From bricks to apps, local creativity mitigates the cost of crisis

Nov 29, 2017

What are some local innovations that UNDP has adopted in order to help Nepal back on its feet and on the road to recovery after the earthquake?

The earth moved, violently, and in seconds, nearly a million homes were damaged or destroyed. Centuries old buildings made of wood crumbled. Clouds of dust hung over mounds of debris.

For those who survived the 2015 earthquake, the aftermath was one of trauma and a struggle to survive. At first, those with no homes found shelter only in makeshift tents or by huddling under tarps as rains came pouring down.

It took eight months before Sunita Rumba could return to her village after being displaced to the outskirts of Kathmandu. Every home in her community had been damaged or destroyed. Her own, tilted on a severe angle, was unsafe. She and her family initially lived in a tin shed.

So it was with great relief that she joined a UNDP-supported programme training people on making a new kind of earthquake-resistant bricks to rebuild their homes. It was an opportunity not only to regain her own home, but also to earn an income from selling the bricks while contributing to a safer community.

“At a time when the earthquake had destroyed everything and our economic condition was deteriorating, this programme meant we were able to establish ourselves as entrepreneurs,” she says. “All of us have to rebuild our homes. Now they can be earthquake resistant and also affordable.”

The bricks are made from stone dust and cement mixed with suitable soil that is readily available from the area around Sunita’s village. Manufacturing them requires only simple tools. But they apply a sophisticated innovation—a carefully engineered interlocking structure that allows them to fasten tightly to each other. Steel rods held in place by cement paste run through the centres. Houses built from them have a much lower chance of falling or cracking if another earthquake strikes.

Building for resilience

Nepal is situated in one of the most seismically active regions of the world. But this is just one of the factors that make its people vulnerable to crisis. Poverty rates are high, and the mountainous terrain hinders travel and communication, access to services and economic opportunities. A disaster like the 2015 quake leaves many people with few or no resources to cope.

The quake was a tragedy and, as the worst of its kind in several generations, a wakeup call to build differently so that people and their dwellings will be more resilient to risks. A home that collapses may not just kill or injure its residents, but set off a long chain of events that can include loss of education and livelihoods, vulnerability to gender-based violence, food insecurity, the destruction of bonds that sustain communities and so on. The effects can extend across generations, fueling development deficits even beyond the immediate costs of recovery, and putting national aspirations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals out of reach.

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Nepal cannot yet afford the costly, high-tech engineering that protects against earthquakes in some parts of the world. But it does have local innovations—and a national commitment to applying them to safeguard and accelerate its development. In the recovery from the earthquake, UNDP has worked with national engineers and experts on a series of techniques, like the interlocking bricks, that are safer, use local materials and help preserve local environmental resources.

Several of these innovations now feature in the national catalogue of officially tested and endorsed construction techniques. Besides the interlocking bricks, they include the random rubble technique, which uses stones and mud supported on both sides by galvanized iron wires and mesh. The technique is low in cost, since the stones and mud can readily be found in rural areas, and the wires are easy to transport over long distances. It avoids the traditional reliance on wood from forests that are already under severe pressure from overuse.

Another technique involves compacting broken bricks and rubble with soil, sand and cement. This recycles what would otherwise be waste materials, and achieves a level of strength comparable to normal bricks. So-called debris blocks can then be used for construction resilient to quakes through vertical and horizontal supports such as rebar or galvanized wire.

Adopting new building techniques depends partly on availability and affordability, with both considerations an integral part of innovations supported by UNDP. Uptake also advances through supportive building codes that require people to make construction safer.

Three municipalities are implementing an electronic building permit system, known as e-BPS, with plans in place for wider replication. Building permits are filed and monitored on the web, where a system checks compliance with building codes and by-laws. It rejects applications that do not comply, reducing the chances of human error and manipulation. The system allows quick access to data on applications per ward, types of buildings, the status of buildings and so on, information essential to ongoing efforts to mitigate and prepare for earthquakes and other risks.

An urgent and lasting contribution

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, there was enormous pressure to assist millions of people in dire need, and quickly. But even in those circumstances, innovation found a place. As recovery from the quake moved forward, and the imperative to assess building safety became acute, UNDP formed a partnership with Microsoft to tackle a longstanding challenge that had never been satisfactorily resolved: how to digitize record-keeping in disasters.

Initial collaboration with the Microsoft Innovations Center in Nepal centred on a plan for engineers to conduct safety assessments by carrying laptops, GPS devices, cameras and an internet dongle. All of this equipment would have been costly, at around $2,000, and hard to lug to remote locations across difficult terrain. Drilling deeper, working around the clock in a marathon three-day session, a team of innovators came up with a better solution: an app that could run on cheap, easy-to-carry mobile phones.

The app taps into the phones’ GPS capabilities, which allowed engineers to take precise coordinates for each building. They recorded property owner details and phone numbers, took pictures of the damage, and, where necessary, secured signed authorizations for demolition. Other functions included calculations of the volume of debris and the time removal would take, as well as the identification of hazards such as medical or biological waste. This information guided the order and sequence of the work, and any necessary protections. All data were stored in the cloud, making them secure and readily accessible among field staff as well as those overseeing the entire recovery effort in Kathmandu.

Within months of the quake, over 2,000 safe demolitions had been conducted, and $11 million worth of recyclable materials reclaimed. Further, the demolition app helped people regain their livelihoods by managing nearly 800 community members enrolled in a cash-for-work initiative to clear communities of debris. Each worker was given a card with a barcode, which engineers scanned to track attendance and earnings. Data were uploaded through the app, facilitating timely electronic payment transfers.

As important as these accomplishments were, the app has even greater potential. It could transform practices in disaster response, offering an unprecedented quantity of readily accessible data to inform recovery as well as the shift to long-term reconstruction.

It could also be a major step towards moving beyond the rudimentary, often paper-based record-keeping systems still prevalent in poorer countries like Nepal. A similar approach could be used for census data, property records, and many other issues. More accurate and transparent records would protect the rights of individuals, and guide strategic development choices propelling the significant advances demanded in the era of the SDGs.

This is an extract from the “Innovate, Create, Change - New Ideas that Power SDG Progress in Asia Pacific” report published by UNDP Asia-Pacific.

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