Concrete lessons of 2015

SCENIC, BUT ALSO SEISMIC: Kyanjin in Langtang Valley has resurrected after the 2015 earthquake, but even in this remote area, most of the rebuilt hotels are multistorey concrete structures. Cement and steel rods were lifted there by helicopter. The new buildings have also changed the cultural landscape of this ancient monastery village. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

The reconstruction of private and public buildings damaged in the 2015 earthquake is nearly complete. Now it is time to also focus on being prepared for the next big disaster.

Himalayan seismologists have long warned that a megaquake is overdue in western Nepal. The last big earthquake to hit the region was in 1205, and it was so powerful that it killed a king in Kathmandu, and set off a cataclysmic avalanche to create Pokhara and its lakes.

So much tectonic tension has accumulated below western Nepal since that it is ready to snap. A 8+ magnitude earthquake there will also shake up the rest of the country as well as northern India. It is not a matter of if, but when.

“We have done a commendable job with reconstruction given the scale of the disaster in 2015, but outside of those 14 districts we are not prepared at all for the next big quake,” warns Surya Narayan Shrestha of the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET).

The importance of preparedness was highlighted by the fact that schools retrofitted by NSET all survived the 2015 earthquake. They even served as shelters as aftershocks rocked the region.

Read also: Falling through the cracks, Sahina Shrestha

Adds Shrestha: “Retrofitting public buildings should be the topmost priority now, it is the best cost-effective solution for a seismically active and resource limited country like ours. So in the next 10-15 years, we must take up a campaign to continually retrofit schools across Nepal.”

The fact that most reinforced concrete structures survived the 2015 earthquake convinced Nepalis that cement houses are stronger. As the road network expands, cement has now reached the remotest parts of Nepal – but experts warn that if the raw materials do not meet quality standards and proper construction methods are not followed, concrete structures can be even more dangerous in an earthquake.

“Cement and concrete have given people a false sense of security after 2015,” says Anil Pokhrel of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA). “We have to enforce building codes through the municipalities by giving them clear roles, technical know-how, and financial and human resources.”

Indeed, the Authority is getting ready for the next big earthquake by spending Rs350 million to buy rescue equipment for collapsed concrete structures, and training Armed Police Force (APF) and Nepal Army on how to use them.

Public misconception about concrete, coupled with people forgetting the horror of 25 April 2015, has led to haphazard growth and construction in Kathmandu Valley. It is not earthquakes that kill people, but poorly built houses.

The Gongabu neighbourhood of Kathmandu saw hundreds of casualties when concrete structures with weak foundations and illegally added floors flattened like pancakes seven years ago. In Dhapakhel, an eight-storey engineering college collapsed into a heap of rubble.

Read also: Concrete planning, Editorial

If it was not a Saturday, the death toll of 8,890 in the 2015 earthquake would have been several times higher. More than 7,000 schools were either destroyed or severely damaged in the quake.

“Public memory of a disaster usually lasts four years, and people now are a lot less careful about raw material and construction methods,” adds Pokhrel.

Increasing urban pressure has meant that people in Kathmandu and other cities have forgotten the lessons learned, and have gone back to constructing substandard structures flouting building codes.

Warns NSET’s Shrestha: “We are haphazardly building concrete structures again. The next earthquake above 8 magnitude probable in western Nepal could be a catastrophe."

In Kathmandu Valley, the rebuilding of ancient towns like Sankhu, Bungamati, Harisiddhi and Tokha that were destroyed in 2015 has been slower than that of the Darbar Squares of Patan or Bhaktapur. And here the challenge is to maintain the original architectural heritage of the historic towns.

Harisiddhi was the first town to come up with a technical proposal to retain its traditional Newa skyline, but without much success, admits engineer Bijay Maharjan.

Read also: Rebuilding resilience 7 years later, Anil Pokhrel

“A lot of people are now aware that they have to build safer houses and they also use higher quality construction materials, but we largely failed to maintain traditional architecture which are more costly,” he adds.

Harisiddhi Ward 29 chair Ganesh Kumar Maharjan is planning to recontest in the May local elections, and when asked if his town is prepared for the next big earthquake, he says, “In Nepal, we are always waiting for the next big one, and we can never be fully prepared. Our preparedness should not just be awareness but real work on the ground.”

Nearby, the chair of Harisiddhi’s Ward 28 Rajesh Maharjan wants to provide alternative income generation sources to prevent local communities from selling their ancestral land to developers.

Seven years after 2015, and despite successes in reconstruction, building standards are poor. Much more needs to be done to enforce seismic resistant structures, and invest in preparedness.

Says Surya Narayan Shrestha: “We are in the business of saving lives. All municipalities across Nepal need to mandatorily enforce building codes with strict monitoring. That is the only way we can prevent buildings from killing people in the next earthquake.”

Read more: The history of heritage, Ashish Dhakal

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.