How to rebuild a safer Nepal?

Salvaging furniture from the quake's wreckage in Nepal. In villages that were destroyed, most homes were made of unfired brick and clay mortar.

Lucinda Fleeson

is a former Inquirer reporter who was in Nepal training local journalists when the earthquake struck

In the collapsed village of Sankhu, 12 miles east of Kathmandu, most residents sleep in tents, but ignore police warnings and enter caved-in brick buildings that lean precariously over mounds of rubble. As rescue teams wielded shovels Wednesday to remove the last of 64 dead bodies, nearby residents salvaged bricks, stone blocks, and timber to reuse for the eventual and inevitable rebuilding.

"We have to rebuild. As soon as possible," said Gunkeshari Dangol, 45, standing in the alley next to the three-story brick house constructed by her grandfather. Her 10-year-old grandson lies entombed there until police can safely remove the child's body.

In Sankhu and throughout Nepal, people are still counting losses. Death tolls may head to 10,000 or more. Six of Kathmandu Valley's seven Unesco World Heritage sites, more than 57 other temples and palaces, and hundreds of thousands of houses have been reduced to rubble or have suffered deep wounds. The government on Thursday asked international rescue teams to return to their countries, as hope for miracles has faded.

Now, the government and people turn toward the question of how to rebuild.

And rebuild they must, says Bhesh Narayan Dahal, director general of Nepal's Department of Archaeology.

"It is our pride. It is our duty," he said vehemently, as he paced his office, waving in frustration a hastily compiled list of damaged historic buildings. He forecasts that, with international aid, the country's medieval and more recent monuments can be rebuilt in five to seven years.

"Build it back better" is the motto embraced by urban planners and disaster experts who have begun arriving in Kathmandu to inventory, assess, and make recommendations.

Whether a rebuilt Nepal will be better and stronger remains a question.

Examples abound of post-disaster construction built significantly safer, even using low-cost traditional timber and masonry construction that can provide more flexibility and resilience than brittle concrete. After a deadly quake killed 80,000 in the Pakistani part of Kashmir in 2005, the local building code was revised to include traditional methods of timber-laced construction. More than 150,000 houses using traditional timber have since been built in that damaged area, says Randolph Langenbach, a California-based international expert on earthquake-resistant construction.

About 80 percent of urban Kathmandu consists of modern structures, built over the last few decades, of reinforced concrete or masonry with concrete. Those buildings almost all survived, with minor cracks, according to the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET).

But the other 20 percent - mud-based structures with stone or brick - was hit hard. Throughout rural villages, where earthquake destruction neared 100 percent, almost all the houses are built with unfired brick and clay mortar.

NSET calculates that residents can build a safer house for only 5 percent to 10 percent in additional construction costs. Even a minimum of strategically placed timbers embedded into walls can provide flexibility to a swaying building and help hold it together.

Persuading people to do this can be a hard sell in a poor country. Since Nepal's building code was completed in 1994, NSET has provided technical assistance to only 25 of Nepal's 199 municipalities - and the guidelines are not enforced. "Adopting the building code was very difficult and controversial," acknowledged Surya Acharya, a civil engineer and one of NSET's five directors. Nepal has a lot of educating to do about building methods. "The masons need to be our messengers," he said.

After an earthquake, people often rush to use concrete, although that is not necessarily the answer.

NSET's Acharya speaks with great admiration of the ancient builders of Kathmandu's famous palaces and monuments, such as in Bhaktapur and Durbar Square, many of which suffered collapse or damage. "That building construction is amazing," he said with a shake of the head. "All the monuments were built with earthquake-safe technology, 400 years ago, using timber, brick, stone or mud, and lime. Those buildings survived many big earthquakes - this one was not so big."

Many of the historical structures even survived the last major earthquake here, in 1934. But materials weaken due to age and poor maintenance, he said.

Unfortunately, Nepalese residential-building traditions differ in disastrous ways from construction methods of nearby Himalayan countries of Bhutan and Kashmir, reports Langenbach, who has published studies of the three countries. Nepal's multistory masonry structures lack both complete timber frames or the timber runner beams seen in Kashmir, he says. As a result, the corners of the Nepalese masonry buildings are not tied together with timber laid into walls. They often consist solely of brick glued together by mud, gravity, and hope.

Nepal's elaborately carved wooden door and window lintels, cherished by antique lovers, also weaken structures. Instead of connecting at the corners to form a strong ring belt holding a building together, the lintels can contribute to fractures.

A few miles east of the village of Sankhu, the road climbs steep, terraced hills with mountain vistas sometimes shrouded by clouds. More than 2,500 houses collapsed in the Shangri-La-like farming village of Nangle. The quake killed 27 women who were inside their houses at 11:56 a.m., presumably cooking the noon meal; 11 men; and three water buffalo - prized cattle whose demise represents economic catastrophe.

Five adjoining houses on the village road now lay in a jumble of stone. A few splintered timbers poke through the rubble.

Nirmal Poudyal, Nangle's police assistant superintendent inspector, drew a sketch of how timbers had been used in those houses - four vertical supports in the center of the house, one horizontal beam across the top. Nothing close to the kind of timber grids used in neighboring countries that can make houses strong.

As Nepalese voice increasing criticism of slow government rescue and relief efforts, they also express skepticism about government advice on how to rebuild. Residents interviewed in Sankhu and Nangle said they had never heard of methods to create more resilient houses. "If government will help, we'll listen," said Jit Badhur Tamang, 28, who used to live in one of the flattened houses. "If not, we'll build ourselves."


Contact Lucinda Fleeson at Rojita Adhikari contributed to this story in Kathmandu.