« Namasté, Namasté ! » We are welcomed by the smiling border policemen we meet at dawn as we alight the bus, on the Sunauli border, between India and Nepal. We are happy to be arriving in this small country which, following our Indian experience, seems calm and relaxing ! No more cows at each and every corner, less waste and emptier roads – even if we still suffer on the mountain side road meandering to Kathmandu. In the Nepalese capital city we meet Durga, the founder of First Step Himalaya (FSH), the NGO organising the working site where we are going to settle for a fortnight or so.
To reach the small village of Sangachok, we have to cross the Kathmandu valley. The landscape in front of our eyes is just magnificent: the terraced cultures give way to the hills and in the distance the Himalayan Hills… But also the brickyards which may be seen everywhere and literally « eat » up the valley. Durga complains « such factories are a catastrophe for the environment. The ground level has gone down several meters since the companies are digging deeper and deeper down to extract the little clay left in the ground. Now, as there is none left, they are reverting to mixing earth to cement… » It is easy to realise that during the monsoon rains, devastation must be even more important for the few cultures left because of the soil erosion. «Such a great deal of energy is necessary to bake those bricks. Yet the laws are not very strict here, so the people make use of just anything as heating fuel: old tyres, plastic, … »…. and this polluted air stagnates in the Kathmandu valley, locked in as it is by the natural barriers of the surrounding mountains. After spending a few days there, we are unfortunately hardly surprised to hear that it is one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Yet, how can some changes been brought to the choice of construction techniques in Nepal ? The transition government has had other priorities, with the painful drafting of a new Constitution since 2008, following the Civil War (1996 to 2006) which brought down the monarchy in favour of a Republic. For all those years of political instability, the development of the country has been in stand-by. And yet there was so much to be done! Just an example : in the capital city, electricity is rationed (there are several hour-long power cuts each and every day) when the country has one of the highest hydroelectric potential in the world with the seasonal melting snow from the Himalayan Hills… On a lesser scale, solutions to trigger off small changes are there to be seized, as may be seen through First Step Himalaya’s initiative !
Durga, returning to the village
On the evening we arrived in the village, sitting on the ground with our very first plate of daily dal bat, lit up by flashlights, Durga discloses a leaf of his story. His childhood is a sad picture of the stories we hear when we are told the stories of children from poor countries.« I am the youngest of a family of eight children and I grew up in a small village nearby in the valley without any access to the road. I went to school irregularly. Between the age of 7 and 10, I was lucky to attend school, but I had to walk for two hours, barefoot, sometimes carrying a 15-kg rice bag on my back …it was hard to focus. » What was school like ? « I remember broken benches, a board, overcrowded classrooms and very basic teaching methods… ». But very quickly his duties to his family took over: looking after a small sick nephew while the family went to work in the fields, getting married at the early age of fifteen to a village girl… Durga who did not want to buy this future ran away trying to make money in Kathmandu. There he works for several years in various restaurants (earning rupees 200 / month, i.e ; euro 2), learning English gradually when he had the opportunity to meet tourists. That is where he comes across Fiona, a few years later, a young Scottish girl who is working in the capital for a Nepalese NGO, who becomes his new partner ! After living together in Nepal, the Civil War drives them out of the country into India, before moving on to New Zealand. In this new adoptive country, they never forget Nepal. With their experience and know-how, the pair decide to set up « First Step Himalaya » in 2008 to offer a new future to the village children, different from the one they would have had in their birth place.
Since FSH was set up, it has built a kindergarden and a small library in the village of Sangachok. Durga proudly leads us during our visit and he is obviously very emotional about it all. « In July 2009, three children only attended our kindergarden (In Nepal it is not common for children to go to school before the age of 6). Today on top of that school, we also help 23 schools and more than 40 classrooms in the area by supplying them with material and pedagogical resources. » The NGO is also developing a training opportunity for teachers, which comes as an addition to their studies which are unfortunately limited because they lack training colleges and trainers in the country. But so far such training sessions used to take place in the kindergarden… and then the children were off school ! Durga and Fiona therefore decided to set up a project to build this centre fully dedicated to this purpose…
Earthbag building ?
The small kindergarden built by FSH a few years ago was built in cement, but « in Nepal cement is really of very poor quality. Look at the walls: they are already cracked ! » Durga complains. « For the training centre, we have decided that we would choose something different and, after a great deal of research, I found out about the earthbag technique … which seemed to me to be THE solution » Is an earthbag construction a far-fetched idea? Mickey, an 1american volunteer, who came to take part in the work, explains in a chuckle : « Most people have never heard of this technique. When I tell them that all we have to do is fill bags with earth and pile them up, few people think I am serious ! » And yet this surprisingly simple technique is worth looking into more seriously.
First step, the foundations : digging over some twenty centimetres deep (or more depends of climat : frost, rain…) where the walls are going to be built. Then rather than filling the trench with concrete, Durga placed a first layer of gravels, then on top of it, two rows of bags also filled with stones. This process used now for decades with earthbags buildings tried and true. More than reduce the ecological and economical cost, gravels – more than concrete – reduce the infiltration risk for the wall.
Second step: Erect the walls by filling the bags with earth. No need to look far away: the earth comes from the site, but the bigger stones have been taken off and it has been slightly dampened. As they dry, the bags are becoming as hard as bricks!
For the bags, imagination is not lacking. In Asia, many builders choose big rice bags of some fifty kilos content, and they recycle by giving them a second life. As for Durga, he has chosen a big roll intended for the wrapping of the Nepalese carpets. After cutting sausages of several meters, he eventually chose a smaller length (1.50 m), which is easier to handle.
In between each and every layer, one must be careful and pack the bags well, ensuring that the walls remain straight and, if necessary, add barbed wires to avoid any sliding. And, because one is never careful enough, Durga also planted vertical reinforced concrete anchors (others prefer sticks or bamboos…) in the angles, at regular intervals. Those various steps are repeated till the wall has reached the desired height.
If Durga chose to build square rooms, most of the earthbag buildings are dome shaped and are called Super adobe type. Such habitats which look as if they had come straight from the Star Wars Tatooine planet have been popularized by Nader Khalili, an architect of Iranian origin. He was concerned of the climate change effects and the unfair poor housing, so he developed such very low cost habitats which are also easy to make since they require very little manpower and local materials.
FSH won its bet, Durga estimates the cost of the training centre (without the roof) foundations, walls, ground, plaster… at somewhat around 9 000 € for a surface on the ground of 80m2 « Because the building is cheaper, it makes it possible to keep the money for the pedagogical material, to pay the teachers, to maintain the building… Here some NGOs build 5-star schools which are really visible to establish their fame, but then they leave them means less so they cannot actually operate, it is such a waste ! »
An intensive and happy Building Site
Each morning, we work on the site as soon as the first sun rays come out, together with some Nepalese workers Durga employed after overcoming a great deal of obstacles. Indeed, even if he was already famous and respected in the village, he found it hard to convince the first ones to come and work on this very unusual building site. With a great deal of explanations and perseverance, a first villager came and today there are six or seven of them who come and work on this site daily.
Durga also decided to offer some students from one of the high schools of the area to come and help in exchange of some money, and to be awarded a precious certificate rewarding his/her volunteering work which may help them to migrate to New Zealand, Australia or elsewhere, looking for a better future. The girls are mostly interested in this opportunity, even if they already have very full days. Prior to joining the site, in the late morning hours, they got up at 5 am to walk to their school a few kilometers away. In the evening, some of them may be seen walking home with 25-kilo bags of rice on their heads… They contribute to the joyful atmosphere, they try to teach us a few Nepalese words, which makes everyone laugh when we repeat them wrongly.
We are also impressed by Durga’s sincere commitment, who courageously leads the site, thinking of everything and joking with all the workers. Even if the work is exhausting in the sun, the result is very rewarding: in barely ten days, the walls are almost 2 meters high.
And then as a reward, some days, after the rain, the mist disappears and reveals the majestic Himalayan chain behind the hills…
The Event of the Village
The construction breaks the quiet routine of this small Nepalese village which lives at the same rhythm as the sun. The magnificent agricultural terraces which form the hills required titanic work, generation after generation, dug up and maintained by men’s and buffaloes’ strength.
After the daily chores (filling the water cans ; going and picking branches for the fire and leaves for the cattle ; spreading the compost in the fields…) the inhabitants have no leisure time, except visiting one and other and discussing while sipping tea. The FSH building site is quite an event, and many villagers drop by to see the progress of the site. Some are somewhat skeptical, like one of the teachers who admits that she is waiting to see before being completely convinced that the construction is strong. But most of the people who want to see seem rather convinced by the technique and ask some questions to Durga such as « can we add another floor ? » … To those who are not quite convinced ; Durga explains patiently and with plenty of pedagogy. « I ask them why they bother to transport all the ciment or bricks to Kathmandu when they find all the natural resources they need here ?! » During this time those children or elderly who are bored come from time to time to give a hand.
Will other earthbag houses be built in the village following this project? What is definite is that First Step Himalaya is not going to stop here, now that it has taken off! In the last few days, Durga can proudly announce us that the NGO has just been awarded new financial grants that he is already imagining how he can use them to build another earthbag building in his own village : «with the experience we have just gained, we will do even better and more quickly ! ». For the time being the walls have been erected and now the work ahead is to coat the bags quickly since they cannot resist well to the UVs… We leave this joyful team and take to the road again towards Thailand… to meet a young couple who are coating their lovely house made of earthbags and bamboos !
Few days after the achievement of the teacher’s training center, the Sindupalchok region was strongly damage by the earthquake of the 25th april 2015 and theses aftershoks. Among the debris this construction is still standing, like the other sixty earth-bags building in Nepal… This is an evidence of the great resistence of this constructions, as a lot of people are proclaiming for years, without the financial possibility to organize large tests. Today more and more nepaleses victims and NGOs are choossing this technic to rebuild the damaged areas…
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