In Nepal, a construction site is full of challenges

Finn Church Aid (FCA, a member of ACT Alliance) is building 250 temporary school buildings in Nepal. Even the construction of temporary buildings is not easy in the areas devastated by the earthquake.

  • Many school buildings were destroyed in Gimdi.

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  • A school should be built on top of this cliff as well. The top is a seven hour hike from the nearest road.

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  • In Gimdi, 40 houses collapsed. The schools suffered the most.

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  • A local worker digs a hole for a bamboo pole.

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  • Ishwar Sanjel, the school vice-principal, eagerly awaits the completion of the bamboo schools. Old school buildings, some of which remained intact, can be seen in the background.

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  • Finn Church Aid built its first temporary school in Gimdi. The Nepalese engineers hired by FCA and led by civic engineer Tuomas Väisänen, have come to observe how the schools are built.

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  • The bamboo posts are erected.

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  • The temporary school building is made of bamboo.

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  • Life in the Nepalese countryside. Up in the mountains, flat ground is rare to find. Entire mountainsides have been sliced into terrace farms.

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  • On the road to Gimdi we pass by a completely destroyed little village. All of the houses have collapsed.

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  • Civic engineer Tuomas Väisänen points to the sings of enormous landslides on the road ahead. “Is that the road we’re going to use?” education specialist Minna Peltola asks with trepidation.

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  • Not for the ones suffering from fear of heights! On the mountain roads you drive right on the edge of cliffs. Occasionally, the roads get only a couple metres wide and the way down can be as much as a kilometre.

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  • Would you like to study in this classroom? Even in the school buildings that survived the earthquake, the classrooms are cramped and dark.

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  • 8-year-old Sumil Timalsina in front of his school.

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A construction site full of challenges

“How much further to Gimdi?” we ask a farmer on the side of a bumpy mountain road.

We have been on the road for over three hours and it’s starting to seem that the bumpy, landslide mangled road will never end. Right outside the car door loom drops of up to one kilometre to the valley floor.

“Eight kilometres” the man answers. “An hour’s drive.”

The village of Gimdi is a good example of the challenges of relief work in Nepal. The first challenge is getting to the relief sites: even though Gimdi is geographically only some twenty kilometres from the capital Kathmandu, the road connecting the two twists around the mountains for 70 kilometres.

And even with an off-road vehicle you can only go at a snail’s pace.

The FCA team, led by civic engineer Tuomas Väisänen and education expert Minna Peltola, are on their way to Gimdi to build temporary learning centres from bamboo to replace the schools that were destroyed in the earthquake.

FCA has promised to build a total of 250 temporary schools in Nepal, many of which will be constructed in remote mountain areas.

“Travelling on these mountain roads must be kept to a minimum. It is very dangerous,” Väisänen says. He says he has spotted three new landslides along the way since last week, when he passed by the previous time.

Väisänen calculates a 30 % chance of getting stuck because of a landslide on the road. “But I’m not worried about getting stuck because of a landslide, I’m afraid of getting run over by one,” he specifies.

And when the monsoon rains begin in a few weeks, landslides will become even more common. All building materials should be transported to the remote areas before the start of the monsoon season, because the roads may become impassable.

A strict timetable

Another major challenge in building the schools is the timetable. According to current information, the Nepalese government aims to reopen schools on Sunday, 31 May, just five weeks after the earthquake.

That date is less than a week away, and the rebuilding process is just getting started. The school in Gimdi is the first one built by FCA. The past weeks have been used in numerous meetings with local officials (a very slow process) and for acquiring and transporting materials to the construction sites (a very difficult process).

“If we could finish 40 schools by the end of May, I would be happy,” Väisänen says.

A team of local engineers has been hired to help him, charged with supervising construction efforts around the countryside. Workers are recruited from the villages themselves to activate the village populations and offer them a way to get some income.

“They are already busy at work,” Väisänen declares, or so he thinks.

We meet a third challenge as we finally reach Gimdi around noon.

It is midday and the air is scorching hot. There is no one at the site apart from a lonely engineer. The work has begun in the morning but only the holes for the bamboo posts have been dug in the ground. The engineer tells us that the workers are on their lunch break and having a siesta. The villagers have also failed to bring enough bamboo to the site, even though it was agreed in advance that they would be in charge of getting local building materials.

Väisänen keeps his calm. He is not very surprised. He has experience of similar construction projects in the Philippines from areas destroyed by a typhoon.

He is accustomed to the fact that in crisis areas, setbacks are the rule rather than the exception. In the afternoon, after the hottest period of the day has passed, work gets under way again. Bamboo is sawn, and for a moment everything looks promising. Then lightning strikes. The workers look for the safety of the rain shelter.

“I guess it’s like in the Philippines, we can only build when it’s partly cloudy, not too hot and it doesn’t rain,” Väisänen notes.

Eight temporary schools buildings are needed in Gimdi to replace the destroyed ones. The walls of the temporary schools are built from bamboo and the roof from canvas, which will later be replaced by corrugated iron, once iron sheets will be available again. At the moment, there’s a shortage of everything in Nepal.

Talking about Gimdi as a village is somewhat misleading. Since there is hardly any level ground in the mountains, the houses and schools are scattered on the steep mountainsides. Walking the distance between the houses and schools takes several hours.

“It’s almost like every house has its own hilltop!” Väisänen exclaims.

Not all the schools in the village are next to a road. Väisänen points at the top of what looks from the construction site to be a completely vertical cliff. “We would need to get a school built up there too. It’s a seven hour hike.”

The engineer is stressed out. Building temporary schools in rural Nepal is an enormous undertaking.

“Logistics is a major challenge, getting the materials and then getting them up to the right places,” he explains.

“There might be problems getting workers, because the men in the villages have to rebuild their own homes as well. And what do the workers get done? Today in half a day they’ve only managed to dig holes in the ground. The biggest challenge is the timetable: we couldn’t really afford any setbacks.”

Where civic engineer Väisänen sees but challenges, education expert Minna Peltola, who has specialised in working in crisis areas, fortunately has a clear view of the strengths of FCA in the project.

“We have assembled a good team and we’ve already begun working while many other organisations have only sat in meetings”, she says. “We have a good reputation from previous crises; people know we get the job done. That’s why we have been asked to build more schools than was originally planned. Actually all we need now is to get the funding sorted.”

“I wish school would start already!”

We are taking cover from the rain and talking with Ishwar Sanjel, the school vice-principal, who has come to see the construction site. He expresses his gratitude for the building of temporary schools.

“Otherwise we would have to have the classes outside,” he explains.

The vice-principal likes bamboo. It’s an easy material to build with, and the children traumatised by the earthquake will be much easier to get into light bamboo structures than the former concrete and stone schools, many of which collapsed.

“Even though the children are afraid, with the help of the community, I can convince them that it is save to return to school”, Sanjel says.

13-year-old Nirjal Magar, a student who is also visiting the site, agrees. He thinks the bamboo structures are safe.

“They are easy to get out of. There are no benches in the way. I wish school would start already! We are so bored.”

Magar is also concerned about upcoming exams. “What if we won’t have enough time to learn everything?”

Minna Peltola explains that getting the schools started is important for the wellbeing of the children. School gives them something to do and gets them back into a safe routine. It helps them forget the horrors of the earthquake.

“It is really good to hear from the locals that they specifically want these bamboo schools. They answer the hopes and needs of their post-earthquake lives perfectly.”

Despite their name, the schools will most likely be anything but temporary. It is most likely going to take a very long time to build new permanent schools in the area. Peltola thinks the bamboo schools will be in use for as long as they last, which is a few years.

The arrival of engineer Väisänen has gotten things rolling on the construction site. After the rain has subsided, the height of the end poles is measured with a level and the straightness with a plumb line.

“This measuring phase is the most time consuming,” Väisänen explains.

The following day the building is rising before our eyes. When we must leave for Kathmandu, the bamboo frame is already up.

Väisänen, too, begins to seem more relaxed; it seems the building will be finished, on schedule, in four days.

“If the girders will be put in place today, tomorrow the battens and interior walls can be put up. That leaves the outer walls and the roof for the day after.”

And that leaves just 249 schools left to build.

The task is difficult, but not impossible. We can’t afford impossible. The Nepalese children must get back to school. It is the only way to secure a brighter future for them and this country.

Text and images: Antti Helin / Kathmandu