Earthquake reconstruction efforts in Nepal gather pace

Published: 6 October 2016 11:10 CET

For Pabitra Bhujel, life hasn’t been easy since her family home was destroyed in the 2015 Nepal earthquake. She has shared a temporary shelter with her mother-in-law and children.

“It’s been chilly in winter and boiling in the summer heat. When it rains, the drumming on the roof makes such a noise, it keeps us awake at night,” she said.

But for the widowed mother of three, the end is in sight as she stands in front of the building site where workmen are busy excavating the ground to begin the foundations of her new home.

Like most of the villagers in these green-carpeted hills overlooking the Sun Koshi river, about four hours drive southeast of Kathmandu, she says she hopes to finish the construction ahead of Nepal’s main annual holiday, Dashain, which is just getting under way.

Together with five of her neighbours, she began the work almost immediately after receiving the 50,000 Nepali rupee (468 US Dollars or 417 Euros) first tranche of a Red Cross cash grant aimed at helping with reconstruction.


Further instalments to come 

Once the foundations are complete and government engineers have checked that they meet national earthquake resistance guidelines, Pabitra, along with an estimated 6,000 other families being helped by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), will receive further instalments to finish the walls and the roof, making a total of NPR 300,000 (2,810 US Dollars or 2,503 Euros).

Moving in tandem with the Nepali government’s pledge to assist more than 500,000 households, the IFRC’s support for reconstruction is a multi-faceted approach.

“Now, all the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place, including training for masons, recruitment of engineers to give technical support to the survivors and social mobilisation for the reconstruction process,” says Max Santner, Head of the IFRC in Nepal.

“As well as supporting people to rebuild their homes, a very important part of our task is to provide additional help in the areas of health, livelihoods and improved water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure which can truly enable communities to become more resilient,” says Umesh Dhakal, Head of Earthquake Response Operations at the Nepal Red Cross Society.


Safety a live issue

In the communities scattered amid the hills above the village of Sithalpati, the issue of safety in face of the possibility of another earthquake, following the 7.8-magnitude temblor and its aftershocks last year, is very much a live one.

“I want to build a good strong house,” says 38-year-old carpenter Jhamka Bahadur Sarki as he watches a group of labourers at work on the foundations of his new home.

“One of the crucial things for earthquake resistance are bond stones,” explains Siva Thapa, 50,  who has been one of those training masons under a Red Cross programme to play a key part in reconstruction.

He points to large stones which are needed to anchor the walls in place along with the many smaller stones.

But inevitably there is a tension between the concern for safety and impatience to rebuild. This has resulted in a percentage of houses having already been built, without waiting for government certification - or grants from the government or Red Cross.


Engineers view completed homes

Although it is up to government construction inspectors to determine whether they are retroactively eligible for the grants or not, two Red Cross engineers say they have been asked by home owners to inspect some of the already-completed properties in the area. They haven’t always liked what they have seen.

“A number of them have issues such as the lintel posts being in the wrong place and the surface area of doors and windows exceeding the recommended 34 per cent maximum,” says one. )

It’s still not clear how the fate of these houses will be resolved.

But meanwhile work on those sites which Red Cross engineers have been involved with continues apace among the more than 800 families who are receiving cash grants from the Movement in this district.


Construction speed varies 

The speed of construction varies according to a range of factors, including the amount of resources each community has at its disposal. Nepal’s countryside remains criss-crossed by caste divisions. To ensure against any potential discrimination, the Nepal Red Cross Society’s social mobilisation officers are drawn from the different caste communities who predominate in each locality.

“It’s as much about social engineering as civil engineering,” says Laxman Chetry, IFRC’s senior construction coordinator and advisor.

On one hillside, Natra Prasad Dakal’s new home is progressing rapidly after only a few days with walls rising more than one meter high and the door frames already in place.

About a dozen labourers are working on the house, as against five or six in many of the other settlements.

Meanwhile 72-year-old grandmother of nine, Tula Maya Saru is still in the early stages of rebuilding with the excavation nearly complete but the foundations not yet started.

She was asleep when the earthquake struck last year and had to be helped out of the house by her family. Asked whether it has been a fractious time crammed into a temporary cottage with seven other family members, she doesn’t want to over-dramatise the experience, but says, “of course we have had quarrels and the two small kids have had their fights.”

All that will soon be eased, though. “I am very happy that we are soon to have a new home,” she beams.