It began with a National Science Foundation travel grant to Nepal. Three faculty members from the University of New Mexico and three graduate students spent the winter break between semesters traveling in Nepal, meeting people and talking with potential collaborators.

“In the process we got to know some really wonderful people," said Mark Stone an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at UNM. "They are living in extreme poverty, but it’s an incredible culture, an incredible country. They are just so welcoming and open to ideas even though they have a rich and established culture. They are just a remarkable people and we were so touched by that.”

The UNM researchers were planning to look at ways drought, floods and famine affect people living in the very diverse physical landscape of Nepal.

Not thinking of earthquakes
Stone, Joe Galewsky an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Alok Bohara, a professor in the Department of Economics, formed an interdisciplinary research group called the Himalayan Climate Change Impact Initiative 18 months ago. The NSC connected the UNM researchers with collaborators in Nepal to establish an international research hub in Lumbini, called the Lumbini Center for Sustainability.

“Nepal is just a country of gradients, physically, culturally, religiously, “said Stone. “They have such diversity across the board, and I think a lot of it is driven because you are going across these lowland tropical conditions at the way up to the highest elevations on the planet.”

The group came back with ideas about how they wanted to study climate change and work to build some resilience with local communities facing the effects of climate change. They began to shape a research proposal to submit to the NSF.

Then the earthquake hit
On April 25, a devastating earthquake struck 75 kilometers northwest of Katmandu, the capital and most populous city in the country. It was followed by another major quake on May 12. According to the Associated Press, the two quakes together killed more than 8,600 people. More than a quarter of a million buildings in the country collapsed.

The attention of the faculty and students moved from the general idea of building resilience in communities to the specific one of building houses that won’t fall down or that can be rebuilt quickly if they are shaken apart by ground movement.

They split resources. The students who had traveled to Nepal quickly began researching simple, cheap, earthquake resistant buildings. They were reinforced by engineering and architecture students and international students from Nepal living on campus. Stone is working with the students on designing simple structures. Bohara and Stone are serving as faculty mentors for the UNM student group UNM4Nepal

Contradictions between economic hopes and physical reality in Nepal
“Their classic construction techniques are stones, a little bit of mortar or mud and they are fine most of the time. But they are about the worst thing you could possibly have in terms of earthquake protection. So our number one priority is to provide designs and educational activities that will help them build structures that can withstand earthquakes,” said Stone.

“We have a good group of collaborators,” said Bohara. “We had a teleconference with them and have tentatively decided that UNM will come up with a design for a family dwelling by the end of June. The design will be sent to PNMF for submission to the Nepal government or other entities interested in its implementation. This will be a work-in-progress project.”

The Nepalese government has just imposed a two month ban on building permits while it reviews building standards for the entire country. That will take Nepal well into the monsoon season during which rain falls so frequently construction is impossible until it ends, sometime in September.

UNM team raises funds, develops housing designs
“Meanwhile the UNM team will keep refining the design while doing fund raising to cover the team’s international airfare,” said Bohara. There will be a series of fundraising projects over the summer and fall. Details will be posted on the UNM 4 Nepal Facebook page.

The idea at the moment is to raise the travel money and send a team of faculty and students to Nepal over the winter break to build two structures, one in each community and train people in Bahunepati and Khawa the technique of building the structures so they can continue reconstruction. 

The group is still working on a new NSF grant proposal titled “Coupling Natural and Human Systems.” They plan to submit that in November. Stone said, “You think of climate change as climate, right? You are going to have a change in precipitation. You are going to have a change in heat patterns. But if you have things like changing precipitation patterns and warmer climate, you will end up with more landslides for example. You end up with bigger flash floods, and those all change the landscape. There’s this interaction.”

Stone is looking at problems from a civil engineering perspective. “If you have things like hydropower development going in or if you have another big direct pressure such as gravel mining from the stream beds to aid growth by selling it to other countries that creates problems. So they sell the gravel out of their streambeds, and now they’ve completely destabilized a landscape that was already very dynamic and that just further exacerbates natural disasters.”

Stone has frequently worked with hydroelectric power. He sees the enormous economic pressure to use the dramatic gradients and rapidly flowing water in Nepal to build huge electric generating stations so the country can generate desperately needed foreign investment.

He can also see the looming problem. “You have the most dynamic landscape on the planet, and this is a place that is changing very rapidly. These two continents pushing together have built the largest mountain range in the world, and now we are trying to put large, rigid concrete structures into them. What could go wrong?”

But for the moment, the UNM students and faculty members are focused on finding a design for a small structure that can be cheaply built from local materials, using Nepalese workers with minimal training. Because until that happens the families in the two villages they are working with won’t have permanent housing.

The UNM group is determined to do what they can to help – then they will turn to the climate change issues that need attention.