Billions of dollars to rebuild post-quake Nepal being misdirected: Experts

Abandoned houses damaged during the 2015 earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal, on April 21, 2017.
Abandoned houses damaged during the 2015 earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal, on April 21, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

DHUNGKHARKA, NEPAL (AFP) - Billions of dollars poured into Nepal after a powerful earthquake devastated the country three years ago is being misdirected towards building unnecessary new homes where old ones could have been salvaged, experts warn.

Survivors of the 7.8-magnitude quake that killed nearly 9,000 people in April 2015 are being pushed to construct new buildings they do not need, casting doubt on the efficacy of the government's US$9 billion (S$11 billion) reconstruction effort.

"It is proposing the wrong solution for a lot of people," said Mr Noll Tufani, Nepal country director for Build Change, a charity specialising in disaster-proofing.

Building quake-proof homes was a condition of the US$4.1 billion pledged to Nepal by international donors under the tagline "build back better".

The government identified 708,000 families whose homes had been damaged and set up a US$3,000 cash subsidy programme to encourage them to construct homes that would withstand future seismic shocks.

Three years later, just 15 per cent have been rebuilt under the US$2.1 billion scheme.

The sluggish reconstruction effort has been hit by political infighting, bureaucracy and confusion among quake victims over how to obtain the subsidy.

Many felled their damaged homes to build smaller ones - often at huge cost - instead of quake-proofing their mud and brick dwellings by retrofitting them with reinforced beams.

Build Change estimates that some 250,000 homes could be salvaged in this way, while another 150,000 rebuilt since the disaster would also need to be retrofitted.

Sturdy wooden pillars secure Mr Shekhar Prasad Timilsina's house in Dungkharka, a village 45km east of Kathmandu, as workers busily mix concrete and bend rods on his porch.

"My house did not collapse but suffered cracks after the earthquake. I'm glad I did not have to tear it down and could retrofit it," the 69-year-old told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The National Reconstruction Authority, the government agency overseeing the rebuilding effort, only approved retrofitting midway through last year.

"We were unsure what to do earlier. With the grant we could have built only a small house," said Mr Indra Lal Shrestha, a trained retrofitter.

He plans to retrofit his own family home rather than razing it.

"We can live like we used to... and are not forced to take on large debts to rebuild," he said.

Many villagers live in mud and stone houses two-and-a-half storeys high, with space to house animals and store grain as well as accommodate a large extended family.

But the cost of rebuilding with the money provided is beyond many families.

Meanwhile, the government-approved designs for new homes are much smaller, forcing families to adjust farming practices that are the main source of income in rural, impoverished Nepal.

Mr Yub Raj Bhusal, the head of the reconstruction authority, concedes that more homes could have benefited from retrofitting.

"Retrofitting is important, it should have started earlier," he told AFP. "But now that we have opened doors, we expect there might more people interested to retrofit and retain their original homes."

The British government's Department of International Development (DFID) has committed US$7.6 million to a retrofitting project with Build Change.

So far, around 50 homes have been completed. The government has earmarked around 25,000 homes for retrofitting but DFID and Build Change say more could be done.

Rebuilding has picked up. The government says it is on target to complete reconstruction by 2020, but faces an estimated US$1 billion shortfall for rebuilding homes alone.