A disastrous earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck Nepal on April 25. Barpak, a mountain village between the capital Kathmandu and the tourist town of Pokhara was the epicenter. More than 8,000 people died and 18,000 were injured. The catastrophic earthquake caused extensive damage to infrastructure, such as buildings, historical and cultural monuments, temples, and roads. A major aftershock on May 12, magnitude 7.3, killed an additional 65 people and left another 1,926 injured.

The April 25 temblor was the most catastrophic earthquake in Nepal in eight decades, and it caused utter panic and chaos. Many citizens are still living on tents on streets and open grounds because their homes have been deemed unsafe. Rescue and relief was the first priority. The Nepalese armed forces and police officers did an admirable job, along with tremendous support (human as well as technical) from many friendly nations. A month has passed since the main quake, and rescue operations are being replaced by relief and rehabilitation. Next, it will be important to develop a proper plan for reconstruction.

The initial stage of recovery will require clearing up the debris. It is important to gather the debris and dispose of it properly for three main reasons. First, many of those same sites will be used for rebuilding homes or heritage sites. Second, such debris will obstruct the reconstruction process. Third, it could lead to health hazards. The rubble could contain harmful substances such as asbestos, which can cause mesothelioma cancer. Also, the piles of debris will provide breeding grounds for rodents, insects and microorganisms.

The total amount of debris is estimated at 10 million tons, given that one-fifth of houses in affected areas have either collapsed or have to be demolished because they’ve been rendered uninhabitable. That is about 60 times more than that handled by the Kathmandu Municipal Government in a normal year. The remains of collapsed buildings form the major part of the debris. Construction materials such as bricks, concrete, as well as furniture, utensils, electronic equipment and other refuse, litter the ground in many areas.

It will require special planning and procedures to clear up the mountains of debris. The Nepalese government lacks the proper guidelines and framework to properly manage this problem. Even the Solid Waste Management Act of 2011 does not address the management of disaster waste. Hence, it is imperative to look at other countries’ experiences for guidance. The disaster waste management program should be aligned to overall reconstruction needs. Inert debris like concrete, bricks, uncontaminated soil, rock and gravel can be recycled and used as clean fill material.

The aggregate debris such as asphalt pavement, resulting from the destruction of roadways and other sources, if separated can be used for the aggregate base for new roads or as solid fill material after reprocessing to proper specifications. Construction and demolition (C&D) waste, which forms the largest component of disaster waste resulting from the destruction of homes, commercial and noncommercial buildings and other structures, can be used again.

The expansion of roads in the Kathmandu Valley is ongoing, so some of the C&D waste can be used in this work. This would reduce the gravel required for that expansion while reducing the amount of debris to be dumped elsewhere. The debris that can’t be recycled can be disposed in sites selected to avoid groundwater and other environmental contamination. This is in accordance with guidelines issued by the United Nations Environment Program and similar guidelines.

Reusable material should be considered a serious component in rebuilding structures to conserve resources in the disaster zone. It reduces the amount of solid waste and aids the reconstruction process. For instance, organic debris such as trees, stumps, brush and leaf litter can be collected, stockpiled, used as landfill, used as substitutes for fossil fuels in power generation, or recycled as mulch or compost.

In particular, big and sturdy wooden material can be used to build temporary houses. Meanwhile, some debris containing harmful components like asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl (PBCs) will have to be separated and treated properly before disposal. Some waste with specific storage and disposal requirements like chemicals and fuels such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel, which can contaminate groundwater for years, should be dumped or buried in suitable locations.

There are lessons that can be learned from waste management efforts after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. To manage the waste resulting from the Tohoku disasters, the central government issued guidelines for the immediate removal and disposal of damaged houses and other structures. In accordance with these guidelines, the prefectural governments in the disaster-stricken areas were expected to develop disaster waste management plans that specified concrete treatment methods suited to local conditions. Nepal lacks such policy and experience.

Post-earthquake Haiti joined the U.N. Debris Management Project, which facilitated a debris waste management strategy that included a system of community planning, demolition, debris removal, transportation, recycling and reuse of debris for future construction. A strategic partnership was created with central and local governments, nongovernment organizations and the private sector to effectively implement the plan.

It is clear from these experiences that post-disaster waste management requires proper estimates of the amount and type of waste, allocation of temporary storage sites based on geology and hydrology, and recognizing efficient routes in addition to waste processing units.

The process necessitates space imagery technology, waste processing technology and close cooperation at the national and local levels. To achieve this, the government should take immediate action to identify the location of all waste, quantify the composition and quality, and identify appropriate disposal sites for each type. Even some debris that can be reused or recycled needs temporary storage.

However, Nepal lacks some of the technological and infrastructure requirements for the proper management of post-earthquake waste. Therefore, technical and technological help from countries like Japan would be hugely welcomed. The support from Japan in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake at the governmental and private level has been immense, and help with managing the debris would likewise be of huge benefit. Nepal looks up to Japan for technical and technological assistance. Nepalese will always remain grateful for Japanese support in this time of need.

Rajeev Kumar Singh is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.