Understanding and investing in ‘building back better’ in Nepal

By Martina Manna and Lorenzo Chelleri

Nepal is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. When talking about earthquakes, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’. On April 25th 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. Named after the District’s epicenter, Gorkha earthquake was recorded to be the strongest in 80 years. It was followed by about 300 aftershocks between 4.0 and 7.3 in magnitude (NSET, 2015), and produced great loss and damage both in rural and urban areas. As a result, 8,790 people died and more than 22,300 people were injured (PDNA, 2015). The National Planning Commission of the Government of Nepal also reported 498,852 private houses were destroyed and 256,697 damaged, for an estimated total damage of US$3.27 billion. Thirty-one of seventy-five Districts of Nepal were reported to be affected, and within those, fourteen were identified as priorities for recovery by the Central Bureau of Statistics.

A DRR strategy limited by political instability

Disaster risk reduction is an issue receiving few resources in Nepal, and the effectiveness of practices are further reduced by political instability (PDNA, 2015). The building code was legally enforced in 2005 and mandatory only for government buildings. However, with the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), just one month before the earthquake, different Build Back Better guidelines were developed by the Shelter Cluster, Red Cross and the Ministry of Urban Development, both for temporary shelters and new constructions. The Design Catalogue for the Reconstruction of earthquake resistant houses was issued six months after the earthquake by the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, providing prototypes for safe homes. Also, the Rural Housing Reconstruction Program was launched, seeking to foster build back better practices, training, technical support and subsidy programs. The five pillars of the program, inspired from the broader international experiences are as followed: (1) owner-driven, (2) employs a harmonized approach, (3) flexible to local realities, (4) based on multiple tranches of grant assistance with verification, and (5) rebuilding is done with greater resilience (HRRP, 2016).

In order to guarantee consistency to the program, Government personnel were hired to evaluate the application of BBB criteria in the fourteen districts (HRRP, 2016). The original grant plan, to be distributed in three tranches, was reviewed multiple times, and due to the election of the new government, several new proposals were filled, increasing confusion. The emerging inability of rural dwellers to benefit from the grant scheme and the delayed provision of appropriate services and training support resulted in communities rebuilding with their own knowledge, resources and time. Our research answers these questions: how do these communities develop their own build back better practices? From whom do they learn? Are there any misleading perceptions of risk skewing what “better” means?

Ratmate: an emerging false behavior of safety

Ratmate is a village strategically located at the center of the Nuwakot district (one of the fourteen targeted areas for prioritized reconstruction). Of 180 homes, 60% were completely damaged by the earthquake. According to the National Reconstruction Authority census, 108 households were eligible for the Reconstruction Grant, but no guidelines or support has yet reached Ratmate (fieldwork, January 2017). Heifer International and UNICEF provided cash grants and non-food items to the area, while three Temporary Learning Centres were also built to support the partially collapsed school. One of the most important re-building projects providing guidelines for build back better is today represented by the All Hands Volunteers in partnership with Room to Read and Nepal Rises, which are building two 2-storey school buildings (Figure 2).

Figure 2. All Hands Volunteers and Nepal Rises School Building Site. Photo credit: Dom Bryant

Despite community participation in the construction of the school, and exposure to the best practices on how to build back better (Figure 3), incoherencies were observed in the reconstruction process of private homes. One recurrent practice involves using rocks to hold down the metal roofing (Figure 4). This is done to avoid perforating the metal roofing sheets with nails, making it easier to recycle for future use.

Figure 3. Nepali Engineer, Local Mason and Architect Volunteer discuss build back better practices on the school build site. Photo credit: Dom Bryant

Figure 4. Temporary shelter of a local mason, roof over the sleeping area and outdoor kitchen, rocks, wood and TV placed randomly over the metal sheeting. Photo credit: Martina Manna

This common practice was addressed by the Shelter Cluster, which provided some suggestions for temporary shelter construction through informal communication and shadow networks: placing rocks on roofs in concordance with beams or walls, and never close to edges. (Figure 5)

Figure 5. Roof following best practice of placing rocks over main walls but creating the issue of having the rocks close to the edges, causing further danger. Photo credit: Martina Manna

Another common practice was using the bottom floor of not fully collapsed buildings as a kitchen. Alongside, we saw upper floors treated with wooden slabs covered by a 5cm mud layer, supposed to “create a protective layer” from the rocks above (Figure 6).

Figure 6. 5cm mud over floor slab, a practice believed to increase the safety of the house. Photo credit: Martina Manna

Moreover, when moving kitchens or bedrooms to the ground floors (perceived to be safer), upper floors were usually maintained and re-arranged for storing big quantities of grain (figure 7), increasing the load on the upper floors, and therefore raising structural vulnerability to earthquakes, generating further threat for the household.

Figure 7. Grain placed on top floors, rearranging bedroom spaces and service spaces of the house. Photo credit: Martina Manna

Build back better: an issue of time?

When villagers were informed about the increasing vulnerability arising from certain practices, and asked to explain their neglect of building back criteria, informally learnt from the school building, most of them revealed surprising reasoning. Locals’ usual responses have been “the earth needs time to settle – and it is not worth building back in a good way now, on unstable earth. Once the earth will settle, we will build back better” (interviews, December 2016).

In the last months, the NGO presence building the school started having a big impact. This could be seen when in the temporary houses, community members started applying some low-cost solutions for improving safety, like diagonal bracing (Fig 8a), window reinforcement (Fig. 8b) or lightening the upper floors (Fig. 8c).

Figure 8. Photo credit: Martina Manna.

Furthermore, with the upcoming two-year anniversary of the earthquake (with the ground having had time to settle) and the school handover planned for mid-April, locals are showing more and more interest in investing and understanding how to apply build back better criteria to their homes. Traditional stone and mud construction is the preferred technique, mainly due to resource availability and cost; whilst new generations, largely as a result of their exposure to the new school building construction, only seem to have faith in reinforced concrete. Nevertheless, the quality of the construction and their future exposure to risk will be determined not only by the material used but by the quality of the construction and the correct application of build back better criteria.


Gorkha Earthquake (2015) National Society for Earthquake Technology. Retrieved from http://www.nset.org.np/eq2015/

Housing Reconstruction and Recovery Platform (HRRP) (2016) Program Overview and Operations Manual Summary, Nepal Rural Housing Reconstruction Program

National Planning Commission (PDNA) (2015) Nepal Earthquake 2015: Post Disaster Needs Assessment, Government of Nepal.


Martina Manna holds a BSc in Building Architecture from the Politecnico of Milan. She worked as Program Coordinator in the Philippines and Nepal for a non-profit Disaster Relief Organization. She is currently enrolled in a Masters program in International Cooperation for Sustainable Emergency Architecture and is researching build back better practices in rural Nepal.


Lorenzo Chelleri is a multi-disciplinary researcher with a PhD in Urban Geography. He is a senior researcher at the International University of Catalonia (UIC, Spain) and the Chair of the Urban Resilience Research Network. His research deals with the tensions and synergies between urban sustainability and resilience.


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