The Nepal Earthquake

How Do We Help Build Stronger Cities in Impoverished Countries?

Earthquakes are one of the worst natural disasters that plague our world. There is very little warning, they often lead to other natural disasters, and once they hit about all that can be down is pray that local infrastructure and buildings are up to code. And chances are pretty good that if you are living in a 1st world country like America or Japan, most buildings will be within the neighborhood of being “up to code” and can stand up to most of what mother nature throws at them. But for those who don’t live in such countries, a natural disaster has the potential to decimate a nation. As we have seen happen many times over the past decade, when an earthquake hits these places, the destruction verges on unbelievable and death tolls skyrocket. And every time, people around the world look for answers on how these tragedies can be avoided.

The problem is not a lack of awareness of the dire state many cities are in, or a lack of desire to help people, but getting these people the resources to do so.

The Nepal earthquake, as many experts have said, was not a surprise. The question was not if, but when. And although efforts have been made in the last twenty years to improve Nepal’s infrastructure (A building code in 1994 and a 1998 action plan created by disaster-management organizations GeoHazards International and the National Society for Earthquake Technology–Nepal), many efforts have fallen flat due to what Time magazine calls a “lack of resources”. In short, Nepal does not have the governmental strength or the money to make real change in the country. Time reports that Nepal has a per capita GDP of less than $1,000. What’s more, citizens often build their own homes. One of these factors would be enough to cripple attempts at decent infrastructure in a country — with these factors combined, it becomes nearly impossible. Not only do the citizens of Nepal not have the money to keep their homes up to code, but many of them build structures with no idea what the building codes even are.

You can read more about these issues in the Time Magazine article we’ve been mentioning (Why Nepal Wasn’t Ready for the Earthquake; it’s very good and definitely worth the read), but at the end of the day what Builtr got out of it was that Nepal suffers from many of the same problems as other impoverished nations. And if we’re being realistic, these problems are likely to continue — not only for Nepal, but for other third world countries as well. At the same time, natural disasters are not going to wait for all the countries of the world to get their infrastructure up to scratch, which means that the longer these problems exist, the more people will die. We are very much caught between a rock and a hard place. How do we solve infrastructure problems when the countries that need aid the most don’t have the resources necessary for the solutions?

Well, in our opinion, people have been looking at the problem in the wrong way. It is easy to see the facts that we have presented and come to the conclusion that there may not be a real, viable solution, that the best we can do is offer post-disaster support. Many of the buildings that fell in Nepal were not up to the codes that the country had tried to set — and why? Money. Cost. It is expensive to bring buildings up to code. Nick Stockton voices a popular opinion in his article for Wired when he writes:

“Economics is just the language we use to measure the true cost of disaster. ‘When you’re talking about earthquake mitigation, you’re talking about lives you’re saving,’ says [Janise] Rodgers [a structural engineer with Geohazards International]… In other words, we should start picking up buildings before they fall down.”

It is a beautifully simple idea — but also one that is going to be almost impossible to implement. Because like it or not, picking up buildings costs money that many of these countries don’t have. The desire to save lives will not pay for these upgrades. The problem is not a lack of awareness of the dire state many cities are in, or a lack of desire to help people, but getting these people the resources to do so.

A map of the Nepal Earthquake. Picture: USAAID

Which is where we, the members of the AEC community, come in. Because as the designers and creators of buildings, our job is not to come up with codes and standards that will work only for those rich enough to implement them. We must look at where the buildings are being constructed, what resources these people have, and what precisely they need to be safe from. By necessity, the solutions must vary from place to place.

As the designers and creators of buildings, our job is not to come up with codes and standards that will work only for those rich enough to implement them.

A perfect example of this, and if we’re being honest, a big inspiration in writing this article is the MASS Design Group. We’ve spoken about them on our site before, briefly, and we cannot stress enough how important their approach to building design and construction is. They have created a system to do exactly what we at Builtr feel is the only viable solution to problems the Nepal Earthquake represents. The link to their website is here, but we want to share the four steps that guide their approach to design and construction, because if there were more groups like this, we’re convinced that a real change could be made in impoverished countries.

From the MASS Design Group’s website, their approach is;

“1. First, we immerse ourselves in the contexts where we work to understand the challenges and opportunities of a new location.

2. Then, we design beautiful buildings that deliver dignity, improve health and well-being, and have the greatest positive impact in the communities they serve.

3. Next, we leverage the construction process to maximize economic, educational, and environmental outcomes.

4. The end of construction is in many ways a beginning. We evaluate the quantitative and qualitative impacts of the design and construction process to prove the value of architecture in improving people’s lives.”

What’s more, MASS Design Group goes a step further by educating and empowering local architects, allowing them to help even more communities.

A hospital built by MASS Design Group in Rwanda.

This problem of poor infrastructure in developing countries, or even impoverished areas (according to Wired’s article “Earthquakes Don’t Kill People, Buildings Do”, New Madrid, a seismic zone in the deep South of the US, could be devastated by an 8.0 earthquake) will not be solved easily. Even with the suggestions we have put forward in this article, how do you reach the people who decide to build their own houses? And certainly not every village in impoverished nations can be helped by groups like MASS Design.

Before and after pictures of a collapsed Kathmandu landmark. Picture: Alamy/Barcroft

To that we say that the best solution we can think of is one that MASS Design has already begun to work on — education. If cost effective ways using local materials and simple design solutions to make homes disaster proof can be taught even in some of the impoverished places of the world, we have to believe that eventually, these ideas would spread. It would not be a perfect solution, not even a quick solution. But it is an idea that has value — and the proof is in the amazing differences MASS Design has made in the communities they have visited. We, as a community, must come to terms with the fact that there is no blanket solution for making buildings safe from natural disasters. The desire to “start picking buildings up before they fall down” is a nice one, but we have a hard time believing the solution will be that simple. We cannot ask impoverished nations to hold to standards they have no hope of implementing. We must work with the communities to come up with cost-effective solutions that are particular to their needs. And hopefully, we can save a few lives in the process.