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The rural resilience challenge - poor construction quality a key factor behind high casualties
by Helen Roeth
06 Apr 2016

Buildings play an important role during natural disasters – providing a safe haven to protect against the forces of nature. Poorly built houses, however, are often the primary cause of loss of life when an earthquake, typhoon or flood hits a community.

As Roger Bilham, geology professor at the University of Colorado, stated, “It is the buildings that kill people, not the earthquakes.”

Consequently, homes and buildings with important public functions should be able to withstand earthquakes, floods and typhoons so common in this part of the world. Too often, however, natural disasters lead to tragic losses revealing significant regulatory flaws and poor building standards.

  • As a result of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, over 15 million houses were damaged, of which 3 million simply collapsed. As the earthquake struck on a Monday afternoon, the human toll was immense, hitting schools, universities and offices during regular working hours. UNICEF estimated close to 20,000 schools were damaged or destroyed and the Chinese government reported more than 5,000 children among the 70,000 people that died.
  • The 2015 earthquakes in Nepal left almost 500,000 houses fully collapsed or beyond repair and more than 250,000 damaged.

However it is not only earthquakes that lead to destroyed buildings. In 2013 Typhoon Haiyan left more than 1.1 million houses damaged or destroyed and the 2015 cyclone Pam in Vanuatu destroyed 17,000 buildings.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) reviews experiences from the Nepal earthquakes and provides valuable lessons for Asia’s low to middle-income economies prone to floods, typhoons and earthquakes. The report identifies outdated building codes, limited enforcement, and a lack of building skills, construction workers and materials as key factors behind the large number of collapsed buildings. It further states that the enforcement of Nepal’s building standard is undermined by a lack of building inspectors, as well as corruption, the absence of local government mechanisms and an overburdened judicial system.

Poor construction quality also led to the large number of fully collapsed school buildings during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The Chinese Government acknowledged that poor construction may have led to the collapses rather than the sheer force of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Many buildings remained standing vis-à-vis collapsed schools.

The growing number of cross-sector collaborations aiming to help tackle the problem of poor building quality is promising. The 100 Resilient Cities project pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation and the R!SE initiative driven by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) are two global platforms that help make private sector resources and innovations available in building more resilient cities. Like the majority of programmes addressing the need for more resilient building quality, these platforms focus on urban centres. The concern about urban resilience comes as no surprise with major cities in this region being highly vulnerable to natural hazards and experiencing continued, rapid population growth. 

However, there is also a compelling case for building resilience in remote and rural areas where poor transportation infrastructure and difficult terrain impede response and recovery efforts. Many of the affected areas from the 2015 Nepal earthquake were hard to reach rural areas. 90 percent of their health facilities were affected and thus their capacity to provide much needed medical aid. In China, the areas of highest risk from earthquakes are remote, mountainous parts. At best, delivering aid to these areas is difficult and costly. The lack of public services and remaining high levels of poverty in Asia’s rural communities combined with high exposure to natural disasters calls for greater investment in resilience building to prevent damages, losses and fatalities.

The WEF report on the Nepal earthquake is right in saying that “large private-sector companies are unlikely to be directly involved in housing reconstruction in rural areas”. There is, however, a role for these companies in helping build local markets and capacity for resilient building constructions. The WEF report highlights the example of an engineering consultancy in Nepal, which suggested that housing recovery organizations partner with businesses like theirs to connect labourers trained in reconstruction with job opportunities after rebuilding has been completed. This would help address the lack of skilled workers prevalent also in other parts of Asia and extend the long-term impact of skills-building programmes run by humanitarian agencies in post-disaster reconstruction.

A successful project by the international non-profit Build Change in Haiti established a network of certified construction professionals that offer services and products that meet the requirements of the National Construction Code. These professionals are selected informal sector workers - such as small brick/block making businesses - that received technical assistance, certification and marketing support from Build Change. As part of the network, these professionals can now access better prices and services from private sector companies such as banks, insurance companies, material suppliers – strong incentives for their commitment to maintain high trade standards. This approach has helped build a local market to meet the growing demand for safer building materials after the 2010 earthquake.

CSR Asia is looking for further examples of initiatives that have successfully involved the private sector in building local capacities for resilient construction and that have the potential to help meet the needs of low-income, rural communities. Please contact Helen at

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