We need to talk about Nepal.
More specifically, we need to talk about the 2015 Nepal earthquakes.
If you were like me, you probably donated some cash, Facebook ‘liked’ a related page, and then forgot about the disaster a few months after.
It’s not a good excuse, but with the deluge of white noise we’re constantly bombarded with, matters that deserve our sustained attention tend to get drowned out by Donald Trump’s hair, salted egg yolk burgers and Game of Thrones spoilers.
If you donated to the relief fund, you may be outraged to know that despite $4.1 billion dollars in foreign aid from international donors, only 13,616 families have received aid money for reconstruction. This is in part due to parliamentary gridlock, bureaucratic red tape and government corruption.
Sometimes, the best solution to bureaucratic red tape is to bypass central authorities altogether; grassroots efforts and small NGOs may be able to intervene more swiftly and efficiently than government entities.
That seems to be the modus operandi of Design X Make X Multiply (DXM), a collective that’s dedicated to building and designing sustainable housing in the earthquake-stricken village of Tekanpur, Nepal.
I sat down with Sy Lyng, certified architect and one of the project leads for DXM, to talk about sustainable housing, the pros and cons of working as a smaller entity, and how rebuilding housing in Nepal is not just about bricks and mortar, but bridging differences in culture.
PUTTING EARTHQUAKES IN PERSPECTIVE
We started thinking that we could contribute in terms of design, that means we…because of what we saw from the numbers. I’m not sure if I shared with you?
I’ve been working with my friend, an engineer by the name of Franky, for about 3 years ago. He initiated the project and gathered the initial four members. We started DXM after the earthquakes in Nepal last year.
We noticed that this was something wrong: An 8.1 [Richter] scale earthquake in California caused a book to drop on a guy. That was the only injury. (Editor’s note: While we couldn’t find an online source highlighting this incident, similar-sized earthquakes have been reported in California with significantly fewer casualties, and while hypothesising for worst-case scenarios.)
But in Nepal, the official figure is about 8,800 plus people who died [from an earthquake of a similar scale]. And this year, an earthquake there killed about 600. They’re not like Japan or California, where buildings are built to withstand earthquakes.
We thought maybe our expertise could help. So we started looking around and found a small NGO called Education Health Nepal, registered in Nepal and the UK. Their focus is on education and health, and they’re doing a lot more software-based work. They told us: “We can’t send any more teachers because there’re no classrooms”.
They were open to work with us, and arranged for our first trip to Nepal last year. We originally thought that we could provide them with design, as they have a system in place to raise funds.
FUEL BLOCKADES AND SERENDIPITY
When we were in Nepal, the fuel blockade by India happened, and we got stuck [in Kathmandu]. It was 800 dollars to get on a cab that would normally take 8 dollars. We couldn’t go anywhere so we were stuck in a cafe – the only cafe with decent WiFi – and we worked from there.
During the fuel blockade, we met Wendy, a Belgian lady and Dawa, a Nepali guide. They were in Kathmandu to get approval to rebuild in Tekanpur, Dawa’s village.
There were 145 houses destroyed (in Tekanpur), but they chose to build the school first, because they believe that education is important, and rebuilding 145 homes is too large a scale and sum [of funding].
We asked them “Hey, can we help and take a look?” Are you building the school the same way? Because the school collapsed, right?” Why raise 25,000 euros to repeat the same problem.
They realised that it made sense [to build it differently], and they had a car with diesel, so they invited us to come along with them to Tekanpur. In total we went to 4 villages, each of them 2-3 hours from Kathmandu.
When we were in Kathmandu, we realised that they were building by stacking stones and rocks that they found, without any mortar. So if you just give it a strong push it’ll fall and kill somebody.
Most houses here are built by stacking rocks. Normally, you’ll need cement or mortar if you’re using bricks, but they don’t. They use mud, which when it dries turns into powder. And it’s not like those Incan civilisations, where they cut the rocks to fit exactly so it interlocks. They just use whatever rocks they find on the farm.
Roofs are usually nailed down, but here they put stones on a corrugated zinc roof to hold it down, and then those rocks fall and kill the old people who can’t escape in time.
Most of the stupa-shaped temples were originally built with bamboo. When they found stones, because stones are what they have locally – they built the same stupa shape, But it’s less stable using stone for a stupa, because the natural shape for stone is an arch.
Then we saw them rebuilding with funding, but rebuilding in the same manner, still stacking stones. It doesn’t make sense.
RUNNING INTO LOGISTICAL ISSUES
We realised that our strategy of creating earthquake-proof houses with just one material wasn’t working, because ever village has different materials available. We had to develop an idea for each location based on the materials available. When we went over, the first one we designed was built with bamboo because they told us: ‘it’s free, just use it’.
One of the other villages had no roads, and was on a slope, so people have to carry building materials up up. They use steel because steel is the lightest material available, and they have no concrete. Another village has proper roads and they have concrete.
What we really wanted to do was keep the design open source, so that if another village comes along we can say, use this type and build. So if your village has the similar material, you can use the same type
THE NEED FOR FUNDING
In the case of the first village, they had sold all their bamboo to Kathmandu to be used as scaffolding during reconstruction. So they were like ‘maybe you can use timber.’ It can get a bit unpredictable.
We didn’t want to have funding, originally. But then we visited Tekanpur, which was Dawa and Wendy’s village. The blockade prevented them from doing anything from October last year to March this year. They they couldn’t even cook basically.
When the blockade was called off they continued building the school. We had told them they they needed to build using steel,but they had to build it in concrete, because that was the template from the government, and there was insufficient funding. Since you have to pump water into the village from the valley, they ran out of water, and got stuck on the foundation.
They’re still waiting for government funding, which I hear is not coming. I don’t think they can rebuild it all, because it’s such a big earthquake.
So finally, I was like look, it’s $5000 for one house. And anyway we have to convince the villagers [to adopt the design]. It’s a very traditional culture that’s not that receptive to new concepts, so when we tell them they don’t understand. You have to demonstrate.
It’s a problem of both money and knowledge. They don’t have sufficient money to build, and they don’t have knowledge so they tend to rebuild their houses the same way.
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
The question we got the most from the villagers was: “can the house look exactly like what it does now?” So we try to create internal structures that are earthquake safe, but we still give them the same finish, the same plaster and colour. They see that and they feel ‘ok’.
With the traditional houses, they want thick walls to insulate from the heat and cold, but the rocks end up falling and killing people. We’re trying to create a design with two layers [to the walls], using air to insulate. Because these two layers are very light, it won’t cause any casualties if they collapse.
But they have difficulties understanding the significance of this. They’re under the impression that thin walls would be very cold in winter.
We’ve decided to build one house first to show them that it’s stable, and maybe that will convince them not to rebuild the same way.
I don’t think they can build 145 houses in 2-3 years time. At this point it seems to be a very long project because the window is very small.
They have a cycle where they farm all year round. In September and October they work as porters, so it’s a very short window from November to December [when construction can take place].
But we can’t be there all the time, which is one of the big problems.
I’m thinking like every year I’ll make a trip down and the rest of the time we’ll be able to raise funds here. But if we don’t help them to raise a bit of funding the project won’t be able to move forward.
I want to make the first house for this year, and then next year we’re looking at a community disaster shelter that is earthquake safe. If it’s cold during winter they can use it; if anything happens you can go there.
RED TAPE AND CORRUPTION
Schools do check on a few approved designs that are concrete-based. There’s a government authority, but they only care about schools from what we’ve gathered. There’s no regulation for housing. And we were trying to find the land title but it’s very vague. It’s just ‘oh, this family owns this land’, and there’s no specific boundary.
We’re initially raising $5000. If it were $50,000 it would make more sense to do it officially, but there’s a lot of corruption and a lot of red tape. You want to set up here [an NGO here], but there’s a sense of urgency. It takes 2-3 years to set up and it’s too slow.
We’re proposing a community library, but that’s not going to be $5000…more of $20,000-$25,000. The next window we’ll have is the end of next year for this step. But this year, we want to build the first house for them.
I also talked to other NGOs. When they transfer funds out of Singapore, you need another NGO there to receive the funds, and through the process they may lose 40-60% of the funds to corruption.
THE BENEFITS OF SMALLER SCALE
We’re working with a very small NGO that puts us up with minimal amenities. But the big organisations like the World Health Organization have officials staying in hotels, and one night’s hotel stay could build one house. So they have that kind of funding.
EHN is a one-man operation, but his Nepali employees couldn’t do anything during the fuel blockade. They didn’t even have gas to cook at home. But World Health and all these [larger organisations] can continue to work in times like those. So there are pros and cons [to being a smaller entity].
THE NEXT STEP FORWARD
We’re selling some art based on donation in September and October. In November and December will be construction. Meanwhile before November, we’ll also be focusing on the design of the structure, so that we can at least show people what the final design is like.