Material benefitsUse of locally available resources in the reconstruction process will help revive the rural economy
The April 25 earthquake and its aftershocks have destroyed thousands of residential and community buildings all over Nepal. It is almost five months since the earthquake and although the government has made a few efforts, the reconstruction works are yet to begin. Due to this delay, the earthquake victims in the villages are worried on how to reconstruct their houses in a manner that is cost effective, comparatively stronger and within their financial capacity. As building structures in the rural areas have been affected the most, there are few things that should be considered by the government before starting reconstruction in those villages.
Most of the constructions in the villages, either residential houses or community buildings, were built by using traditional knowledge and skills, with locally available materials like stones, mud, wood and bamboo. Though in recent times the villagers have been competing with one another to build modern structures, by giving up their traditional ways, it seems that the earthquake has effectively conveyed the logic behind the traditional method of constructing buildings. One of the positive aspects of those traditionally built structures, which have now collapsed, is that almost all the construction materials of the damaged houses are reusable. The wooden objects like frames of windows and doors, tham (main wooden pillar), nidal (main wooden beam), and dalin (cross beam) can be used again. Also, unlike in pillar system houses, it was very easy to extract these materials and separate them into usable and unusable pieces. The second lesson that the villagers learnt from the traditional houses were that these structures do not collapse at once; one could see an almost intact dhuri (sloped roof of zinc, tile, straw or grass) even if the other side of the wall had collapsed. Villagers were thus able to retain not only the grains preserved for the future, but also utensils and other household materials. Due to all these reasons, it was easier for the villagers to build temporary structures. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult not only for the villagers but also for the government to respond to the crisis. Third, these structures not only helped to decrease human casualties but also eased the rescue process. Locals with modern pillar system houses had to wait for heavy machines—cranes, excavators and bulldozers—to rescue people who were trapped inside the buildings, whereas the rescue operation was much more efficient when it came to traditionally built structures.
The roofs and floors of the traditional houses are mostly made of wood and mud, which are comparatively lighter than concrete. Thus, there is an urgent need to have a comparative perspective on different building models suitable for villages in Nepal. If we can modify the traditional structures with modern engineering techniques, it will make buildings in the rural areas more durable and earthquake-resistant.
While planning reconstruction activities in a community, the concerned authorities should keep the available resources, social constructs, and social psychology of its inhabitants in mind. In any case, the government has only committed to a grant of Rs 200,000 so people are likely not to have much money for reconstruction. Though there is a provision of loans at a subsidised interest rate, it excludes most of the rural inhabitants as they do not have enough collateral evidence to access it. So villagers are likley to either build traditional houses by using locally available and reusable construction materials or borrow money to build modern pillar system houses. It would be better to rebuild the houses in a traditional manner as it could create employment for the locals. This might even decrease youth labour migration from the village to urban areas or abroad. In case people are encouraged to build modern concrete structures, the rural market might not benefit from it. People could be forced to migrate to repay the money borrowed for building cemented structures. So while the new construction guidelines seeks to promote the use of local construction materials and skills, there is a need to ensure its implementation.
However, we do not mean to argue that the traditional houses are better than ‘modern’ houses. But given the circumstances, villagers might not be able to afford such buildings due to the limited support from the government, their own financial capability, lack of availability of construction materials and skills at the local level. Furthermore, construction materials such as cement, steel, wire, glass, make upto 70 percent of the cost required for a pillar system house. And since most of these materials need to be imported into the villages, it will become a costly affair. Contrary to this, modified traditional houses allow us to mobilise most of the money at the village level to hire local labourers, masons and carpenters, and to buy local construction material like mud (clay), uncooked bricks, stones, raw timbers. This could ensure sustainable reconstruction and strengthen the rural economy of Nepal as well.
Adhikari is chairperson of South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy and Pyakurel teaches political sociology at the School of Arts, Kathmandu University