Thursday, 7 May 2015

Nepal earthquake: emergency shelter and earthbags

In this blog I discuss earth-bag construction as an option for shelter recovery in Nepal. I start off with a quick overview of how the humanitarian coordination is going with the relevant links to access this info for those people unfamiliar with the system.  So skip down a bit if you want to get straight to the earthbag issues, links, etc.
An earth bag school under construction in Nepal, before the
earthquake. This one, a school, built by the local community with design and
training help from Edge of Seven, others shown below.
Critical points are: these are extremely earthquake resilient, energy efficient
and require a fraction of the logistics of importing bricks and cement up the damaged roads, etc. 



The incredibly powerful earthquake which struck Nepal on 25th of April this year has killed over 7,500 people and injured at least twice as many.  Latest reports are indicating that over 255,000 houses have been destroyed, with another 215,000 "damaged".  Humanitarian coordination is already up and running and huge amounts of data and information is being placed online and updated regularly. The relevant entry point is here.

The suffering and loss reported by the media and humanitarian agencies has been immense, unbearable for those families worst affected. Save the Children and UNDAC report 

"In Sindhupalchok, the level of damage significantly increases higher up the valley. Families live outside their homes under makeshift shelters of old tents, plastics, bed sheets, corrugated iron, and boards. Observations in villages showed that almost all houses made of stone and mud plaster are completely destroyed"

It reminds me of news, around ten years ago of the earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan, which was actually slightly less intense than the one in Nepal (7.6 and 7.8 respectively, on the richter scale), but claimed more than 80,000 lives.  At least, thus far, mortality in Nepal has been lower, by a a huge margin.

The main sectors in the UN Flash appeal
including target numbers of beneficiaries. 
The UN, in collaboration with local Government and the NGO community has moved quickly to put together a "flash appeal" which is requesting $415m for immediate funding for only the next 3 months (April to July) for critical areas like shelter, water&sanitation, education, logistics support protection, food security, etc.

So there are lots of areas to deal with and to the extent possible the local Government NGOs (and a whole range of “civil society” actors will be leading the response).  These appeals and the consequent scaling up of UN and international NGOs try, to a large extent, to support these local efforts, rather than overwhelm things with outsiders and foreign stuff.

With over a quarter of a million houses damaged, there's a massive shelter and housing challenge - that has to be addressed ASAP before the winter - indeed before the monsoon rainy season which can start as early as June and go through September.

I’m going to focus on shelter options in this post, because of the mighty damage the shelter cluster has reported. There are a few factors to consider here:

  • People need immediate (emergency) shelter now if they have lost their home and are sleeping out in the open or with friends and family.  
  • For those families who remain in or near their villages reconstruction and recovery starts right away.  The concept of there being phases: emergency shelter, followed by some transitional affair, then “build back safer” durable and “earthquake compliant” shelter is not very close to their reality – or affordable.   
  • There will not be enough money. The UN has already asked for almost half a billion USD – for the first three months alone! (OK most of it for food and cash vouchers), but how much money do you think the donor community has to spare?  (Don’t forget that the latest appeal to support Lebanon is for $2.2 bn, which doesn't include the needs inside Syria, Jordan, Yemen; let alone South Sudan, Ebola recovery and so on).  So: whatever is done has to be extremely good value (read: low cost and robust).  Or chose to support only a small percentage of the total caseload with a full price (all signing all dancing) reconstruction package.
  • News update as of 8th May, the UN says it's only received about 5% of it's $415m appeal (that's around $22m).  This usually happens at the beginning of an appeal, but 5% is really low, so,  as I said, money is going to be tight.
So I’ve had a look at the draft Nepal Shelter Cluster strategy which basically recommends:

  • Immediate life-saving shelter interventions such as tarpaulins, basic tools and fixings for damaged homes for displaced people, along with the appropriate non-food items. (And the shelter cluster provides a pretty cool info sheet on how to strap down your tarp in the best way possible).
  • Cash for the "most vulnerable" families (which in itself can be challenging to decide as so many have lost their homes and are vulnerable) to address urgent needs.  Actually, I think that cash right now would be really useful and appropriate - assuming shops and markets are around.  Much better than donating a tent or cooking sets, which cost a lot of money plus serious transport costs and hassle.  People know what they need and they know how to get ahold of it, if they have money. However, I've also heard that building materials are really hard to buy right now and to transport to the more isolated areas.  Moreover, cash alone doesn't pay for critical water and sanitation work to be done.  
The shelter cluster strategy goes on to talk about other really relevant issues on supporting local Government with quake resistant building approaches and other points more relevant to the recovery phase.  Worth reading and getting involved with the cluster if you're part of the response. 

So, what are the options now? As we’ve seen the emergency phase is about tents, tarps n’ tools, or cash.  But how well will these really suit the coming monsoon and winter?

One friend wrote to ask about the suitability of bamboo thatch with tarps. These are not bad, certainly could do for the next few months to stay dry, keep the rain out, etc. assuming the roof eaves are long enough to keep the rain off the walls. But the problem is that these kind of shelters aren't going to be very warm in the winter, they just don't have the insulation. But for an emergency solution to get people over the coming monsoon season it is what the majority of aid agencies are doing right now.

I heard from another colleague that it’s really difficult to buy or access materials out in the more remote areas; there’s not a lot of salvageable wood from the rubble and roofing sheets are damaged.

In which case - a really excellent resource - for anyone working with bamboo and tarps is this "reciproboo" system, developed by Shaun Halbert, which uses smart but really simple geometry to greatly reduce the amount of bamboo or sticks needed per shelter.

Locals are saying that it gets cold and wet pretty soon – so insulation and heating are really vital.  So… what to do?

The solution, I believe, is earth-bags.  These are basically 50 kg rice or fertiliser bags that are filled with any dirt you happen to be standing on, and stacked with attention to levels, etc. to make walls.  Door and window frames are inserted as the walls go up.  Ditto openings for a chimney.

Earth bag shelter built in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake by
Cal Earth Pakistan - see link and reference below. 
Here it gets interesting: the building can be designed to be round, and the roof made from the same materials in a dome structure.  Quite handy where you don’t have enough roofing material or money (or in some cases like in Pakistan, California, Europe or Iran, you like the dome design, it’s an aesthetic advantage).  Oh, and good to mention: these can be some of the most earthquake compliant low cost buildings you can make. The pictures here show lots of good examples. 

Could this work in Nepal? Well it turns out quite a number have already been built there over the years by a few different agencies. I got in touch with some of them and have already heard back from First Step Himalaya, a New Zealand outfit which worked with a local community to build a school.  As you can see from this recent TV news slot, this building survived the earthquake just fine.

First Step replied to me yesterday to say that their local teams are operational now, that they have a new relief fund set up and are doing what they can like so many local groups. The challenge might be taking it to scale: how many people can First Step train to build these kind of structures quickly and properly in the next few months?

There are other groups who know how to do this however, including an old friend from Karachi, Shahid Malik Shahid has set up this really useful site with loads of links.


Earthbag building in Mexico.
Souce: here
It's nice to see that earthbags have been used all over the world, so they can be adapted to the social or cultural factors relevant within your community. Check this one on the right from Mexico, makes for really nice light and angles within.  And it's amazing to think that no "normal" roofing materials were needed at all, like wood, steel, concrete, etc.



Meanwhile, I’d like to know if there are other designs and material choices that would offer such good value for money at this time – when money is so scare and need so enormous.  

Here's some more information about the disaster:

Some of the really useful information managemnet data coming out of the shetler cluster in Khatmandu. This is a poor quality snapshot - go check out their website and links to all their docs here

Another interesting one showing numbers of shelter items distributed so far, by who.
Source: as above (Shelter cluster Nepal)

Focus area of the earthquake and worst-affected districts


A breakdown of requested funds per sector from the UN flash appeal 

And some pictures I took in Kathmandu back in 2013, when a bunch of us went on the renowned "earthquake walk" through town...



Serious structural cracks already seen on this building.  It would be a miracle if it remained standing

lots of bizarre looking tall and thin structures like this
have been built over the last ten years. I don't know
how well they handled the earthquake, as many of the buldings
around them appear really vulnerable.  


5 comments:

lee woo said...

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#sheltered
www.ufgop.org


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Jennifer Morgon said...

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