After the Earthquakes: MIT's Nepal Initiative
Last April 25, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale struck the South Asian country of Nepal, killing over 9,000 people and injuring more than 23,000 others. Aftershocks continued in the following days and months, including a 7.3 magnitude quake on May 12 that killed or injured another 2,700. Hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless with entire villages flattened across many districts of the country. Centuries-old buildings were destroyed at UNESCO Heritage sites throughout the Kathmandu Valley. It was the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake that registered 8.0 on the Richter scale and resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people.
Several days after the initial seismological event, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart asked Professor Jeffrey Ravel, the Head of the History Section, to serve as the Faculty Lead coordinating MIT’s response efforts. Ravel was joined by Mr. Aaron Weinberger, Assistant Director for Institute Affairs in the Office of the President, and Mr. Bigyan Bista, a doctoral student in the Department of Biology and a leader in the MIT Nepali student group MITeri. This article is a report on our efforts to date to pair MIT expertise with reliable partners in Nepal, in order to help the country rebuild after this natural disaster. It is also a statement of our commitment to foster a long-term relationship between MIT and the people of Nepal that we hope will prove mutually beneficial. Finally, it is a plea to Faculty Newsletter readers to support our efforts, a point to which we will return at the end of the article.
The Initial Student Response, and the Bloom Nepal School
In the initial aftermath of the April earthquake, the first campus group to mobilize in support of Nepal was the Nepali student group MITeri, whose name means “friendship” in the Nepali language (see this MIT News story). Through a donations Website, and tables set up in the Student Center and Lobby 10, these graduate and undergraduate students quickly raised almost $37,000, which they donated to the Help Nepal Network (HeNN). This group, a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt organization in the United States, has been working since 1999 to improve access to education and health for people in rural Nepal. The students determined that a contribution to HeNN would be the fastest, surest way to send the money they had raised to support those who needed it the most, with no deductions for overhead costs or administrative expenses. This rapid mobilization by our Nepali students has been an inspiration as we moved forward over the summer and into the fall. If these students could find the time and energy at the end of a busy semester to fundraise so successfully, surely we could work equally hard to identify Institute resources to aid long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts.
We were also inspired by the story of Ram K. Rijal ’12, a Course 14 and 18 major who returned to Nepal after graduation to found a private K-12 school with a STEM-based, MIT-style curriculum. The doors of the Bloom Nepal School opened in 2013, and in its first three admissions cycles enrollment grew from 17 students to over 150. Ram and his co-founders were developing plans to expand their boarding school from its Kathmandu base to satellite campuses throughout the nation, in order to serve the more isolated rural sectors of the country. They had just recently moved the flagship school from a building in densely populated Patan, just to the south of Kathmandu, to a more spacious suburban campus when the earthquake struck, destroying the building. Two school janitors died during the quake, and while the rest of the staff and all the children emerged unscathed, many of the students had to return to their families in the provinces while waiting for the school to reopen its doors. The ground was still moving when the Bloom Nepal School began an intense fundraising and rebuilding effort. As of this writing, the school has put up temporary boarding structures and classrooms for its students, and resumed instruction. Ram and his partners remain undaunted, promising to fulfill their goal of high quality K-12 STEM education for the most promising children of Nepal, regardless of socio-economic class or caste. One of our first actions was to reach out to the MIT Alumni Association to suggest that they publish an article in their newsletter detailing the heroic rebuilding efforts of the Bloom Nepal School. MISTI’s MIT-India program also successfully solicited donations for the school from its supporters and alumni networks.
Over the Summer: Identifying Goals and Partners
As we began to meet with colleagues on campus about our efforts shortly after the earthquake, we quickly realized that we needed to define our goals for potential project participants. In the immediate aftermath of any natural disaster today, media images of devastated communities compel international outpourings of food, medical supplies, donations, and other forms of immediate assistance. But MIT is an educational institution, not a humanitarian aid organization.
As much as we empathized with the plight of the earthquake survivors, we realized that the people of Nepal and the members of the MIT community would be best served by efforts to identify projects with more long-term goals and benefits. In this we were guided by previous MIT efforts, especially the Institute’s response to the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines two years ago.
In that case, a working group led by Associate Professor of History Christopher Capozzola, the current Secretary of the Faculty, identified relevant Institute assets across the Institute, including the Sloan School, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), and the Public Service Center (PSC). Supported by charitable donations from the MIT community and a grant from the PSC, the Philippines recovery group sent a lecturer from DUSP and a Sloan graduate student to map flood mitigation projects and assist in developing plans for rebuilding Manilla. (Read more about MIT’s efforts in the Philippines.) The lesson was clear: We needed to develop projects that would increase earthquake resiliency and improve the infrastructure of Nepal over the long term.
At the end of the spring term and over the course of the summer, we had perhaps two dozen meetings with high-level administrators, department heads, faculty members, research staff, and post-doctoral and graduate students across all five Schools at the Institute, and in several research centers and labs. While we do not have space here to thank each of you individually, we would like to offer our collective gratitude to everyone who took time from busy schedules to brainstorm with us. The breadth of expertise and the depth of enthusiasm in these meetings energized us. They allowed us to identify potential on-campus partners in relevant areas such as earthquake-resilient building technologies; urban planning and infrastructure policy; water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); supply chains and distribution; and medical technologies. At the same time, through Bigyan Bista and the contacts he and other MIT Nepali students have in Nepal, we were also able to identify promising collaborators there on the ground. These included the Institute of Engineering (IOE), the leading engineering school in the country; Kathmandu University, an independent, non-government-funded public institution; its medical subsidiary, Dhulikhel Hospital, located east of the capital of Kathmandu; and the Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO), a Nepal-based NGO that has partnered with MIT researchers in the past.
As the summer turned to fall and classes began again, some very promising initiatives began to take shape:
Water-testing Kits: Research Scientist Susan Murcott, a water/waste water engineer who recently retired from D-Lab, has worked to improve WASH infrastructure around the world, including a previous water filtration project in Nepal. More recently, she has designed a low-cost, easily assembled water-testing kit. With funding from the Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities, Murcott is preparing 2000 of these kits to be shipped to Nepal, where ENPHO will distribute them to field sites around the country. Once we have the results of these tests, we will follow up with recommendations for economical, efficient water filtration systems. Such systems are much needed in many communities in Nepal where fresh water supplies have been disrupted by earthquake-related damage.
Reconstruction of Bungamati, an Ancient Newari Community: This town, located 10 kilometers south of Kathmandu, has been inhabited continuously since its founding in the seventh century CE. It boasts several important religious buildings and shrines; its 6000 inhabitants, many of whom engage in woodworking and grow crops in the fields that surround the town, live in two- and three-story structures made of traditional brick building materials.
The earthquake destroyed all of the main historical religious structures, and left over 85 percent of the residential structures severely damaged or uninhabitable. Sewage lines were compromised and the electrical grid damaged. The residents of this tight-knit community are determined to rebuild their town, however, and several organizations, including UN Habitat and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, have focused on rebuilding Bungamati in a more sustainable and structurally resistant way that might serve as a model for urban revitalization projects elsewhere.
Several groups at MIT are interested in participating in these efforts. Professor John Ochsendorf and his students in the Department of Architecture have expertise in historical reconstruction and earthquake-resistant residential and educational structures. Several of Professor Ochsendorf’s will travel to Nepal during IAP to assess the architectural damage to religious monuments and homes, and the potential for reconstruction. Professor Miho Mazereeuw and her colleagues in the Urban Risk Lab have worked on risk reduction and disaster resilience that would be applicable in this instance. The Tata Center is developing micro-solar grids that might help power a newly rebuilt Bungamati. In short, this is a project where MIT might provide multiple assets in a specific urban context that would then be scalable.
Distribution of Ready-to-Install Toilets and Sludge Management Initiatives: Working together with the Sloan Action Learning group and ENPHO, we have developed course proposals for the distribution of ready-to-install toilets that will significantly improve residential waste management in urban and rural areas in Nepal. ENPHO has also helped us to craft a proposal for managing the installation of pre-fabricated sludge treatment systems, another WASH initiative made urgent by damage to local and regional waste management systems that in turn raises the specter of significant public health issues. These proposals will be distributed at the start of the spring term in hopes of attracting Sloan students to work on these projects, and ultimately to have them travel to Nepal to implement their solutions to these distribution problems.
Medical Projects Through Dhulikhel Hospital (DH): DH is one of the major medical research facilities in Nepal. The medical school of Kathmandu University, it has 16 outreach clinics and serves as the focal hospital for more than five million people affected by the earthquake. We are exploring partnerships with DH focused on inexpensive medical diagnostic devices, communications networks that would put DH doctors in touch with remote or isolated rural patients, and a new information management system for the hospital’s administrators. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in SHASS is investigating the possibility of outcome evaluation studies of DH health initiatives.
Innovation Seminars for Undergraduate and Graduate Students: We have been participating in a series of meetings convened by School of Engineering Dean Ian Waitz and the Lincoln Labs Beaverworks team to design an ongoing capstone seminar program for undergraduate engineers that would harness MIT innovation in response to natural disasters. Over the course of this year, we plan to contact other Schools to explore the possibility of creating similarly innovative subjects.
In addition to these emerging initiatives, we are also investigating ways to help the Institute of Engineering complete a survey of fault lines and soil types in major urban areas. The survey would then shape new building code guidelines at unprecedented resolution.
We have learned of a need for analysis of the extensive seismological data collected since the initial major earthquake, which has led us to contact faculty with this expertise in EAPS who might assist with data analysis. And MISTI, which had begun conversations about launching a Nepal program in the context of its MIT-India Program before the earthquake, is considering ways to pair MIT students with internships and teaching programs in the country.
The Long Term, and Your Support
As this summary of our activities makes clear, we are pursuing projects that may take months and years to come to fruition due to their complexity, and the difficulties on the ground in Nepal. We believe this is the best way for MIT to make a meaningful contribution to the reconstruction of Nepal, and the long-term well-being of its people. We also believe that work on these challenging issues serves MIT’s global educational mission by stimulating our richly creative faculty, researchers, and students to find new solutions for real world problems. The three of us intend to be involved in this process for the long haul, and we ask you to join us. If you have ideas to contribute and we have not yet contacted you, please get in touch with us; we are eager to hear your thoughts. If we have already spoken with you, and need to renew our conversations in light of new developments or ideas, please reach out to us. And finally, many of the projects in development or under discussion require financial support. If you would like to make a donation to help purchase materials to be used in these initiatives, or to fund student travel to Nepal to work on these projects, we have set up a donations page on the MIT Giving site. Your assistance will be greatly appreciated.