Go Green Nepal

July 30, 2015 , by Sewa Bhattarai, Leave your thoughts
The country has moved on from the devastating April 25 earthquake of 7.9 magnitute. It has left the country's administration with a lot to ponder after several buildings collapsed at the compact settings and many cultural heritage sites were reduced to rubble. Nepal, as a nation, now faces a huge challenge to prepare itself from earthquake, practically.

Post April 25, there has been increasing focus on earthquake-resistant buildings. And that is when architects and engineers come handy with their expertise. Surya Bhakta Sangachhe is one of them. A veteran engineer, Sangache served at the Urban Development Ministry for more than thirty years before retiring as its Director General. With a degree in architecture and another in heritage conservation, Sangache is now a program manager at NSET (National Society for Earthquake Technology). After cathing up with Sangache, we are sharing you his expertise on protecting Nepal from the earthquake in future.

On our ancient structures

No one should lose their lives because of earthquake. For this, we need to be better prepared for earthquakes and build structures to resist it. For that we can look to our traditional settlements for inspirations. The pattern of settlements in Kathmandu, the temples, palaces, and houses, were mostly built in the Malla era. (We can’t really find Lichchhavi-era structures, though there have been many settlements). And wherever there are temples or palaces, there are big open spaces and chowks (open areas to meet). These open spaces are an inseparable part of our city, we need all of them. Our ancestors had built the city according to modern urban planning, things we seem to have forgotten. We have not made any new temples, neglecting the fact we require open spaces.

"Our ancestors had built the city according to modern urban planning, things we seem to have forgotten."
Photo: Niyukta Shrestha
On earthquake resistant buildings today

When the 1988 earthquake struck eastern Nepal, the government realized how disastrous a quake can be, and with the help of UN, created a building constructions code. The code was promulgated in 1994 as part of the Buildings Act. The code tells the structural engineers the way to build houses in a high seismic risk zone like Nepal in such a way that they withstand the forces released by during earthquakes.

Before 1994, no building construction code or rules were followed in Nepal, we did not have any. After 1994, the code has been followed by government buildings. Every building constructed by the Urban Development Ministry was built according to the code. But when it comes to residential purposes, the onus is on the municipality to enforce this code.

Due to our lack of manpower, the fact that we could not train engineers, build up the institutional capacity of municipalities, the code was not followed universally. Now after the Buildings Act, it is illegal to build without the building code, but because we were unable to make people feel the need for the code, construction of such buildings went on.

Source: Surya Bhakta Sangachhe
On the process of building

The masons who actually build the buildings should be trained with earthquake-resistant techniques. Engineers design houses and foremen oversee them, but it is the masons who do the actual building. The government has been imparting this training, and has produced 8,000-10,000 trained masons till date. NSET also imparts this training, we actually pay the laborers per day because one day of work loss means livelihood lost for the day for a wage laborer. NSET have produced 4,000 trained graduates from our five-day training sessions where we train 30 students at one time.

Trained masons have mostly gone abroad. It is good for them if they can find better work opportunities abroad, but it means that we lack the manpower we need to build houses right now. Since half a million houses were completely destroyed in the earthquake and 250,000 were partially destroyed, we need to build 750,000 houses now. We need at least 25,000 laborers, perhaps more, as each house takes at least four masons.

On safe communities

Since Nepal falls under a high seismic risk zone, we must be prepared for earthquakes. For that, just having earthquake-resistant houses is not enough. Of course, our houses must be built safely, following the models given by the government. But we also need to build the bridges, tanks and roads capable of withstanding earthquakes. There is need of massive expansion of roads so that in case of earthquake, people find a place to go. If the buildings collapse, there must still be a place to walk.

"If we take too much from the earth and do not give back, that is when we face disasters."
Source: Surya Bhakta Sangachhe
Currently, there are a lot of spaces locked up in Kathmandu due to the division of property. After the sons inherit the property of their deceased father, a big house is divided into two, three or four parts. Every son makes a different household in the house, completely with staircases. Four staircases in place of one waste space that could be used otherwise. The space gets further divided in the next generation, and further and further as time passes. In this way, our open spaces and chowks are being swallowed up.

We would not think of cutting up a TV in half and dividing it between two sons, but here in Kathmandu people have cut windows and doors into half. The solution to this is tearing down the cramped buildings and building a big one in places where people divide space according to floors. Or else, one can move away from ancestral property and live somewhere else. The point is, safe spaces for the community must not be compromised. 

Any free space that we have now must be well-planned. The difference between planned and unplanned areas is obvious even to the naked eyes; in unplanned spaces there are narrow lanes which can mean the death of entire communities during earthquake. We must learn from our ancestors who had the sense to put in chowks and open spaces even inside narrow lanes of the inner city areas like Indrachowk and Ason. 

On heritage conservation

Earthquakes are nothing new for Nepal, they happen every few years. Many of our ancestors knew how to build according to it, and hence many of our old heritage buildings have survived. The ones that survived this quake are the ones that were well repaired. Old buildings need to checked and repaired every once in a while. We have to replace the decayed woods, bricks and leaks.
When we sweep our house every day, the purpose is not only to clean it. When we sweep we also check every corner we see if there are cracks or damages. If you don’t do that, you never see what is going wrong.

Drawings used in renovation of Vaidya Chuka.
Source: Surya Bhakta Sangachhe
On green construction

In reconstructing heritage, everything that can be reused must be reused, so that you use as little of the earth’s resources as possible. What you have already taken out, you must reuse it. There are ways to reuse wood and mud, only concrete goes wasted.

For construction, it is best to use resources that are as natural as possible. Stone is better than wood, because bricks need energy. Concrete needs even more energy. Wood also needs energy but it may be expensive. The houses made from wood and mud may need more maintenance, perhaps every year, and the ones from concrete do not need so much maintenance. This may be the reason for the attraction to modern concrete buildings. But unlike concrete, wood can be recycled. It is best if we work according to the laws of nature. If we fight nature, if we take too much from the earth and do not give back, that is when we face disasters like floods and landslides.

Words by Sewa Bhattari.

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