Kathmandu is hit by a major earthquake every 70 or 80 years – and the last was in 1934

Kathmandu's skyline. Image: Getty.

Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal and home to an estimated 2.5m people, sits in a zone of high seismic activity. The city has historically been hit by a major earthquake every 70 or 80 years. The last big one was in 1934. The eight-magnitude quake destroyed most of Kathmandu’s houses, killed more than 10,000 people and injured thousands more. Experts say we are dangerously close to another earthquake – only this time the impact would be much bigger. The city itself has grown massively in the last few decades: houses have been built without consideration to building codes, the city features fewer open spaces, and there are few if any signs of urban planning and disaster preparedness.

Walking through the narrow lanes of inner Kathmandu, where daylight struggles to penetrate and houses stand precariously in front of one another, the city looks like a catastrophe waiting to happen. If an eight-magnitude earthquake were to rock Kathmandu today, the damage would be unprecedented. The Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) estimates that 60 per cent of the buildings will be destroyed, more than 100,000 people will die and twice as many will be injured. The majority of roads, bridges, hospitals and airports will collapse making rescue and rehabilitation extremely difficult. Water mains will be destroyed, there will be no power and phone lines will not work.

The importance of a preparedness plan cannot be stressed enough for a city like Kathmandu. Nepal has to act soon, and on a war-scale if it wants to avert tragedy. For a country that has seen prolonged political instability, long-term planning is a concept difficult to grasp: that’s part of the reason why disaster management failed to become a priority for successive governments. It is also worthwhile to remember that Nepal hasn’t conducted local elections since 1997. Not having elected mayors or elected representatives at the village and the district level has eroded accountability at all levels of governance, and relegated pressing issues like disaster planning to the backseat of governance.

 However, the realization of the danger ahead seems to have set in and the government has been able to take some concrete steps. In 2009, Nepal rolled out a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management. A few years back Nepal’s international partners came together to form the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium. The consortium works with the government to reduce vulnerability to disasters by retrofitting schools and hospitals, providing emergency preparedness and response, training communities and strengthening policies and institutions.

NSET estimates that 60,000 schools in the country need retrofitting. Although the cash-strapped government might not be able to retrofit them all, thousands of lives can be saved if the government can at least ensure the schools follow building codes. There are also other urgent tasks, especially of preparing for the aftermath. Equipping hospitals to deal with earthquake emergency, stockpiling of medicines and essential supplies, and making sure there is enough water, food and fuel for the city in the first few days following the earthquake is critical.

In the long run, however, what Kathmandu needs is an action plan to build resilience against disasters and a strong political will to see that through. That would mean building earthquake resistant infrastructures, enforcing strict building codes, increasing awareness about disaster mitigation and safety, and bringing disaster management to the centre of urban planning. It also means having to rethink our idea of what “development” consists of: accepting the constraints imposed by nature, and finding ways to reconcile growth with sustainability.

Rubeena Mahato is from Nepal and she is studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” will take place this week and will explore new ideas to tackle the impacts of rapid urbanization across the world. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.