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Natural disaster reconstruction requires urgent change

Glyn Utting

When natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis devastate the developing world, first-world countries are quick to raise funds and lead humanitarian assistance – including construction.

But how can we ensure recovery programmes are a success? The answer lies in governance and knowledge-sharing.

In the initial relief phase, first-world expertise and skills in search and rescue, medical care, supply of clean water, and food and temporary shelter are paramount to prevent unnecessary fatalities.

However, in the longer-term recovery phase, the focus should shift from supply of first-world capabilities to reducing the dependency of the developing country on international aid.

Preventing dependency

From our experience in the reconstruction following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, there were three recognisable trends that resulted in continued donor dependency: lack of construction expertise within international organisations driving the recovery; lack of community engagement; and lack of professional oversight during construction.

In Nepal, many INGOs had been operating in the region for years without significant construction expertise.

”International organisations can often be guilty of not engaging with the local community to establish their needs and understand the unique opportunities and constraints that affect reconstruction”

When the earthquake hit, their focus was on government-approved designs regardless of their appropriateness. Not all realised that to meaningfully ‘build back better’ they needed to develop or build on construction skills within the community.

International organisations can often be guilty of not engaging with the local community to establish their needs and understand the unique opportunities and constraints that affect reconstruction.

In areas such as Nepal, it is understandable that the logistics, cost and time to visit extremely remote villages in the Himalayas can prevent this engagement. This can lead to crude assumptions being made about end-user requirements, resulting in buildings that are not fit for purpose and don’t provide the facilities the community needs long term.

But such failures are easily mitigated by tapping into the knowledge and resources of the existing network of small and medium-sized NGOs and local experts who have been operating on the ground for many years.

Governance needed

Top-down recovery also often results in first-world construction methods. However, regardless of the construction method proposed by the funding or implementing NGO, the transition from a good-quality design to a good-quality building is at the mercy of the workmanship of the builders.

In Nepal, all designs were signed off at government level but, in many cases, what was then constructed on the ground did not match the design. As the government do not have the resources and infrastructure to monitor all construction projects, especially in remote regions, it lies with the INGOs to have robust governance processes to oversee construction.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the INGO project managers are not suitably qualified to report on construction and so poor workmanship and key details on which seismic performance is reliant are missed.

It is therefore critical that local construction experts are brought on board to drive this process with guidance and training provided by industry experts, either local or international. This capacity-building approach is fundamental to success.

We must understand the skills and capability in a country and work with it to develop enduring knowledge.

When the dust settles and reconstruction is complete, the INGOs and experts should be able to leave knowing their legacy is not dictated by the buildings, but by how well they imparted knowledge and skills.

Glyn Utting is an associate at WYG

Readers' comments (4)

  • Here is a clear, to me, example of how ‘Offsite’, ‘Pre Engineered’ kit buildings such as timber frame or Light Gauge Steel would be ideal.

    BOTH are well proven seismic solutions

    BOTH require, or can be designed to require, un skilled labour to erect

    BOTH can be ‘flat packed’ / bundled / containerised for rapid deployment anywhere in the world

    BOTH are ‘Legoesque’ in that the same kit can be configured to multiple uses, Housing, school, medical centre

    Any NGO’s out there look us up. My practice are happy to offer a FREE Engineered solution using generic products/ supply to ensure best value, etc.

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  • In the Nepal incident drones were quickly used to get a good picture of the scale of the disaster and quickly provided a range of geo-metric data and image analysis for INGOs. Importantly certainly at least one drone company also trained capable locals to use the drones and the data analysis was provided globally through the internet. So provision of services and local training (e.g. construction skills ) can be done and the global community can assist with education and design though the internet.

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  • In response to the comment from Stephen Napper:
    I don't believe you have read or understood the article. The solutions that you are trying to sell are part of the problem. Off the shelve solutions such as this can be a great short term solution for communities affected by natural disasters but are not necessarily a good fit for long term reconstruction, which is what the article is addressing.
    There is not and should not be a 'one size fits all' solution for all communities post disaster. These communities are often very diverse with very unique cultural, geographic and logistical challenges. These need to be factored into any proposed solution. As an example, your solution can be shipped in and erected by unskilled labour. I have the following queries;
    - Does 'shipping in' a solution support the micro economy of the community. They may have an abundance of material (timber, stones etc). This material will be neglected and the livelihoods it support are forgetten
    - How does a unskilled solution promote the local skills unique to that community. They could have fantastic carpenters and stone masons who have generations of skills. The pre-fabricated solution will have seismic resistant qualities but any material can be appropriately adapted to be more seismic resistant.
    - Does this solution promote local building methodology and vernacular architecture. We have a responsibility to preserve and maintain the local building styles and architecture. This skills support many local jobs and economies.
    - What happens in 10 years if another earthquakes strikes and your solution is damaged. What do the locals do? Do they wait for more western aid to come and build another building or should we be encourage them to be more self sufficient and less donor dependent.

    I do think there is a place for such innovative solutions but they should not be rolled out as a one size fits all.

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  • In response to the comment from Consortiq:
    I believe drones are a huge asset in enabling INGOs and locals carry out damage assessments post disaster. The ability to send in drones reduces both the physical risk and exposure and the need to send in experts at the expense of charitable money.
    However, the role of drones should not be substituted for community engagement. It is still very important for the INGOs to engage with locals and make sure their views and requirements are clearly understood to avoid any crude assumptions being made regarding the most effective solution.

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