Simon Rushton, Julie Balen and Olivia Crane from the University of Sheffield were in Barpak with Professor Bhimsen Devkota and Sudha Ghimire, working on a SIID-funded project examining the resilience and reconstruction of the health system following the Nepal earthquake. This is the first of a series of blog posts that the team will be publishing in the coming weeks.
On April 25th it was one year since the earthquake that devastated large areas of Nepal. In the village of Barpak in Gorkha District, the village closest to the epicenter of the earthquake, there are signs that the transition from emergency relief to more permanent reconstruction is finally starting. But many difficulties lie ahead.
Almost every house in Barpak was destroyed – over 1200 in total. The historic houses built of local stone and mud ‘cement’ quickly crumbled under the 7.8 magnitude earthquake. 72 people in the village died, crushed in the rubble. Over 200 were injured. Everyone has lost someone they were close to.
In some ways, despite the devastation, Barpak was ‘lucky’ in terms of the post-earthquake relief it received. It was a well-known village before the quake, and its relative accessibility (by Nepali standards, that is: it is a grueling 5-hour journey up a rough dirt road from the District capital) meant that outside help arrived relatively quickly, and in quantity.
A year on, some families are still living under canvas. The vast majority, meanwhile, have built temporary shelters from corrugated iron, erected amongst the rubble of their former homes. After surviving the freezing winter at 2,500m with no insulation, before long they will again be in the heat of the summer.
“Build back better and safer” is the Nepali government’s motto – and that of the international donors. Many of the officials we have spoken to have repeated the refrain that earthquakes don’t kill people – badly constructed buildings do. There are good reasons, then, to encourage people to rebuild their homes to be more earthquake resilient.
The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has worked with engineers to develop seventeen standard designs for earthquake resilient housing of various sizes and costs. A government grant of Rs.200,000 (approximately £1350) will be available to those who follow those plans. International and local NGOs are providing training to communities on how to rebuild. An engineer will soon be appointed in each village to provide advice on rebuilding, and to monitor who has rebuilt in a way that makes them eligible for the government grant.
In Barpak, people are already busy rebuilding. But most are not building earthquake resilient houses: they are rebuilding in mud and stone, just as before. Women and girls as young as four or five carry heavy rocks on their backs, and then sit breaking them into gravel while the men and boys construct the walls. Day by day the houses grow. But it is not an earthquake-proof village that is rising from the rubble.
A lot of the people we spoke to in Barpak have simply given up waiting. The NRA has taken almost a year to publish the earthquake resilient housing designs. Many believe that the long-promised Rs.200,000 will never actually arrive. Even if it does, it would not be enough to build a house – and there is uncertainty about the rules for who will qualify. So rather than spend more months living under their temporary shelters, those with the resources to do so are going ahead in their own way, ignoring the exhortations to build back safer.
Resilience is the mot de jour in the disaster and development community. But what do we learn about resilience from the people of Barpak?
If by ‘resilience’ we mean merely the capacity to cope in the face of adversity, then the people of Barpak are – and have always been – highly resilient. This is an independent and community-minded village whose residents work together to survive and, to the best of their ability, thrive despite the unpromising geography and high levels of poverty. They have lived through the trauma of the earthquake and are now rebuilding their village, mostly without external assistance. A community accustomed to self-reliance, many are deliberately choosing not to wait for government help but are taking matters into their own hands and rebuilding their former homes in their own way.
Yet this very same spirit of independence and self-reliance is undermining a different aspect of ‘resilience’ – the physical resilience of these buildings against future disasters. The community may be strong, but many of the houses we saw people putting up are noticeably weak, calling into question the future safety of those in the village.