Reducing disaster vulnerability through local knowledge and capacity

Dr. Rohit Jigyasu

Disasters caused by natural and human-induced hazards such as earthquakes, floods, cyclones and fires cause tremendous loss of lives, livelihoods and properties. In 2017, 318 natural disasters occurred, affecting 122 countries (EM-DAT data on 21 March 2018),1 resulting in 9,503 deaths, 96 million people affected and US$314 billion in economic damages. In fact, the general trend over last few decades shows that even though there is still high mortality due to major disasters, the economic impact of disasters is also increasing at an alarming pace. A high rate of urbanization and climate change are two important factors that are exacerbating the frequency and intensity of disasters.

Disasters have also been causing increasing loss of cultural heritage. Some recent examples include damage to historic cathedrals due to the central Mexico earthquake in 2017; damage to historic settlements in central Italy and Bagan Archaeological Site in Myanmar due to earthquakes in 2016; damage to the World Heritage Monument Zones of Kathmandu Valley due to the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal; fires in the World Heritage Town of Lijiang in China in 2013 and 2014; and fire in the Old Town of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom in 2002. Cultural heritage sites have also suffered enormous damage due to human-induced hazards like conflicts and vandalism, such as in the cases of Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria, Mosul in Iraq, the Timbuktu shrines in Mali and the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. In South Korea, arson damaged the Sunraemon Gate in 2008, which is designated as ‘cultural property number one’. Extensive damage to cultural heritage has also adversely affected tourism-related revenues as well as associated livelihoods of local communities.

While disasters are a cause of great misery and irreplaceable loss of heritage, they also serve as opportunities for change though the introduction of bold policy and planning measures aimed at reducing the vulnerability of people, properties and cultural heritage to future disasters.

International donor agencies need to make critical choices regarding the basic philosophy governing post-disaster interventions undertaken as part of the recovery process. Of course, recovery should aim at reducing vulnerability and risks of future disasters, but should the choices be determined

Reducing disaster vulnerability 193 by rhe search for only new solutions or should answers be sought by rediscovering local knowledge and capacity developed by communities over time through a collective process of trial and error? In this debate, there is also the fundamental issue of defining cultural heritage: is it only restricted to remains of the past to be admired for their pristine glory, or does it also include the living dimension of heritage that shows continuity while evolving and adapting to change? By considering cultural heritage in its broad scope, ranging from monuments and archaeological sites to historic settlements and cultural landscapes, as well as intangible aspects such as rituals and practices, the chapter seeks answers to the following critical questions for post-disaster recovery of cultural heritage.

How can we reconcile the need to safeguard lives as well as recovering lost heritage values, especially those that contribute to local identity and sense of place? What are the challenges and opportunities, failures and success stories in achieving this? What are the possible approaches for recovery of different types of heritage within its extended scope and what process should be followed for reaching a decision? Also, it is worth pondering if heritage is only a victim of disasters to be protected for posterity or if it can also be a source of resilience through local knowledge and capacity. If so, how can we harness that potential supposedly embedded in heritage?

The above questions will be considered through analysis of post-disaster reconstruction in case studies from India and Nepal. The case of postearthquake reconstruction in Gujarat looks at the appropriateness of traditional technology and the challenges of integrating this knowledge into the design and construction of housing provided through support by national and international donor agencies. The second case of post-earthquake reconstruction, in the Marathwada region in India, emphasizes the importance of cultural considerations in the design and layout of settlements supported through donor agencies. The third case, of post-earthquake recovery of cultural heritage in Nepal, investigates special challenges in making decisions regarding restoration and retrofitting of cultural heritage damaged by earthquakes by reconciling considerations of safety and the protection of heritage values.

Appropriateness of traditional technology for postearthquake reconstruction: the case of Gujarat, India

A destructive 7.7 RW earthquake struck the Kutch and Kathiawar regions in Gujarat in the western part of India on 26 January 2001. According to the official figures, the total population affected by the earthquake was a staggering 15.9 million. The numbers of dead and injured were placed at 19,727 and 166,000, respectively. According to another report, 7,904 villages in 24 districts of Gujarat were affected by this earthquake. A total 332,188 houses were destroyed while 725,802 houses were damaged to various degrees (Mistry, Dong and Shah 2001).

Study of vernacular housing that survived the earthquake reveals traditional knowledge in earthquake-safe construction systems. One of the typical traditional dwellings of the Kutch region, the bhungas, withstood earthquakes thanks to their circular form, which is very good in resisting lateral forces. Moreover, wattle and daub constructions, especially where wood is used as reinforcement for the wall, proved to be very effective. When such constructions fall, they fall outwards, thus preventing the loss of life of those inside them. It is worth mentioning that bhungas are not only earthquake safe, they also demonstrate a sensitive understanding of locally available resources, climatic conditions, and residents’ spatial requirements.

Many structures built prior to the 1950s had floor joists extending through rubble stone walls to support balconies. These were more successful in stabilizing the walls than where joists terminate in pockets, and therefore performed much better against the 2001 earthquake (Langenbach 2001). In fact, in Anjar, this kind of structure was one of the rare ones found standing amidst the debris of collapsed houses (Jigyasu 2002). Some traditional constructions employing wooden frames with masonry infill also performed well against the lateral forces of the earthquake due to their capacity to dissipate energy. Several other earthquake-safe features are also to be found in traditional construction, such as tie beams, knee bracing, and tongue and groove joinery.

However, it was found that this knowledge had been significantly lost prior to the earthquake and therefore many traditional structures did not perform well. Total failure of stone masonry structures was observed all over the affected region. The vulnerability of out-of-plane stone masonry walls could be discerned through the large amount of debris in the narrow lanes of affected towns. There were many one- or two-story stone buildings in mud mortar with poor bonding, of which hardly any survived without significant damage (Jigyasu 2010).

Let us now consider how the reconstruction approach by local government, supported by various donor agencies, influenced the use of traditional knowledge and skills. Following the earthquake, the Gujarat government advocated ‘owner-driven’ reconstruction (ODR) as its primary approach. ODR entailed the provision of financial assistance to all those whose houses were damaged by the earthquake, allowing owners to have a leading role in the building process. Financial support depended on the type and value of the pre-quake house and on its level of damage. The financial aid was embedded in a package of enabling mechanisms, such as a thorough damage assessment, building guidelines, mass training programmes for masons and house owners, technical guidance and the distribution of subsidized construction materials. A civil engineer was placed in each village to provide guidance and supervise the reconstruction, whereby each successive installment was only disbursed if the required qualitative and quantitative target had been achieved (Barenstein 2013).

With the adoption of the ODR NGOs and international organizations came forward to help local communities in deciding the design and technology of new constructions. Most of them promoted owner-driven construction by providing the beneficiaries with construction materials such as wood, bamboo, spreadsheets or concrete blocks, and reinforcement bars, according to the structural design advocated by the outside organization. As part of a public-private partnership policy, the government made building materials available at subsidized rates (Jigyasu 2010). On one hand, this approach enabled greater say by the community in the design of houses per their socio-cultural patterns, leading to a higher level of satisfaction2 (compared to the contractor-driven approaches followed by a few NGOs). But it also led towards a general shift from traditional building practices to those linked to the cement and brick companies due to owners’ preference for industrial building materials, compounded by government building codes that were designed for contemporary constructions (Barenstein 2006). The approach did not foster the use of improved traditional building technologies, which were only promoted by a limited number of local NGOs.

While people preferred contemporary building materials and techniques for post-earthquake housing, the quality of construction was generally poor. This is because even though owners participated in the design and construction of their houses, in most cases, the necessary skills needed for good quality earthquake-safe construction were not imparted to them by the government or NGOs who facilitated the entire process. This was compounded by a lack of financial resources due to which poor owners tended to compromise on the necessary specifications. In some cases, these houses were also left incomplete or owners were unable to maintain them adequately, because of which several new houses soon showed high levels of degradation (Tenconi 2013).

While in some cases people could not acquire the necessary skills needed for a safe use of concrete and bricks due to lack of real participation and knowledge transfer, in other cases, the lack of knowledge pushed local people with the resources to recruit professional masons to have their houses built using bricks or concrete blocks. Poorer people completed their houses by using local materials like stone and mud, leading to a dangerous mix of technologies. Take for example the case of Juni Bandhadi village, where people were taught how to build earthquakeresistant houses by utilizing bricks, concrete, and traditional materials, while in the absence of this in New Bandhadi, the reconstruction approach applied there failed to enhance people’s resilience to future disasters (Tenconi 2013).

The main phase of reconstruction was finished by 2003-2004. Since then, construction has been mainly extensions of the reconstructed structures that were provided or new constructions carried out by the people on their own. Interestingly, the technology that is apparent in recent construction is a mixture of all the available technologies and materials, including those that were developed and promoted by cement industries, such as concrete blocks, or by NGOs, such as compressed soil blocks or china clay blocks.

A few trends, however, are very prominent. For example, houses built of stabilized china clay blocks with thatched roofing were being extended with brick walls and concrete roofing. However, the extension part does not have any reinforced concrete columns to support the concrete slab roof. Furthermore, around many such structures in the earthquake-affected region, new boundary walls are being constructed in rubble stone masonry. Traditional bhungas were also designed by an NGO using compressed soil blocks to be earthquake-safe by virtue of their circular form and concrete bands. However, their extensions in most cases do not show earthquake-safe features, as the owners were not conversant with good construction techniques even if they had access to these blocks (Jigyasu 2010).

The case brings forward the issue of appropriateness of technology for disaster risk reduction in reconstruction projects. We are still locked in an unending debate on the suitability of contemporary versus traditional technologies, while the larger challenge is integrating the two. Programmes supported by international donor agencies should be driven by local professionals and craftsmen from affected communities, thus building on local crafts and experience, while at the same time considering new needs and opportunities offered by experts and institutions for developing creative solutions. However, international donor agencies and NGOs often do not sufficiently invest in understanding traditional knowledge and skills and their contribution to building resilience against disasters. Lack of available research in this domain is an additional factor due to which traditional knowledge is often overlooked in the reconstruction projects supported by international organizations.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >