Local partners key to building back better in Nepal

People whose homes were destroyed by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake build their own temporary shelters in Sangachowk in Nepal. The key to the success of any rebuilding effort in Nepal is being able to understand and work with local communities. Photo by: Jake Lyell / Catholic Relief Services / CAFOD / CC BY-NC-ND

With more than half a million homes destroyed and 2.8 million people displaced, Nepal is faced with a mammoth task of rebuilding structures that were damaged and destroyed by late April’s powerful earthquake.

While aid agencies are still rushing tarpaulins to the most isolated Himalayan villages to get people under shelter before the monsoon hits in a few weeks, talk has turned to “building back better.”

“Certainly this response will be very ground-level,” with Nepalese nongovernmental organizations expected to lead long-term community building at the grass roots, shelter cluster coordinator Victoria Stodart from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told Devex. “If we just come in as the international crew and don’t engage with local and national NGOs then our response may not be contextually appropriate.”

Engaging local organizations is crucial because they are familiar with Nepalese authorities who are managing relief efforts and can speak local languages, Stodart said. NGOs implementing projects on the ground, for instance, need to coordinate with local chief district officers and village development committees, which approve projects and assign areas to work in. And “at the district levels, meetings will be in Nepalese,” the shelter cluster coordinator added.

But while knowledge of local government and languages is important, the key to the success of any rebuilding effort in Nepal is being able to understand and work with local communities, Nepalese NGOs engaged in the U.N. shelter cluster stressed.

“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 NGO Lumanti, told Devex. Established in 1993, Lumanti works on housing and community empowerment.

“People have to be involved quite strongly,” Eklabya Sharma, program operations director at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, added. Otherwise, they will not be persuaded to accept the new or rebuilt structures. Buildings that aren’t sensitive to Nepal’s diverse communities simply “will not be used later on.”

For instance, traditional designs are still widely preferred, with some affected communities openly rejecting living in “modern” buildings, Manandhar said. So instead of forcing contemporary, quake-proof structures on these communities, Lumanti is “thinking about how we can maintain heritage designs and then make it more resilient,” she explained.

Lumanti is also working with local community groups, providing technical assistance and raising awareness about safe building, while helping construct temporary shelters using CGI sheets, salvaged materials and bamboo, which grows locally.

Technology needs to suit the local context too

Importing new technologies for rebuilding needs to be weighed with caution, according to Bijay Upadhyay, a director at the National Society for Earthquake Technology, a nonprofit founded in 1994 working on earthquake and hazard risk reduction.

“There might be very easy ways of giving shelter by providing a very fast and high-tech solution,” Upadhyay said. But for him it is more important that technologies are sustainable, and could be replicated and produced inside Nepal.

NSET is assisting the government in reviewing building regulations — construction on buildings higher than two stories has been put on hold beginning May 18, pending the release of a new building code. But lax enforcement is seen as more of a problem than ineffective rules, with authorities coming under fire in the wake of the disaster for allowing builders to flout norms.

Technology also needs to be tailored to local conditions, which vary considerably across the 14 worst-affected districts, ICIMOD’s Sharma said. Technology that might be good for flatland and plains, for instance, might not be suitable for use in the mountains, he explained. ICIMOD, an intergovernmental group founded in 1983 to build knowledge on Himalayan environments, is mapping damage and areas destabilized by tremors that are now at risk of landslides and flooding.

“There are many villages which need to be relocated,” Sharma said, adding that the full details of those needing to be moved and potential relocation sites would be revealed in early June, after its rapid reconnaissance survey is submitted to the government. ICIMOD is planning to run integrated rebuilding projects and is searching for partners specializing in shelter.

NSET is also advocating for the use of salvaged materials in its draft temporary shelter concept. Upadhyay said this was partly driven by sourcing and funding constraints in Nepal.

“We can’t spend all our resources on temporary shelter when so much will be needed for rebuilding,” he said. But Manadhar pointed out that “in some places the whole community has collapsed and they can’t salvage any material,” meaning it has to be procured.

Nepal’s government has estimated the overall damage at $10 billion — nearly half the country’s gross domestic product of $19.2 billion. Full-scale reconstruction is not expected to start until the end of the year, when the frigid Himalayan winter sets in and the government is due to release its national reconstruction plan.

Until then, the focus will be on building temporary shelters using sturdier materials, such as corrugated galvanized iron sheets, to keep people dry throughout monsoon. Long-term rebuilding is expected to take up to five years to complete. Nepal’s Minister for Information and Communication Minendra Rijal said the government hoped to see temporary shelter reaching “even the most far out villages” within a month.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Alys Francis

    Alys Francis is a freelance journalist covering development and other news in South Asia for international media outlets. Based in India, she travels widely around the region and has covered major events, including national elections in India and Nepal. She is interested in how technology is aiding development and rapidly altering societies.

Join the Discussion