Taking stock in Nepal: an eye-opening anecdote from Alex Shepherd

Our fantastic work with Community Action Nepal (CAN) since the 2015 earthquake has been well publicised, receiving lots of industry awards and press coverage. Amidst all the technical accounts of our work, our built environment expert, Alex Shepherd, shares a more personal anecdote of his recent trip.

Alex graduated from the University of Liverpool in 2005 and began employment in bridge design. Since then he had regretted not taking some time to get involved in international volunteering before progressing on his career ladder.

He seized the opportunity to join a trip to Nepal during the months of November and December last year. His background in seismic design and assessment from over a decade in the nuclear industry proved especially beneficial.

“The opportunity to join the CAN project first arose when I shared a funding competition for earthquake-related projects with Glyn and Cara. We quickly agreed that we should go for this, and fortunately, our application succeeded. We received a £1,500 bursary from the Institution of Civil Engineers to support the costs of the next progress visit.

The trip took the form of three main treks into the earthquake-affected areas where CAN has health posts and schools – Ghunsa in the Everest region, Helambu to the north east of Kathmandu, and Tsum Valley in the North Gorkha region (the epicentre of the April 2015 earthquake).

In the run-up to the trip, I tried to prepare myself as best I could to offer structural advice on the various rebuild projects using my experience in seismic design and assessments in the UK. I studied the Nepalese building codes, familiarised myself with each of the projects we would be visiting, and tried to understand the designs and issues affecting the projects so far.

Although this research certainly had some value when reviewing the quality of construction, it quickly became apparent to me that a host of unexpected factors affected the successful delivery of the projects.  From day one, engagement with the various stakeholders took all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, from warring villagers, issues of land ownership to landslides blocking delivery of materials to site. This, for me, was an eye-opening aspect of the visit I hadn’t anticipated, despite Glyn and Cara warning they would feature heavily.

One moment that will have a lasting effect on me came at the end of our first week. As we left the previous nights’ lodgings in Chispoani, a village badly damaged during the earthquake, with little reconstruction, we turned a corner to see a three-storey building that seemed to be leaning significantly at the crest of the hill.  At first, this seemed an optical illusion, but as we approached, we realised this was, in fact, a four-storey building. The entire bottom storey had collapsed during the earthquake. In structural design, we call this failure a “soft story collapse,” and it was fascinating to see an example up close.

We studied the building, taking photographs and were all keen to speculate about what must have happened. Cara asked a nearby shop owner (through one of our Nepalese counterparts) what had happened and if anybody had been in hurt in the collapse. The heart-breaking answer was two children had been tragically killed in the building when the earthquake struck. With no money to safely demolish the building and rebuild, the family had to migrate to Kathmandu in search of work and shelter. That changed the context of what we were looking at immediately; it brought home the earthquake’s truly tragic effects.

I realised how easy it is to superficially pass through these villages, some of which are now almost completely rebuilt, and forget the hidden legacy of families that have been devastated in the disaster. It also fully reinforced the project mantra of “building back better.” Should a similar event happen again, the new buildings must offer the occupants safe shelter and protection.  It must be done right this time.

Having returned from the trip, it’s back to writing follow-up progress reports for CAN and its donors, helping CAN rationalise lessons learned from the trip, and continuing to support the CAN Nepal construction team by expanding its knowledge and improving the quality of their construction.

This opportunity has been of huge value to me, giving me the chance to finally get involved in the humanitarian work I’d always wanted to do. It has introduced me to talented colleagues within our business, and it has also reshaped the way I look at how I can contribute to society as an engineer outside my day job.”

Find out more about our work in Nepal by downloading the latest CAN Progress Report 2017  >>

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