Blog: 13 July 2015Thoughts from a trip to Kathmandu

Peter Newton

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Peter Newton

Architectural Director

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This time two weeks ago my bags were packed and I began my travels to Kathmandu following the huge 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal back in April this year. An Architecture Sans Frontiers UK team and I took to the site of the disaster, helping the people of Kathmandu - starting with their homes - to rebuild their lives again.

ASF-UK is a UK registered charity co-founded by myself, set up to bridge the gap between the skills of built environment professionals and the skills needed to help in post-disaster scenarios and international development, to work with vulnerable people and settlements. The Nepal earthquake brought serious ruin to a country of 20 million people, and with only 550 registered architects between them.  The level of technical skills available to redesign and rebuild, simply put, cannot spread itself far enough to begin to provide enough support and resource for the scale of damage. With such a small percentage of the world having access to the expertise of architects, engineers, and to some extent town planners, it is essential that those of us who can, work together to make these skills more accessible.

To assist with this demand, our ASF-International network is setting up a technical support office made up of a selection of support workers from ASF Nepal and those in the ASF network who have experience in rebuilding in post-disaster scenarios such as Haiti or the Philippines, along with extending the opportunity to interns and volunteers.

The main focus on the visit, and the most eye opening element for me, was resilience. Particularly with climate change evolving, and the risk of natural disasters increasing all over the world, resilience is very much tied to finding ways for communities respond to shocks, stresses and disasters in countries at the highest risk.

The technical support office is focusing on two steps to recovery, with resilience at the forefront:

  • An important part of Nepalese culture is that people build their own houses. For this reason, Nepalese government is saying that it will not allow INGO’s (International Non-Governmental Organizations) to reconstruct their homes like we perhaps would in other areas of disaster. While we can help to rebuild the schools, health centers, nurseries, care homes and social infrastructure needed, we cannot build private housing. We are currently working with our Nepalese colleagues towards creating a set of easy to understand guidelines, clearly illustrated for those whom English is not their first language. Nepal does have its own building codes, but these are not particularly accessible. We are therefore creating and distributing these guidelines that are consistent with the codes. They will consist of the latest thinking on how to build in a seismic-resistant way, setting out instructions on how to build using local materials; blocks, stone, earth, timber, in a way that is safe, thereby engraining the importance of building an environment as resistant as possible to future natural disasters, whilst remaining sympathetic to their culture.

  • Secondly, we are looking into the option of pulling together an example training programme for some of the more remote areas. This seeks to work with trained local masons or carpenters to introduce some of the more refined techniques needed for rebuilding in disaster situations, with the view to, in time, generating a network of people who have these skills embedded in what they do, making for a more skilled population.

The lessons learned about resilience building are of course very obvious in places like Kathmandu, after an earthquake, but they are not at the forefront of our minds here in the UK. Is resilience something we need to pay more attention to in developed economies?

Travels like these not only bring a huge sense of reward and the chance to do our bit, but they bring the chance to take away an entirely different view on the way we plan and build in our country. How long could it be until the way we plan and build our own towns and cities, needs to take into account resilience thinking and post disaster scenarios? It certainly has me thinking…

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Architecture Sans Frontieres, Architecture, Nepal