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Lessons from the Nepal earthquake - Time to act for resilience planning and design

12 May 2015

Dr Kishan Datta Bhatta

A devastating earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale has badly hit Kathmandu valley and nearby regions in Nepal causing serious damage [this blog was written before the second earthquake on 11th-12th May 2015]. More than 7,600 people died, 16,000 injured, 350,000 houses damaged or destroyed and 8 million people affected were reportedly affected by the earthquake. It has not only destroyed rural settlements but also ruined Kathmandu valley’s centuries-old heritage and monuments. Temples, stupas, towers and squares have been severely damaged or collapsed.

Although experts warned that earthquakes are known periodic events in Nepal, we did not prepare sufficiently for this latest event. Most casualties were due to the collapse of buildings and structures as well as landslides caused by the quake. It is a wakeup call for us to think critically on how to plan and design settlements and shelters that would be safe and resilient during disasters. As the quake has hit many settlements varying in geography, population density, and socio-economic characteristics, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of these settlements should be carried out with greater emphasis on the specific local context. Using local resources, minimizing future risks, and providing necessary services and opportunities at the grassroots level should be the criteria for rehabilitation. The time has come to build back better and use the opportunity of a disaster response to improve communities rather than just restore them. The key planning issues that need to be considered for long term resilience and sustainability are highlighted below.

Nepal 3

Picture: High-rise buildings damaged by the earthquake (author photograph).

Holistic approach to settlement planning: The systematic planning of settlements had neither been properly emphasized in the National Plans nor in the local development programs. The planning process has failed to address the need of resilience and risk management in settlements. Although there were some urban planning attempts in the past, cities are not fully planned and developed to respond to the predictable disaster and risks. Condition and accessibility and availability of open spaces and community awareness and preparedness towards disaster risks seems very poor. The devastation and casualties in the recent quake are due to the failure to incorporate risk and resilience into the long-term planning of settlements. Now we must think to plan responsible settlements that could produce a safe environment for the population, and they should have access to safe shelter as well as utilities, infrastructure and employment opportunities. Holistic approach to settlement planning that considers not only the construction of inclusive community housing but also local resilience and sustainability is indispensable.

The time has come to build back better and use the opportunity of a disaster response to improve communities rather than just restore them.

Implementation of proper design guidelines and standards: With increased urban densification, and rapidly expanding informal settlements and development, the lack of proper planning and design standards and their weak implementation has resulted into the poorly designed and constructed buildings which are in fact the real catastrophe rather than the earthquake. The Government’s ability to enforce standards and regulations for the planning and construction of buildings is relatively weak. Multi-storey buildings, poorly engineered structures, an over-reliance on concrete and a loss of knowledge that protected previous generations is also responsible for the recent devastation. It is usually agreed that earthquakes disproportionately affect the poorest in the community, and usually leave them even poorer. This is the case in Nepal as most of the low-cost and informal buildings both in urban and rural areas have collapsed.

Although modern technology and skills to practically eliminate this scale of fatality are available, they are not reaching the people who need them most. It shows that earthquakes are not just a 'natural' crisis - they reflect a poverty crisis too. So proper guidelines and standards for the different types of buildings should be prepared with specific reference to the geological, structural and local context. Their proper implementation would definitely make settlements and structures more safe and resilient.

Employing trained planners, engineers and contractors in (re)construction programmes: In a country with a GDP per capita less than $700 a year, many Nepalese build their buildings without employing trained planners, architects, engineers, and contractors. In the recent devastation, well-planned and engineered buildings did not collapse or suffer severe damaged, however poorly designed buildings have been badly affected. Unplanned construction and inadequate skills make buildings more vulnerable. Therefore we should not construct buildings and infrastructures in an ad-hoc manner, rather we must employ trained professionals and experts.

Delivering good governance through efficient planning institutions: Well prepared plans and designs are effective only when they are effectively implemented and monitored through efficient institutions. Although several institutions are responsible for planning and development, there exists weak coordination among them. Strong cooperation and coordination mechanisms amongst stakeholders is crucial to successfully carrying out resettlement and reconstruction activities. In addition, although planned development started in early 1960s, development plans often failed to achieve their goals. One of the major reasons is deficient planning and weak institutions. Capacity building, empowering local institutions through recruiting professional staff and developing proper funding mechanisms are crucial. The role of donor agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could be vital in providing financial assistance as well as technical support in terms of expertise in development, reconstruction, heritage management, disaster preparedness, and necessary training. In addition, local communities, institutions and political leaders have a significant role in resettlement and reconstruction. Ironically, for more than a decade there has been an absence of elected and accountable local government. In addition, the Government’s response towards risk management and preparedness seems sluggish. Thus local and national capacity building, political commitment, educational and awareness programmes to respond disasters are needed for long-term resilience and sustainability.

Promoting community/local strategies for long-term resilience and sustainability: Resilience and sustainability will also depend on the behaviour and activities of local people and institutions. The prevailing institutional and legal framework regarding development and construction has discouraged local communities to actively participate in the planning process. Making communities more aware of the issues of development, construction, resource utilization, heritage conservation, and local rights is essential to enhancing community-based development activities. International, NGO and community networks could play pivotal role in managing community discussions, encouraging participation and promoting community-based strategies for disaster risk management and resilience. The planning approach must be holistic and community-based. It should consider community needs and views with the highest priority and encompass proper land use, roads, open spaces, greenery and emergency relief services in order to withstand future disasters.

As the Government is planning for massive reconstruction, emphasis should be given to managing displacement and guiding sustainable rehabilitation and reconstruction. It should take into careful consideration the specific context of the affected areas as well as the evolving crisis situation. We could learn lessons from post crisis settlement planning and reconstruction programmes such as those conducted in the earthquake-hit countries such as Haiti, China and Japan. Such programmes should ensure that they are focused on making buildings, communities and settlements more resilient and sustainable in the long-run.

About Dr Kishan Datta Bhatta

Dr Kishan Datta Bhatta is an Assistant Professor at Nepal Engineering College, and a consultant Architect/Planner at Research For National Development (RND) Centre Pvt. Ltd, Nepal. He holds PhD degree in Urban Planning and Design from the University of Hong Kong. Dr Bhatta is a Licentiate member of the RTPI.