The Irish engineers helping to rebuild post-earthquake Nepal

Stephen Starr


Minutes before noon on April 25th, 2015, Siobhán Kennedy and her partner were about to enjoy a cup of tea and some cake, when their fifth-floor apartment in Kathmandu began to shake violently.

“We realised we were too high up to run out, and the stairs isn’t a good place to be, so we stayed under the door frame at the balcony,” says the Galway native.

As everything swayed, she thought the end had come for her. The shaking continued for about 60 seconds “but it felt like 60 hours. It was awful.”

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, a landlocked Himalayan country. Almost 9,000 people were killed and 3.5 million left homeless in a country that already ranked as one of the poorest in Asia. Around 800,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, including many of Nepal’s venerated Buddhist and Hindu temples that today still lie in ruins.

Hundreds of aftershocks struck in the days and weeks that followed, including a 7.3-magnitude quake on May 12th, leaving an entire nation battered and exhausted.

The aftermath has seen Irish engineers such as Kennedy and members of Engineers Without Borders Ireland (EWBI), an NGO and charity, work in some of the most remote and challenging terrain on Earth. Kennedy, who in November was awarded Engineers Ireland’s International Engineer of the Year accolade, previously worked on post-disaster relief following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and by 2013 moved to Nepal with her partner. Back then, she worked for the rural access programme, where she initiated and ran a programme that saw Nepali engineering graduates accumulate experience by working with mentors.

But in a few moments that terrible spring day in 2015 their lives changed forever. The earthquake destroyed or damaged more buildings than the far deadlier quakes that shattered Haiti in 2010 and Kashmir in 2005. More than 10,000 landslides demolished roads and villages, while an avalanche at Everest base camp, 150km east of Kathmandu, killed 21 sherpas and climbers.

Such was the force of the earthquake – it packed seismic energy equivalent to 504 Hiroshima atomic bombs – that it moved Mount Everest three centimetres to the southwest. The days after the quake saw public squares turned into temporary shelters for millions of people too afraid to sleep indoors.

Kennedy was hired as the recovery officer at Nepal’s Housing Recovery and Reconstruction Platform (HRRP). Her work sees her documenting the ongoing reconstruction effort which she shares with stakeholders such as donors and government officials. HRRP’s teams spend up to a week at a time working in earthquake-affected districts and are a vital link between communities and the state.

Government-issued grants are handed out to help homeowners build new homes in three stages: 50,000 rupees (about €370) at the application stage, 150,000 rupees when a house foundation is finished and passes inspection by engineers, and 100,000 rupees upon completion of the roof. An advantage of building a house to code, other than its durability, experts say, is that families could use it as collateral.

Originally published on The Irish Times on 1 December 2018

Published on Lokantar on 2 December 2018