This blog was written by Simon Rushton, Julie Balen, Jonathan Joseph, Jiban Karki, Martina McGuinness and Sarita Panday. 

Two years ago, we wrote a blog about the problems being faced in reconstructing Barpak, the village at the epicenter of the massive Nepal earthquakes of 2015.

A year after those earthquakes, the Government of Nepal’s National Reconstruction Authority had approved a series of designs for earthquake resistant houses. People who rebuilt their houses according to one of those designs could qualify for a government grant to support the work.

But the implementation of that policy was meeting with huge problems. The grant available wasn’t enough to cover the cost of building, and most families didn’t have the resources to make up the gap. The approved designs took a long time to appear, and many had given up waiting, instead rebuilding their old (non-earthquake resistant) houses from the stones of their collapsed homes. And low levels of trust in government left many doubting whether the government grants would actually materialize, even if they followed the new designs. In short, the centerpiece of the government’s attempts to create more resilient communities was failing to translate into effective action on the ground.

Two years on, some of those problems have eased. But by no means all. Although the money has started to flow, there are still 18,000 households on the government’s ‘vulnerable’ list, who still haven’t been able to rebuild their homes. Many more argue that they should be on the list, but aren’t.

But in the earthquake-affected communities of Gorkha and Sindhupalchok where we have been working as part of our ESRC-DFID funded project ‘Resilience Policymaking in Nepal: Giving Voice to Communities’, a new area of dissatisfaction is emerging around whether the new housing designs actually meet their needs.

To address the problem of affordability, the National Reconstruction Authority developed some low-cost designs, the most affordable (for many, the only affordable) of which is a one-room design.

Source: http://www.nra.gov.np/uploads/docs/WbTPrQc9hE160624113851.pdf

Many people told us of the difficulties they have living in these new cramped conditions. There are physical problems of space: as a family grows, how can they all live comfortably in a single room? Other practical difficulties surfaced too: families don’t have enough space to hang washing when it is raining, nor enough to store their grains and rice. We heard of Buddhist communities higher up the mountains who traditionally hold religious ceremonies in their houses. This wouldn’t be possible in one of the new designs, so they refuse to follow them.

Keraunja, Gorkha District, Nepal (Photo credit: Sarita Panday)

There is a real sense from the rural communities we are working in that government doesn’t understand the issues they face. “People in the city think it’s fine for village people to live in small one-roomed houses”. But for those actually forced to live in them, it isn’t fine at all.

The global discourse of resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction places a huge emphasis on the idea of ‘Building Back Better’. Disasters are devastating for communities but can, according to this idea, also be an opportunity: an opportunity to rebuild stronger, better-protected and more resilient communities.

But, in some ways at least, poor families in rural Nepal are being forced to build back worse: houses that may be superior in their design, engineering and construction, but that fail the test of ‘live-ability’ and cultural acceptability. Is this making communities more resilient, or less?

No-one – least of all those in earthquake-affected communities – wants to see the death and destruction they witnessed in 2015 ever again. The new buildings should (it is hoped) withstand the next earthquake. But every day when an earthquake doesn’t strike, life is in many ways a compromise.

With the villages still in the process of reconstructing, three years on, memories of the earthquake still dominate people’s thoughts. But at the same time these communities are living their lives; not just living for the next earthquake. What will it take to enhance everyday community resilience? Whilst these plans might enhance physical resilience, in some cases, is this at the expense of community resilience?

This blog post is from our ongoing ESRC-DFID-funded project ‘Resilience Policymaking in Nepal: Giving Voice to Communities’. As part of that project, we are working in three villages in Nepal seeking to understand the extent to which community-level understandings of disaster vulnerability and resilience align with national-level policy approaches. The project is using a Participatory Video methodology, supplemented by focus groups, key-informant interviews, and screening events with local and national-level policymakers. For more information, please contact the Principal Investigator, Dr. Simon Rushton [simon.rushton@sheffield.ac.uk].

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