September 12, 2016

by Justin Henceroth (MDes R&R 2017)

The SUV slowed to a crawl as we prepared to cross the last of four causeways before we reached our destination—a construction site for a new police station in Dang District, Nepal. This site is not in the most remote part of Nepal, but in many ways this construction site embodies the challenges of building anything in this mountainous country. Despite being on the national East-West Highway, it took us nearly six hours to drive the 120 miles from the nearest city and the regional headquarters for UNOPS, the organization managing this project. It had not rained in over a week, so the road was clear, but the evidence of landslides lined the road for miles, and each causeway we crossed was still under a few inches of water. It was easy to understand how even a day of rain could quickly block some key section of this road—cutting off access between communities and the flows of people and materials.

As the reconstruction following last year’s earthquakes gets underway throughout Nepal, the limited access will prove a significant challenge for the communities, government agencies, humanitarian organizations, and donors that are all working to rebuild Nepal. Throughout the country, more than half a million homes need to be rebuilt, more than 30,000 classrooms have collapsed, and more than 400 health centers were completely destroyed. Many of the most damaged communities are in the remote hills that flank the Himalayas, with some villages accessible only by a multi-day walk.

The scale and remoteness of the reconstruction has implications beyond the logistics challenges of moving people and materials. To facilitate the reconstruction, many new organizations are getting involved in building projects, bringing in key additional resources, but often lacking the technical expertise and experience to ensure quality construction projects. On top of that, resources devoted to quality assurance across all types of projects are far less than what is needed to ensure regular and timely oversight. As a result, it is likely that many projects will be built without adequate oversight or review to assess quality.

This is a particular challenge for a reconstruction that is being undertaken through a “Build Back Better” methodology. Across all sectors, organizations are committing to not only rebuilding, but to rebuilding new structures that possess key design and structural elements that will make them more resilient in the case of future earthquakes—a possibility many seismologists warn may occur soon. However, even if organizations are designing projects that contain key earthquake resilience measures, if these elements are not included in the building during construction, that building will be just as vulnerable as the ones that collapsed before it. With a tendency for local contractors to revert to known construction techniques, there is a real concern that without adequate quality assurance, all design for “building back better” may never be realized in the field.

In Nepal, these concerns are not only arising from the reconstruction, but are substantiated by past experience. One major international donor has been working on school construction in Nepal since 1994 and has built over 9,500 classrooms. Design drawings for schools built through these projects show key earthquake resilience measures; however, after more than 2,000 classrooms collapsed during the earthquakes, reviews of those sites revealed that many of the key design elements were not included during the construction process. During construction of those schools, contractors had omitted elements to save money, engineers had signed off on approvals without proper review, and communities were not empowered to review or report on potentially faulty construction.

While arising now in Nepal, these challenges have long plagued development and humanitarian efforts; however, recent developments have opened up new opportunities. In the past few years, mobile networks have expanded across the globe, with even remote mountainous countries like Nepal and Afghanistan boasting 90% mobile penetration. At the same time, new and more powerful mobile phones and tablets are able to carry out more advanced and complex tasks.

Taking advantage of these developments, I am working with UNOPS and the Nepal Innovation Lab to develop a new platform that will allow organizations engaged in humanitarian and development projects to use mobile technologies to conduct quality assurance projects on remote sites. This platform will include a mobile application that will prompt field users—including supervisors, contractors, and communities—to collect and provide data about progress on construction sites, while also providing them with key education materials about resilient design techniques. Data collected in the field will be submitted to a central location, where project engineers and project managers using a web application can review, provide feedback back to sites, and, if significant issues arise, communicate with or visit problem areas. This will not only provide more information to organizations implementing projects so they can ensure quality throughout the process, but will also enable them to better target limited resources to working with field sites to ensure that they are using the best available construction methods.

We are currently in the process of developing the software, standards, and educational materials to create this platform. Over the course of the coming months, we will release prototypes for field-testing, focusing first on school construction projects in earthquake affected districts in Nepal and expanding outward to other projects as we are able. By the beginning of 2017, a full version of the platform will be complete, and we will focus on expanding its use across the reconstruction process in Nepal. The expanded use of this platform has the potential to improve construction processes, increase accountability, and promote transparency in reconstruction, development, and humanitarian aid.