Bamboo for Earthquake Reconstruction

I have just returned from Nepal where I attended the National Consultation Workshop on “Bamboo for Sustainable Post-Disaster Reconstruction in Nepal”. This is one of the activities in a CFC-funded project implemented by INBAR that aims to develop capacity for architects and builders in working with bamboo during the reconstruction after last year’s earthquake on 25 April.

The meeting was hosted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a fellow member of the Association of International Research and Development Centres for Agriculture (AIRCA).  We had a good turn-out with nearly 100 participants, and the meeting was opened by HE Agni Prasad Sapkota, Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation.

The presentations included recent experiences from two Nepali private sector companies: Himalayan Bamboo ( and abari ( They gave examples of building with bamboo, and stressed that a bamboo house does not have to look like a log cabin, but the final product can have the appearance of a “normal” residence. The following slide from Himalayan Bamboo makes the point:


Nepal already includes bamboo in its national building code and during the past 15 years, INBAR and its Government focal point the Department of Forest Research and Survey have developed a number of bamboo building systems that meet national and international building standards.

One of the recent success stories is that the Ministry of Education has approved a new design for schools from ABARI that includes bamboo to produce the roof trusses. This could help Nepal rebuild many of the 7000 schools destroyed during the earthquake, which was one of the serious effects of the 2015 earthquake. Unicef estimates that nearly 1 million children have been affected as so many classrooms were damaged or destroyed. This recent agreement to use bamboo in those areas where it grows in abundance is a major step forward to resolve the shortage of teaching facilities.


After the presentations we had a lively discussion with the audience, with many technical design questions, comments about supply and demand, interactions about government policies and building guidelines and more. One of the participants informed us that the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Kathmandu will include bamboo in its teaching syllabus.

One of the key messages during this discussion is that bamboo is not a “silver bullet” solution for all reconstruction efforts, and most buildings made with bamboo will have other materials in the construction as well. This point was emphasised during the afternoon visit to the building that houses Madan Puraskar Pustkalaya; the largest archive of Nepali literature.


The original building was badly damaged in the earthquake, and a decision was made to use bamboo as the main structural component in the new construction, and ABARI is taking care of the work. The main vertical supports of the building are made from round bamboo poles that are resting on metal blocks. The bamboo that is used is Bambusa Balcooa; the predominant species in Nepal .


But, while the main structure is made from bamboo poles, the walls of the building are constructed from rammed earth. This is a process of building by adding layers of soil that re compacted under pressure, creating a solid wall that is as hard as concrete. Other walls will be made by covering wire mesh with concrete and lime.


The most striking feature of the building is the roof structure, which is made from many intersection pieces of bamboo.  It looks amazing, and will be covered with normal roofing tiles.cropped-roof.jpg

One of the challenges of building with bamboo is how to fix two or more round poles together without cutting the poles. The solution promoted by ABARI is a system that comprises a small metal bar that is inserted across the bamboo poles, and a long screw that is attached to this metal bar and that protrudes beyond the end of the bamboo pole. The screw is then fastened in a metal bracket that holds several bamboo poles together. It is an innovative method that works well, and does not affect the strength of the bamboo poles.


What intrigued me most was that apart from bamboo and rammed earth, the building also has some concrete beams to hold the first floor.


This illustrates that a bamboo building does not have to be made of only bamboo, and ABARI stressed the point that a mix of building materials is the best solution. Their main recommendation is to make the roof trusses from bamboo in new construction, which is the best way to avoid future damage from earthquakes, as they bamboo poles will bend but not break!



Propping up Pagodas

My wife and I celebrated the start of the Chinese “Year of the Monkey” in Myanmar (Burma). Travelling from Beijing, you arrive in Yangon (formerly Rangoon, and the airline code is still RGN), and we decided to spend a day for sightseeing.

When you are in Yangon, you have to visit the famous Swedagon pagoda.


The following day we proceeded to Bagan, the ancient capital with its hundreds of pagodas and temples, which was our main reason for the trip. What an unbelievable place.


Dhammayazaka Pagoda


Apparently, real art experts and historians have complained about some of the recent reconstruction work, but for a novice, the many structures on the Bagan plane are amazing. The infrastructure in the area is still rudimentary, with only one or two tarmac main arteries, and most of the access to the many stupas and temples only by small sandy tracks. It therefore feels relatively unspoilt and authentic.


Re-construction continues until today, and maybe this reflects on the necessity for general upkeep.  I was most interested to see bamboo being used for scaffolding. The area around Bagan is very dry and the natural vegetation seems to comprise only thorn bushes, and I did not see any living bamboo. But a large number of bamboo poles had been shipped in for construction work from other parts of the country.

The main restoration work that I saw was taking place on the façade of the Ananda temple, which is one of the larger temples in Bagan. It has four impressive Buddha statues inside, one on each compass direction.

The northern wing of the temple was being repaired, and bamboo scaffolding covered the walls and part of the roof. I was happy to see that the scaffolding was well constructed and sturdy.


Some years ago, INBAR published guidelines on the erection of bamboo scaffolding.  These guidelines were based on research in Hong Kong, but they are applicable in all situations.  I was pleased to see that this construction in Myanmar follows some of the recommendations of the INBAR guidelines.



The bamboo scaffolding appeared very solid, and clearly provides a good working platform for the stone-masons.  There was even a bamboo stair case to get to the upper levels.


The tour of Ananda Temple was memorable, and it was interesting and rewarding to also include a bamboo aspect in my visit.

Melting World Heritage

One of the Swiss World Heritage sites is melting!

Switzerland has 11 properties inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, three of which are natural sites. One of these is the complex of Jungfrau – Aletsch in central Switzerland.  The description of the site states that it provides an outstanding example of the formation of the High Alps. The site includes the famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains and the largest glacier in Eurasia, the Great Aletsch Glacier.

Great Aletsch Glacier © Pro Natura Center Aletsch

Great Aletsch Glacier © Pro Natura Center Aletsch

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is currently discussing its latest report, and we expect them to state that most of the warming of the Earth’s surface since the 1950s is “extremely likely” — at least 95% probable — to be man-made.  One of the results of global warming is the melting of ice caps.

The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment measures a number of environmental indicators, and glacial retreat is one of them. The following graph shows how the Aletsch Glacier is reducing in size, and it also shows that the rate of retreat is accelerating.

Cumulative length change of Aletsch Glacier in metres.  Source: Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network

Cumulative length change of Aletsch Glacier in metres. Source: Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network

According to Pro Natura Switzerland, the glacier is currently retreating at a rate of a good 50 meters (164 feet) per year.

I recently went to have a look myself.   The sight of the glacier is truly a jaw-dropping experience. Photos cannot really do justice to the magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier, but here goes anyway.


You can see on the photo that the ice flow was higher in the past, so let us hope that the IPCC is also right in its assessment that there is a slowdown in the pace of warming. However, a report by Lord Stern a few days ago warns about the risk of under-estimating the effects of global warming, and he reckons that the IPCC is playing down the problem.

Global warming and glacial melt will be with us for many more years to come.

How to make international agreements more effective?

The world has created a number of international bio-diversity related Conventions, as a means to control degradation of the global natural environment.  During recent discussions, the question was asked how some of these so-called Multilateral Environmental Agreements could be made more effective. The challenge is how to make the obligations of the Conventions stick at national level, as all international agreements have to respect the sovereignty of individual nations.

When countries ratify a Convention, one of the commitments is to implement in their national laws the obligations that they have under the international agreement. In reality, proper enforcement under national laws is often lacking, and there are no real penalties for non-compliance.

For example, a country that has ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), but that does not protect its species will not be charged a large amount of money to compensate for the damage. Nor are there other real sanctions, apart from “name and shame”. All the Secretariat of the CBD can do is to write a letter of complaint to the Head of State of the affected country.

The situation is slightly different for those international agreements that encourage parties to the convention to nominate specific areas for protection. If countries endanger a global heritage site protected under the World Heritage Convention, the area may be listed as a “site in danger” and eventually be taken off the record as penalty for non-compliance. However, any compensation for the destruction of the site is up to the discretion of the country, and there are no penalties for not doing so.


The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora (CITES) can impose trade restrictions on parties that do not fulfil their international obligations. This is serious as CITES estimates that the regulated global wildlife trade is between USD350m and USD530m per year.  But critics argue that the multibillion-dollar illegal trade in wildlife is a growing problem, and a big reason is nations’ failure to enact stiff penalties for traffickers or enforce wildlife laws already on the books.

It is great to have a range of international nature conservation agreements, but if we want to get serious about biodiversity conservation, breaking the rules should be punished – one way or another. Don’t you think so?

What meaningful sanctions should nations agree on, to encourage compliance to the international conventions?