Saturday, December 22, 2001

In the thick concrete jungle, wood is dead

By Razen Manandhar

KATHMANDU, Dec 21 – Nepal might be a country known for its forest wealth, stretching from the east to the west, but it is seldom these days that people build houses using wood. One of the reasons they give is that timber is more expensive than concrete, cement and iron rods.

Devendra Dangol, the chief of Urban Development Department of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, says that out of the over 3,200 houses being built in the capital presently, over 90 per cent are using concrete as the base material.

"The house owners feel proud to have a dhalan (concrete) house. I don’t know whether it is necessary at all, but all the masons and consumers seem to prefer using concrete to wood and other local materials for building houses," says Dangol.

Architect Sharosh Pradhan of SP and Associates says he does not use timber in his construction work because it is too costly. "When we suggest timber for structural use such as beams and columns, the cost gets doubled," he says.

Quality timber is available in the market at prices ranging from Rs 250 to Rs 1000 per cubic feet.

According to workers at the Timber Corporation of Nepal (TCN), the price of timber grows not because of its scarcity or rising demand but because of the bureaucrats and the "commission game" that has been going on for decades in the TCN and other related government bodies.

"The dealers, whether private or government staff, have to pay a specific price to the government as royalty, which is actually very low. Then different parties claim the contract to cut timber at a particular area. For this, these parties have to bribe the officers. In the long process of passing from one contractor to another, the price of timber increases," said a TCN employee. He also added that the government could earn as much as Rs 440 million from the unused timber lying around in different parts of the country.

But Professor Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, the former Dean of the Engineering Faculty at the Tribhuvan University, says the low use of timber has also got to do with the fact that increasingly, the architects are in favour of concrete buildings.

"Most of them have studied in Western countries and are taught about using new materials for building houses. They love to experiment with what they have been taught, and there is a tendency to show off as ‘foreign-returned’," says the Professor.

"Concrete structures are not necessary for small houses. Wood is strong enough for a house of 3-4 floors, and we are indeed rich in wood resources," he says.

Programme Manager of WWF, Ukesh Raj Bhuju, says there are both positive and negative sides in the case of using either wood or cement for house constructions. "We need to cut trees to build wooden houses, and in the case of concrete, we have to put up with smoke of cement factories," says Bhuju.

The general thinking is that hard wood such as Sal are expensive or difficult to procure. But the fact is the government has quite a big quantity of wood lying chopped in jungles or timber depots unsold.

Harishankar Shrestha, the General Manager of Timber Corporation of Nepal, says there are choices of wood, and clients can reduce the cost by 50 per cent if they choose "second class" wood which is "not bad" for buildings.

The Joint Secretary at the Ministry for Forest and Soil Conservation and Spokesman Uday Raj Sharma also says that scarcity of timber is not the reason for the mushrooming of concrete houses. "Millions of cubic feet of timber are decaying in the jungles and in the depots of TCN. There must be some other reason for people not using timber these days," says Sharma.

A recent report, Forest Resources of Nepal (1087-1998), states that the country has a wealth of 108 million cubic feet of Sal trees, the most preferred species of wood for strong structures and the one which has the largest reserve among the eight types of "economic class" trees.
[Kathmandu Saturday December 22, 2001 Paush 07, 2058.]