Nepal turns to bamboo to rebuild after quakes

Bamboo grows widely in Nepal, is easier to transport than heavier materials, and is relatively cheap to use, experts say. Twin earthquakes last year destroyed nearly a million buildings in the Himalayan nation.

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters/File
Men build a traditional swing using bamboos during the Dashain, Hinduism's biggest religious festival, in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2014.

Nepal is turning to bamboo, nicknamed "vegetable steel," as it rebuilds homes and schools after last year's devastating earthquakes which left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"Bamboo is a great material. The biggest enemy (in a quake) is weight so bamboo is perfect because it is light, flexible and very strong," said Nepalese architect Nripal Adhikary.

"It can be as strong as steel, but it's much more ecological because it doesn't need energy to produce. People call it 'vegetable steel.' "

Twin earthquakes in April and May 2015 killed almost 9,000 people and destroyed nearly a million buildings in the Himalayan nation. Donors have pledged $4.1 billion for reconstruction, but rebuilding has been delayed by a political crisis.

Adhikary, speaking by phone from Kathmandu, said the government had recently approved the use of bamboo to rebuild schools and was expected to approve its use for reconstructing homes.

Bamboo is ideal for rebuilding in Nepal's mountainous terrain because it grows widely and is easier to transport than heavier materials, said Adhikary, Nepal's national coordinator for the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).

Building with bamboo is also about 50 percent cheaper than with other materials.

Technological advances have improved its durability, he added, while new systems for joining bamboo lengths mean it can be used to build larger span structures than in the past.

INBAR is working with Nepal's government and other organizations on a $800,000 pilot project using bamboo to build 150 homes and 10 schools which they hope other agencies will replicate.

Government ministers, aid agencies and building experts attended a workshop in Kathmandu recently to discuss bamboo use in reconstruction programs.

Nepal is home to 54 bamboo species with coverage estimated at 63,000 hectares (about 155,000 acres). Experts say its sustainable use will also help boost local employment and economies.

Earthquake engineering expert David Trujillo said interest in building with bamboo in quake-prone regions had grown since a 1999 quake in his native Colombia.

While many newer masonry buildings collapsed, the older bamboo buildings withstood the tremor. Afterwards there was a big effort to rebuild with bamboo.

Trujillo, who worked on the reconstruction effort in Colombia, said bamboo was a very sustainable material which grew extremely fast, reaching 25 to 30 meters (27 to 33 yards) in only six months.

It can be harvested three to five years later compared to a tree which might need 30 to 50 years, said Trujillo, now a lecturer at Britain's Coventry University.

Ecuador, Peru, Philippines and Mexico are among other countries, along with Nepal, that have studied Colombia's experience in using bamboo in quake-prone locations.

Editing by Ros Russell. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change. Visit www.news.trust.org.

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