After the earthquake, Nepal reconstructs with green building materials
Two years after the devastating earthquake that left nearly 9 000 people dead and 22 000 injured, Menuka Shrestha is looking forward to move into a new house, her previous one destroyed in the tragic event.
Hers is one of the 64 houses currently under construction in Sanagaun in the Kathmandu Valley's Municipality of Sankhu. This area is one of the worst affected by the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, with hundreds of aftershocks in the days and weeks that followed.
Since the earthquake destroyed their home, Menuka and her family have been living in a temporary shelter in the area. Although the government allocated a NPR 300 000 (ca. EUR 2 700) grant for earthquake-affected families, bureaucratic and procedural requirements are in effect making it hard for victims to access these public instalments, which are to be disbursed into three stages. As of March 29, 2017, less than 4% of the entitled families had received the second tranche of aid, reported the National Reconstruction Authority (1).
Like their neighbours, Menuka's family are selling their land to afford a new house. Once loosing their land, these residents, traditionally farmers, will become labourers.
The earthquake destroyed more than 500 000 houses and additionally damaged about 280 000. Construction has been booming in the aftermath of the natural disaster, and so has the demand for eco-friendly construction products, says Padma Sunder Joshi from UN-Habitat.
Between 2012 and 2015, the United Nationals Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has been implementing the SWITCH-Asia project Green Homes that promoted sustainable housing technologies.
'Green Homes' brought in the country the 'Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks' (CSEBs), building materials made of damp soil, compressed at high pressure and with cement as a binding agent. Compared to conventional mud bricks, the production of CSEBs requires less energy, reduces black sooth emissions from kilns and degradation of agricultural topsoil. Besides being environment-friendlier, CSEBs provide for better insulation, are quicker to build and are of much better strength than the burnt bricks available in the market, while retaining fire-safety and waterproof properties. Importantly, they don't come at a higher price, reassured Mr Joshi, the SWITCH-Asia project's Team Leader.
'Green homes' designed the compression equipment used to manufacture CSEBs, donating three of them to local production units. 16 months after the official conclusion of the SWITCH-Asia project, three SMEs are producing CSEBs in Kathmandu. Some of them had produced them in Thailand and Myanmar after the 2004 tsunami.
For their properties and cost-effectiveness, CSEBs represent an optimal solution for Nepal's post-reconstruction efforts. The vast market potential is however hindered by limited awareness and production capacity.
As with many other sectors in Nepal, the construction industry is suffering from a lack of masons and construction workers, who are lured by better-paying jobs abroad, especially in Malaysia and the Gulf States. In a country of about 27 million people, some 500 000 have been migrating abroad for work in the fiscal years of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 (2). Despite their very harsh working conditions abroad - many of them return to Nepal severely injured or in a coffin (3) -, they are the lifeblood of many of the country's poorest households: the remittances of Nepali low-skilled workers account for approximately one fourth of the country's GDP (4).
From the policy side, of the more than 90 construction designs approved by the government after the earthquake, only two-to-three include the use of eco-friendly materials. Through 'Green Homes' policy advocacy work, CSEBs are now in compliance with Nepal's national standards for construction materials.
Menuka, a 20-year-old management student, expects to move into her new house in September, together with her mother and elderly brother. Their house-to-be is on two and a half floors, and uses a concrete frame and CSEB walls. The same applies to all the new houses in the neighbourhood. Their construction sites bustle with workers and local residents, many of them women, who operate the building block pressers, and transport and pile up the new bricks.
Once completed, this neighbourhood will become one of the first in Nepal to make large-scale use of CSEBs. With more policy support, public awareness and corporate uptake, these greener bricks could help Nepal in its reconstruction efforts, while promoting more sustainable building practices and new employment opportunities.
Text and photography: Silvia Sartori (SWITCH-Asia Network Facility)
Edited by: Uwe Weber (SWITCH-Asia Network Facility)
 "NRA approves six new designs of low-cost housing" - The Himalayan Times, March 22, 2017.
 "Labour migration for employment" - Government of Nepal, Ministry of Labour and Employment, June 2016; "Number of migrants leaving for foreign jobs on the decline" - The Himalayan Times, July 19, 2015.; "Labour Migration in Nepal" - ILO, ilo.org/kathmandu/areasofwork/labour-migration/lang--en/index.htm .
 "At a rising rate, Nepalis working abroad go home in coffins" - Associated Press, December 21, 2016; "Increasing number of deaths among Nepali workers" - Al Jazeera, December 21, 2016; "Killed in the line of duty" - Nepali Times, January 24, 2016.
 "Migration and remittances factbook 2016" - World Bank Group.