Building Safely to Prevent Loss of Life

May 1, 2015

Destruction caused by the 25 April earthquake in Nepal

The brutal choreography of Saturday morning’s earthquake in Nepal carries important lessons about the rules of construction.

Walking through Kathmandu neighborhoods such as Basantpur’s Durbar Square, it is not just old buildings that have fallen but modern ones too, with many more damaged. But other structures, old and new, were able to withstand the shocks.

The Kathmandu Valley, that encompasses three districts, is defined by three categories of building stocks: historic old buildings, buildings built prior to the 1988 earthquake, and those with framed structures built after 1988.

Preliminary assessments by government officials indicate that the buildings that experienced the most damage were in the first two categories. Most of the concrete reinforced buildings in the third category, built after 1988, remain standing and seem relatively intact.

Following the 1988 earthquake, Nepal’s government sought to formulate the National Building Code (NBC), with support from the United Nations Development Programme. In 2011, after yet another earthquake, efforts to help implement the building code were heightened, with funding from UK Aid. While effective building code compliance is still a major challenge, the push for building better may well have made a difference.

“It is too early to tell how much these efforts contributed in minimizing loss of lives and properties in the recent earthquake, but initial assessments seem to indicate that a majority of buildings that were destroyed were either built prior to the formulation and implementation of the safe building code, or did not adhere to it,” said Ramraj Narasimhan, a Disaster Risk Reduction expert with UNDP.

He adds that since Nepal is one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world, the objective now is to try to ensure that no lives are lost by making sure that all infrastructure, especially housing, is built better and is resilient to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters.

“Up to 80 percent of buildings in Nepal are owner built and they employ masons not formally trained in building processes,” said Naresh Giri, a UNDP project officer specializing in the implementation of safe building codes.

Padma K. Mainalee, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Urban Development, says: “The current earthquake painfully underscores the need to effectively implement the safe building code. My ministry, as a custodian of the National Building Codes, has been long advocating for effective compliance.”

The implementation of the Electronic-Building Permit System (e-BPS) in two cities in the Kathmandu valley has made enforcing the building code easier. The development of the system was supported by the UNDP.

UNDP advocacy has also contributed to the central bank of Nepal directing all banks and financial institutions to invest only in construction that complies with the safe building codes. Banks also no longer provide mortgages for home buyers unless a house has been retrofitted. And the government is also being supported in developing retrofitting guidelines that will be integrated into building codes.

In a continuing effort to have homes built better, more than 900 masons have been trained in earthquake resilient construction techniques. And local bodies, such as municipalities and village development committees are also being trained to enforce safe building standards.

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