the most vulnerable households.

While thousands of Nepalese households have been living in temporary camps where they rely on humanitarian providers for food, water, education and health care, there are still many more living in their pre-crisis communities, mostly within two minutes from their damaged homes. A shelter and settlements vulnerability assessment prepared by the REACH initiative and the humanitarian shelter cluster found that households with lower incomes and rurally based livelihoods, as well as those headed by females, are among the most vulnerable.

According to the report, female-headed households are more likely to “report feeling unsafe in their current shelter, less likely to report that their shelter was prepared for the forthcoming monsoon or winter seasons, and less likely to have begun repair or reconstruction of their shelters.”

Shelter cluster vulnerability criteria must be used to determine the delivery of shelter assistance to guarantee that the neediest Nepalese are not left behind.

“There are still [emergency] distributions and we need to ensure that these have reached everyone who [needs] them, including people living in remote locations, who are vulnerable or hard to access,” Tom Bamforth, national hub coordinator for the Nepal shelter cluster of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Devex. “This includes cash grants, roofing materials, such as tarpaulins and [corrugated galvanized iron] sheets in particular.”

With winter only a few months away, humanitarian agencies must also prioritize preparation of “winterization packages,” especially for households in the northern districts where temperatures can reach 5 degrees Celsius or below in January.

2. Clear reconstruction guidelines and policies.

To ensure that Nepalese households build back their houses better than before, shelter cluster partners must actively disseminate information on proper reconstruction practices. However, before they can do this, the Nepalese government must first come up with a clear, consolidated set of reconstruction standards.

“This is so that people can have certainty about what support they will receive and so that humanitarian agencies can develop and implement training packages in housing reconstruction and building techniques,” Bamforth said.

The greater the delay in issuing clear policy on reconstruction, the greater the risk that more people will build back using the same failed techniques. Another danger is that communities may rush to adopt new material technologies, which they do not fully understand or which may not be appropriate for certain topographies, leaving them at risk from similar disasters in the future.

Aside from tailor-fitting reconstruction techniques and standards to each district or community’s unique topography, these must also take into consideration Nepal’s varying degrees of urbanization.

“Different areas have quite different needs and the main division is between rural and urban approaches to housing,” Bamforth said. “Urban environments are in many ways more complicated and policy that addresses urban reconstruction — including of heritage sites — and the needs of renters, host families and urban displaced living in tents needs to be developed quickly.”

3. Input from local partners.

International humanitarian and development organizations must work closely with local partners to ensure recovery and reconstruction efforts are not duplicated, and that they are done in a manner that is safe, sustainable and respectful to the country’s heritage.

“Communities have their own ways of thinking, their own styles of designing [and] we need to listen to them,” Lajana Manandhar, executive director of national nongovernmental organization Lumanti, told Devex in a previous interview.

She explained that some affected communities openly reject “modern” buildings and will only accept traditional designs, challenging those involved in the reconstruction process to maintain heritage designs while at the same time making them more resilient. Local partners can also help provide valuable insight into which technologies are sustainable, and can be easily replicated and produced inside Nepal.

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About the author

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Liana Barcia

Liana is a Manila-based reporter at Devex focusing on education, development finance and public-private partnerships and contributing a wide range of content featured in the Development Insider, Money Matters and Doing Good newsletters. She draws from her experience in business reporting and advertising to generate coverage that is engaging, insightful and relevant to the Devex community.

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