Challenges for reconstruction

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Post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation include a complex process that involves the interaction of social, technological and economic factors. It is quite obvious that in countries like Nepal with weak governance, reconstruction efforts may be hampered through institutional bureaucracy, corruption, inadequate coordination, inexperience of construction management and pressures from government and humanitarian agencies.

As the post-disaster situation is often characterized by many issues such as inaccessibility, inadequate financial and human resources, logistical issues, harsh social environment, post-disaster reconstruction works in developing countries deal with uncertainties and complexity. For successful reconstruction, it should be defined, planned, and implemented in stages. Post-disaster reconstruction can lead to further vulnerabilities if it is not well-planned and executed. In case of reconstruction after 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka, lack of reconstruction framework in institutions and legislation, policy and reliable data affected housing targets and reconstruction plans, and led to systemic confusion and, ultimately, delayed reconstruction. Top-down relocation plan and construction of contractor-driven mass housing without social consultation resulted in numerous abandoned houses in Bhuj, Gujarat. Lack of interface between community and the reconstruction authority, inaccessibility, lack of awareness, manpower shortage, knowledge gap and socio-cultural issues were pointed out as key challenges for reconstruction in Pakistan after 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Lack of coordination and commitment and policy and institutional framework had resulted conflict amongst the different stakeholders and led to duplication of works and inefficient utilization of funds after 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. Studies of post-disaster construction works after 2003 Bam earthquake, Iran and 2004 Tsunami, Sri Lanka concluded that inadequate funding and public participation are the key challenges in delaying the reconstruction works and resumption of normal life. Extent of the destruction, weak and dysfunctional government institution, complex urban landscape, lack of security, large number of aid actors involved and large military presence have been highlighted as the challenges facing Haiti reconstruction.

The 2015 Gorkha earthquake is one of most devastating disasters in the modern history of Nepal. This article tries to explain briefly the challenges in reconstruction after 2015 Gorkha earthquake based on our geography, social, economic and political conditions, educational system and existing construction technologies.

One of the major challenges faced in the reconstruction process of Nepal is the absence of elected local government. Lack of government in local level was reflected in the major pre-disaster and post-disaster events, where it took months to reach the affected region and still no widely-accepted data is available. In the absence of an elected local government, top-down approach of governance has its own accountability deficit.

Nepal’s weak institutional framework for disaster management has been clearly proven to be ineffective and inefficient during and after the earthquake. In 2009, National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management (NSDRM) had been approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which basically stratifies the level of institutions into central, sub-national, district and local levels. Though these different levels have been identified in the strategy paper, no significant implementation has been observed for pre-disaster preparedness. Developing effective coordination within the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA)—between the NRA, local governments, and line agencies as well as between the NRA and other development organization—has been a continuing challenge in the process. The engagement of many institutional actors—several ministries, I/NGO, districts, municipalities and VDCs —particularly in the reconstruction process, meant huge coordination difficulties.

Although assistance from outside of the community is often welcome and sometimes necessary as a “catalyst” for successful reconstruction, it must not take on a lead role. Foreign aid can expedite development but cannot, in itself, develop poor nation. The same applies to reconstruction. Reconstruction is a very specialized work, needs a large number of technical manpower and experts. No I/NGO in Nepal has or can manage such a high number of technical manpower as most of these I/NGOs have been working on awareness and social issues.

Nepal is suffering from weak governance and corruption because of a decade-long political transition. Political instability, nepotism, clientelism, and lack of accountability prevail in the society, and corruption is perceived to be a major concern. As previous reconstruction experiences in developing countries like Nepal also have indicated, politicization of the process has always been the main obstacle to the provision of timely, effective, and sustainable solutions. This is largely because the post-disaster reconstruction process relies on ad hoc laws, and is led by regional and district government structures.

Existing social problems such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment before earthquake have increased vulnerability of people and deflated people's interest to accelerate the reconstruction, especially to build seismic-resistant residential building. Preliminary estimates suggest that an additional the percent of the population has been pushed into poverty as a direct result of the earthquakes. They do not have access to or cannot afford modern materials such as cement and steel to build earthquake-resistant building. Furthermore, the cost is exacerbated by transportation costs.

Lack of public awareness is another subcategory causing problems for people at the time of disaster and even during reconstruction. Lack of advanced knowledge and skills to respond and recover from a disaster, and the current level of education of public rendered them incapable of playing an active role in the process. Although the area is seismically highly active, the frequency of large earthquake is very low. That is the reason of a severe lack of awareness at all levels of society.

The earthquake area is spread over 10,000 square kilometers and is mostly in very rugged, high altitude, that is remote and with low accessibility. In some cases, it takes over one day by road to travel from one end of the affected district to the other. The terrain makes transporting construction materials an impossible task in most of the areas.  

It was predicted that the reconstruction efforts would require some 10,000 skilled manpower that included engineers, foremen, masons, and carpenters, and another 40,000 semiskilled/unskilled workers. Developing manpower on this scale is in itself a mammoth task. The Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) estimated that only 20% of the needed human resources could be met with Nepal’s existing resources.

The construction workforce, in general, lacked knowledge of earthquake-resistant technology because it has never been considered as an integral part of general engineering education in Nepal. The building-construction mechanism is mostly vernacular, non-formal, incremental in nature, and dictated by local availability of construction materials. The engineering community does not know much about these construction types. The building practices change rapidly with changes in local availability of materials, culture, and economic status of the building owners. Thus, it is neither possible to strictly standardize everything, nor would it be appropriate. Furthermore, the academic institutions appear to be more apathetic toward both non-engineered materials and traditional technologies which is quite an injustice to cultural inheritance of vernacular technology.

Nepal has long struggled to meet government expenditure targets even without the additional post-disaster pressures. For instance, it managed to spend only one-quarter of the capital expenditure budget for roads, dams and other infrastructures in 2015/16. As of September 2016, spending by the NRA has lagged well behind the budget. The inability of the NRA to achieve its reconstruction target is reflected in the planned budget for NRA operations. The NRA has spent about Rs 21 billion for reconstruction so far against the budgetary allocation of Rs 91 billion for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the bulk of which reflected underspending in the areas of housing, infrastructure, and land-use coordination. One widely mentioned reason for spending delays was said to be the Nepal government’s commitment to careful details and accurate household damage survey in the affected districts. As committed to donor agencies, NRA has finished the survey of household in districts affected by the second major earthquake except the districts in the Kathmandu Valley. This explanation, however, was not well-received at the local level. What the locals perceived is that they have not received the things that were promised to them by the NRA. People still living in temporary shelters feel that they should by now have been able to move into permanent housing, and farmers feel that their operations should, by this stage, have returned to normal. Second, this continuing under-expenditure naturally begs the question of whether the NRA will be able to execute planned budgets into the future. A German MP, Dagmar Wöhrl who visited Nepal in March 2016, pointed out that “spending merely 13 percent of foreign support is not simply enough”.

The most crucial factor in reducing a community’s risk from an earthquake is the adoption and enforcement of up-to-date building codes and land-use planning. To survive and remain resilient, communities must strengthen their core infrastructure and critical facilities so that these can withstand an earthquake or other disasters, and continue to provide essential services. The government had decided to implement the Nepal building code in Kathmandu Valley in 2002. However, nearly 90 percent of homes in Kathmandu have not received the “construction conclusion” certificate, only because their homes do not meet building codes of Nepal. There does not exist an effective building monitoring and site-enforcement mechanism for implementing and enforcing the building code—even in the Kathmandu Valley and municipalities, let alone in the rural ones.

Land-use planning after a mega earthquake can be instrumental in reducing future seismic risks. It should be a significant part of reconstruction. Reconstruction on a large scale without land-use planning will not be sustainable and long-lasting. Be it the typology of houses they require or settlement pattern they seek to live in; be it the technological intervention they can adopt in construction process or construction materials they are more familiar with; it is very important to plan as per the ground root reflection.

The lack of demographic information was significantly noted during the rescue and distribution of relief materials and fund. Immediately after the disaster, a preliminary assessment often referred to as rapid assessment or situation assessment was conducted to obtain an early but full assessment of the geographical extent of damage, the number, categories, location, and circumstances of the disaster-affected population took months to acknowledge, even those statistics are not widely accepted. Due to lack of statistical system, some people residing as a temporary resident could not get any relief material and fund. They will be deprived from the special fund or loan provided by the government to build earthquake-resistant house and many other privileges for earthquake victims.

No attention has been primarily paid to livelihoods such as agriculture, husbandry, employment and other social issues by the government and I/NGOs. This has led to intensification of social uncertainty and confusion in the earthquake-affected areas. As indicated in the Post-Disaster Recovery Framework (PDRF), around US$ 270 million is required for rehabilitation project in sectors like agriculture, livestock and irrigation.

Many existing structures including residential buildings located in the devastated areas survived the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, but are inadequate based on current seismic design codes. Massive demolition and replacement of these vulnerable buildings is neither affordable nor feasible due to historical, cultural, social, and economic constraints. Retrofitting is a very relevant technique to restore as well as strengthen the existing undamaged buildings which are otherwise weak against earthquake likely to occur in the future. Though, there is both financial and technical support for new construction there is no support or guidance for retrofitting of the large number of partially-damaged houses. It is also important to build confidence among the local community in the effectiveness of earthquake-resistant technology; with a special focus on retrofitting at minimum additional cost. The retrofitting program cannot be neglected because carrying on such programs is essential for economic, political and social reasons.

Effective institutions, good governance, integrated and comprehensive information, public participation along with short-term and long-term strategies to tackle with technical issues are some crucial factors for timely and quality reconstruction in the context of Nepal.