Four Weird Aspects of Reconstruction in Nepal
The Seismic Nepal Andaman Islands office is now open for business.
Wait — didn’t the Gorkha Earthquake happen in Nepal? Shouldn’t the SN office be there, or at the very least, on the Indian mainland? What the hell are we doing on islands, which, at first glance on a map, look like they should belong to Myanmar? Besides only having minimal internet, how can we effectively operate on a remote island that takes two flights, one ferry, and 5 taxis, over 28 hours, to reach from Kathmandu?
Well, we were based in Kathmandu for the last three months. Weird aspects of reconstruction have contributed to the present state of affairs; hence this post. I know I promised details on our design for my next piece, yet it seems necessary to go into the factors that brought us here. They are listed below, in order of significance:
- Visa Hell
Inevitably, when one expat meets another expat in Nepal, one question comes up, usually immediately after exchanging pleasantries and background information — ‘What is your visa situation?’
The source of this question is the Nepali government’s tourist visa policy. Over a calendar year, a foreigner cannot stay in Nepal on a tourist visa for more than 150 days. Further, this number is not counted based on number of days spent in the country, but rather how long of a visa you get on arrival — for example, when I arrived on February 3, I got a 90 day tourist visa. I left on April 26, about a week short of 90 days. Given Immigration’s no-return policy, I was billed for the full 90 days.
So what is behind this policy? Don’t tourists just hang out and spend $$$, giving Nepal badly needed foreign exchange? Yes and no. To fully understand the reasoning behind this policy, we have to look at the history, going back to the early days of the Nepali state, specifically to the treaty with the British ending the 1815 Gurkha War, and the influx of hippies during the 1960s and 1970s.
During the latter half of the 18th century, two major things were happening in the Northern reaches of the subcontinent. Primarily, the British East India Company was gobbling up the patchwork of small kingdoms spread over the Gangetic Plains, using a delicate mix of treaties, economic influence, and military force. Meanwhile, throughout the piedmont and the alpine regions of the Himalayas, the Gorkhali state was expanding rapidly, using a similar blend of political settlements and bloodshed.
By 1814, the BEIC had conquered most of North India, and the Gorkhalis had created a Himalayan state the size of the UK, stretching from Kashmir to Bhutan, and were pushing South into the plains. The two clashed, and after a series of bloody exchanges in present-day Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, they signed a peace treaty. While there were many aspects to it, essentially, the Gurkhas gave up a third of their territory in exchange for recognition of sovereignty.
One detail was that the only European allowed to live in Nepal was the British Resident in Kathmandu, who had three main tasks: 1. Ensure the terms of the treaty were met (specifically that other Europeans, especially the Russians and French, stayed out) 2. Keep a line of communication between Kathmandu and Calcutta, where the BEIC was based.
This state of affairs continued until 1949, when Nepal opened its doors to the outside world. However, the basic attitude towards foreigners remained the same. They are welcomed, but in a limited way.
Fast-forward two decades, to the 1960s, when hippies from North America and Europe began arriving in South Asia. With their open sexuality and psychedelic drug use, they brought with them cultural values that were, by any measure, foreign to the region. India, who had just gotten rid of the British a mere 20 years earlier, initiated visa restrictions on foreigners fleeing the spiritual deserts of the West. Nepal followed suit.
So what about people like me, who have come here to volunteer their time doing development work, bringing with them badly needed technical expertise? To do this, I put my entire life back in NYC on hold for the last four months, and have been blowing through savings and credit cards to make this happen. Does this earn me any points with Immigration?
No. If I want to register Seismic Nepal, a US-based 501C3, as an INGO operating in Nepal, and hire myself as an employee, I need to commit $600K over three years, and 80% of that has to be spent in Nepal. Further, the number of work visas for foreign personnel I can give out is limited, and doing so is a lengthy, expensive process. The one exception to this is a Project Agreement, which is typically done for large projects, and the number of work visas is specified within them. However, the scale of such projects puts smaller organizations at a disadvantage.
There other visas — business, student, journalist, and more; but they all require a lengthy process, exorbitant fees, and often, bribery. In the words of one Nepali attorney who specializes in procuring foreigners visas: “Just marry a Nepali, and pay them $1K per year.”
While it is impossible to know exactly, I would estimate that there are thousands of us volunteering in Nepal on tourist visas. Unless I get hired by a larger organization, one which is blown away by my work, the situation will likely remain the same. Given that I have been professionally independent my entire life, and as a rule do not take on 9–5 commitments, I’m not sure how this is going to happen.
So why the Andamans, and why now? Without revealing too much about the state of my project here, I have spent the last three months making site visits to a remote location in Gorkha, leading a team of engineers and architects working on a design concept developed by me and the rest of the Seismic Nepal crew. We have also prepared our permit application, which is no small affair. It is being presented to three different government ministries, at both the national level in Kathmandu, and the district level in Gorkha, so we’re dealing with a total of 6 government agencies, in a foreign country, and often in Nepali. Its been fun.
As I have used up 90 days out of the 150 I am allotted for 2016, I need to reserve my remaining 60 days for managing construction, whenever approval comes through. I need to be close to Nepal, so I can return quickly and cheaply. Of neighboring countries, India is the best option, and within India, the obvious choice is the Andamans.
2. Obfuscated Bureaucracy
I just mentioned permit applications. Yes, we have to submit them, as we need approvals. Yet to whom to we submit them to, what are the application requirements, and what process do we follow?
Up until three weeks ago, almost a year after the earthquake, the answers to these questions were unknown. Before the earthquake, the DUDBC (Dept. of Urban Development, Building, and Construction) handled all construction-related matters. Given that they were already set up to handle such matters, it would make sense for this agency to handle reconstruction, right?
Wrong. Reconstruction is handled by the National Reconstruction Authority, which kicks applications down to the DUDBC for review. OK, fine. So we have to apply to the DUDBC via the NRA. So what are the NRA’s application guidelines? Up until three weeks ago, there were none.
So we finally got our guidelines, so we’re all submitting our applications. How long will it take to get an initial review? No answer. An approval? Crickets. What about the fact that monsoon is hitting in mid-June, a mere two weeks from now, which will put a hold on most building activity in the country? Nothing.
Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in alpine shanty towns, unable to move on with their lives. However much I love slurping fresh coconuts on white sand beaches, I would much, much rather be up there, getting some s#%t built.
So we have to design earthquake-safe housing. What is the budget we have to work with?
This was discussed in my previous post. There have been some developments since then. So far, each earthquake-affected household has received about $250 from the government, in two payments. This was meant for emergency expenditures related to losing one’s home and everything in it, over the course of a year.
Lets just say that amount didn’t exactly cover the bill.
As I mentioned previously, the government has stated that it plans to disburse about $2K to each affected household. These funds will come out of the $4.2 billion pledged by the international community.
Around the same time this figure was released, last Fall, the recently-castrated DUDBC released a list of 20 seismic designs. Some were created by their staff, and others were created by the Japanese Institute for International Cooperation (JICA). I will refrain from specific comments regarding their designs, but I will say that none of them look like a building that would get built in Nepal.
Each design contains floor plans, 3D renderings, and the amount of material and labor required for construction. What about the cost of construction? I’ve been in the business for two decades — whether I’m talking about building a table or an apartment building, the first question any client asks is ‘how much does it cost?’
So why is the cost of construction omitted from the DUDBC design catalog? One possible explanation is that the building costs in Nepal vary widely, depending on how far from KTM you are. Another explanation is that they knew not a single design of theirs could be built for the $2K payout, so cost was conveniently left out.
To clarify the situation, I had some young Nepali engineers working for SN perform a cost-comparison analysis of every design in the DUDBC catalog, focusing on the models that might be built in the remote areas. To make the analysis relevant throughout the country, I had them develop a spreadsheet, which was modified to reflect costs in four different zones, creating 4 separate documents:
1. Cost of construction in KTM
2. Cost of construction within one day of road transport from KTM
3. Cost of construction within one day of road transport, plus one day of trail transport from KTM
4. Cost of construction within one day of road transport. plus two days of trail transport from KTM
The results were shocking. The cost of their cheapest design, a two room, one-story stone/concrete building that looks more like a bunker than a home, was about $6K. And that is if it is built in KTM — the cost jumps to $9K if it is built in a remote area.
So how is this shortfall going to be met? Everyone knows its not enough. I’ve talked with dozens of people who have lost their homes, and everyone is expecting to pay $4–6K for 3-room, one story stone structures, which will not be nearly as nice as the 2.5 story houses they lived in before the earthquake.
There are no specifics as of yet, but in the meetings I’ve attended regarding reconstruction (with both INGOs and government officials), there is talk of a $3K low-interest loan which will be made available, on top of the $2K payout. Still, this only gets us to $5K, which is short of the $6K required to build the cheapest DUDBC design. To put people in range of actually being able to build a house, a $3K payout from INGOs is being discussed, bringing the total budget to $8K.
All of which sounds great, but keep in mind the following:
— no one knows when the initial $2K payout will be disbursed
— no one knows how exactly the initial $2K payout will be disbursed
— no one knows when $3K loan will be available
— no one knows the terms of the $3K loan, or how it will be disbursed
— no one knows when the $3K INGO payout will be available
— no one knows how the $3K INGO payout will be disbursed
Given the situation, most people who have lost their homes I’ve talked with have assumed that any financial assistance from the government, or any other entity, will never come. Accordingly, the SN team and I are working on a design that is cheap enough to build without any financial assistance, one which is also culturally appropriate, and one which is engineered to withstand an 8.0 earthquake.
4. Who is Going to Build All These Houses?
So who is actually going to build all these houses?
The answer to this question changes, depending who you ask. The current government position on this issue is that homeowners themselves will rebuild, using cash assistance to hire masons and carpenters when necessary. On the surface, this approach makes some sense, as this is how homes get built in the remote areas. Most earthquake victims are rural Nepalis, and most rural Nepalis are subsistence farmers, who are able to handle all but the specialized aspects of construction.
Further, as many in the development sector will tell you, giving people cash or vouchers to spend as they see fit is often the best way to go about getting anything done, as people know what they need, and they will go about it the most efficient way possible.
However, once you look beneath the surface, there are substantial issues with this approach.
First — due to migration, there is a chronic labor shortage in the mountains. Due to limited arable land, the alpine climate, and the constraints of the dry/rainy seasons, most farms in Nepal cannot sustain their owners for the entire year. Accordingly, people supplement their income in a number of ways. Historically, trade, and serving as mercenaries abroad, have been how rural Nepalis make ends meet. More recently, migration — to Kathmandu, India, the Gulf, or the West — has become common. A walk through any village in rural Nepal shows this; there are disproportionate amounts of women, children, and the elderly. Working-age men are in short supply, as they are typically somewhere else, sending money back to support their families in the village.
The dark twist of fate here is that as the economic hardships of post-earthquake life grind on, these communities will send more of their young men abroad to make up the difference, exacerbating the labor shortage.
Second — approximately 785,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in the earthquake. Residential rebuilding alone is a massive amount of work. But what about all of the infrastructure damage from the earthquake and the ensuing landslides? This amount of work is enormous, as critical systems across the board— roads, trails, bridges, drinking water, irrigation, and electricity — were all damaged. When one considers the the amount of private and public work to be done, combined with the labor shortage in the remote areas, there is clearly a major problem with the current approach.
So what are the options? Like so many other aspects of reconstruction in Nepal, it is a work in progress, and other approaches are being discussed. One of my colleagues is a foreign adviser to some of the top reconstruction officials in the country, which is the only reason I’m aware of such discussions.
Their is a push within the government agencies to have the government do the building itself. This will never fly — foreign governments, and the big INGOs, who are providing most of the funds for reconstruction, will never accept such an arrangement. The opportunities for corruption and graft are simply too great.
A more likely alternative is that private companies, both domestic and foreign, would be awarded contracts for rebuilding. While there would still be opportunities for theft, it would definitely be a better alternative than letting the government handle rebuilding. Still, this approach has problems, mainly the fact that it does not address the labor shortage.
So what is the solution? I will not pretend to have the answer. My short amount of time in the development sector has shown me that the answers to these questions are complex, and they require smart people familiar with the subtle nuances of the situation.
However, I do know that Nepali laborers need to be incentivized to stay in the country, specifically to work in the remote areas, as without them, reconstruction is going to proceed very, very slowly.