Nepal Earthquake: The loss of much more than just a home
Earthquakes, perhaps more than any other type of disaster, are a shelter disaster. In Nepal this is more the case than any disaster I’ve known – but the effects of the earthquake are far from simple, and the knock-on effects go beyond people just lacking a roof over their heads.
During the second major earthquake, just under three weeks after the first one, I was in a meeting room on the fourth floor of CARE Nepal’s office. The earthquake was a frightening and surreal experience. The solidity of the floor that I took for granted was replaced by erratic and violent movement; the building felt like it was made of rubber. High-pitched earthquake alarms were going off, and we could hear screams from the street outside.
As we all dropped to the floor and held on to anything we could find, it was the deep terror on the faces of everyone else that made me realize this was serious.
For me it was still a surprise, but everyone else in the room had been through it before – and fear is infectious.
The physical injuries and losses are not the only damage. In earthquakes, houses which normally provide their occupants with warmth, comfort, safety and security, become instruments of destruction. The psychological effect of your place of safety becoming one of danger is serious.
People in Nepal are scared of their own homes and afraid of the very land they live off.
Nepal’s climate is pretty extreme. It gets very hot and humid over the summer months, with torrential rains during the monsoon (it’s hard to imagine for those who have not experienced it). In winter, temperatures plummet to below zero. Without decent houses to protect people, they are exposed to these variations in the elements.
But their buildings are not just for this. Rural Nepali houses in the areas hit hardest by the earthquakes are typically built of mud and stone, and often have space for livestock on the ground floor and living space on the first floor. Food stores are frequently kept in the roof spaces.
The effect of a house collapsing can therefore be that people lose their homes, their livestock, their food stores, and all and any possessions they have.
The effects of losing your home become compounded by potentially long-term lack of food and income. Because of this, recovery of decent, safe houses is critical both for people’s physical and psychological well-being and for people’s livelihoods.
Building new houses they can trust is the top priority of nearly all the victims of the earthquake, and it’s the job of CARE and other humanitarian agencies to help people do this.
A traditional Nepali stone house with space for livestock on the ground floor; a partially collapsed house with ruined food stores in the roof space; an elderly couple trying to salvage millet grains from the mud and dust. Photos © CARE/Tom Newby
Following the emergency response, which aims to get people under basic but dignified shelter and ensure access to food, water and sanitation, CARE will be working to provide affected people with the resources and the knowledge to re-build houses they can have faith in and in turn re-build their lives.
When you ask people what they need after the earthquake they nearly all say they need to know how to stop this happening again.
This is no easy task though, because although the technology exists to make buildings safe in earthquakes, the geography and lack of resources in Nepal make things very difficult.
Without road access it is not practical to get heavy materials like cement and reinforcing steel up the mountains to the villages where they are needed. Deforestation in Nepal is a major problem, and contributes to a vulnerability to flooding and landslides; using wood needs to be done responsibly and with great care.
Also, we don’t want to completely change Nepal’s way of building houses. Introducing brand new construction technologies where they are not known has proved a failure again and again. Houses in Nepal are stone and mud masonry because those are the available materials, and they happen to be perfect for the climate too. They also make Nepal very picturesque, which although it might seem unimportant on the face of it, is vital for the continuation of the tourist industry. So what do we do?
There are ways to greatly increase the robustness of stone masonry buildings.
The first is to increase the quality of the masonry itself, without changing any of the materials. Choosing the right stones for the right places is critical. For example, many of the buildings that collapsed didn’t connect the inner and outer leaves of the masonry. Building with through-stones (connecting the inner and outer walls) will make a big difference.
Making sure buildings are symmetrical and well-proportioned is also key to ensuring earthquake resilience, as is avoiding long or very high walls without cross-walls to stop them falling over. Where available, simple wood banding around the building, or steel reinforcement at the corners, can be added without needing truck-loads of materials.
As Nepal recovers, CARE will be providing locally appropriate technical support to help people know how to build stronger houses, coupled with material assistance to the most vulnerable people who don’t have enough resources.