Nepal: Six months on, learning how to rebuild safer homes

Published: 18 October 2015 12:53 CET

Rosemarie North, IFRC

Stones are carefully stacked along many roads in the 14 districts in Nepal that were hardest hit by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck six months ago.

They have been salvaged from some of more than 900,000 houses damaged or destroyed in the worst earthquake since 1934, which killed 8,857 people.

People are thinking of the huge rebuilding task ahead, but they know it’s no quick-fix, says Swiss Red Cross shelter expert Regina Wenk, who is helping to run a training programme for masons, carpenters and ordinary community members in how to build back safer.

There are four or five key factors that will help make a house resist future earthquakes.

What counts are things like the size of windows and doors - and how close they are to the corner of the house corners, using horizontal beams made of hard wood to segment walls and dissipate seismic energy, or creating walls with stones facing in different directions so it won’t collapse as easily in a future disaster.

People are receptive to the training, said Ms Wenk. “These are important points to learn. One man told me he recognized his mistakes when he demolished the remains of his house. That was very encouraging for us to know.”

Nepal Red Cross Society field officer and engineer Amit Pokharel said, “You can see how some buildings which were constructed properly survived the earthquake. Basically our aim is to teach construction techniques that prevent the total collapse of houses and ensure that people don’t get harmed.”

There is high demand for the training, which will help people not only rebuild their own houses, but also earn a living helping others in their community to rebuild theirs.

In the 1970s, Dolakha farmer and stone mason Les Bahadur Raut built his two-storey stone house himself. It was damaged in the April earthquake and collapsed in the May earthquake, killing his elderly mother.

“We didn’t have proper knowledge of building houses. We didn’t know the proper way to use wooden beams,” he said.

He has already started construction training.

“I’ve signed up for both carpentry and masonry training. They’re training us to build long-term houses in our traditional style, using wooden beams, L-shaped panels and locally available stones. We really like the training.”

The disaster damaged or destroyed 900,000 houses so shelter has always been a priority for the huge earthquake response carried out by the Nepal Red Cross Society with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and dozens of sister Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake the urgent task was to distribute tarpaulins and toolkits to provide people with basic shelter. In total, the Red Cross distributed tarpaulins, and toolkits kits to help 360,000 people build their own emergency shelters. The Red Cross also gave people advice about salvaging or using locally available materials and how to string up a tarpaulin without it ripping.

The country’s task of repairing or rebuilding is enormous. Negotiating land tenure can be complex; the logistics involved in transporting quality building materials to remote communities is costly; and many of the able-bodied young people needed to help have migrated to the capital or abroad for work – ironically often on building sites.

It’s clear a coordinated approach is needed. The IFRC and the Nepal Red Cross Society, together with the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, lead the Nepal Shelter Cluster, under which 120 partner agencies involved in shelter coordinate and share information.

But given the size of the task, support from the Nepal Red Cross and other agencies will be needed for years to come.

 Watch Les Bahadur Raut talk about his plans for the future.