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Nepal's year of crises

Patrick Ward By Patrick Ward Published on March 21, 2016

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In parts of Nepal, it feels like the state of emergency following the earthquake is still at its height. Nowhere is that more true than in the mighty hills and valleys of Sindhupalchok, the district to the north of the capital of Kathmandu that works its way all the way up to the Himalayan mountain range and the Chinese border. Here the earthquake left massive devastation—3,440 are thought to have died, 1 per cent of the local population. Some 90 per cent of houses were also destroyed, along with practically all schools and other buildings vital to civil society.

I was in Sindhupalchok, more specifically the village of Sangachok, over Christmas. The village is situated in steep, majestic hills, and the muddy, rock-strewn pathways sometimes require someone like me to employ all four limbs to navigate the narrow trail from the main road down to the temporary shelters, around 40 minute’s walk down through tapered hills and woodland. All around there were scenes of abandoned dwellings, and elsewhere of people trying to build anew using whatever materials came to hand. Sangachok started last year with 2,000 houses, but now has just 200. Around 160 people there died in the disaster. Now, much of the reconstruction has been left to families and communities, including the young pastor of the local protestant church, Kumar Pokharel.

“After the earthquake there were so many difficulties,” said Pokharel, when I met him after he said Christmas mass in a temporary structure used as a church. “We had no buildings, no temporary homes. Over the past year there have been no proper deliveries. We have problems rebuilding.”

The pastor is not alone in feeling this. During my months in Nepal following the earthquake, interviewing dozens of people affected by the disaster, the most common complaint was that there has been little to no assistance in rebuilding from the government, despite promises to the contrary. In the absence of any official help, people are taking reconstruction into their own hands. For all the talk from government of needing to “build back better”, that is, earthquake proof, the long months of inactivity have left many to build back however they can, often with the same unstable mud bricks that led to the dwellings collapsing to start with. It’s not ideal, but is perhaps more ideal than another week, month or even year living inside cold temporary shelters—usually of a wooden frame and zinc sheet roof.

You may have seen the footage of destroyed temples and frantic distribution of relief materials on the TV or in newspapers back in April of last year. But there's not been much about it since. Due to the short attention span of much of the media, the entirety of the devastating earthquake of 25 April 2015 was largely reduced to just several days of coverage. There was a second spike in coverage in early May, when a huge aftershock struck Kathmandu and elsewhere, and a US helicopter crashed. Since then, not much. “Not much”, incidentally, is also the amount of recovery seen by Nepal since the disaster.

In fact, the government is planning to rebuild the first communities only after the one year anniversary of the quake. That's not to say there have been no attempts to rebuild over the past year, but the vast majority of such undertakings happened at a community level, with very limited resources.

There is a whole host of reasons as to why you might not know about all this. Primarily, it’s due to the media’s treatment of crisis situations: a big splash during the opening days before moving on to the next topic. That is partly due to a fear that people will lose interest, partly due to the massive cuts to foreign bureaux by major media outlets, and also due to the self-fulfilling belief that celebrity and showbiz is of more interest to the public than news about what's going on in the real world.

It was with this in mind that I was part of the Aftershock Nepal project, which was set up to keep the earthquake in the news throughout the year and to try and tell the story of recovery from the perspective of the everyday people most affected by it. As such, I spent around five months reporting from Nepal, as well as working with local journalists in an attempt to give an accurate portrait of a country attempting to get on its feet. What I saw brought home to me the importance of seeing disasters like this as a process, rather as a set event that vanishes into the ether when another world story hits the headlines instead.

First of all, we need to very briefly glance back at the recent history of Nepal. From 1996 to 2006, a bloody civil war engulfed the country. On the one hand, the Maoists, who wanted to use the Chairman's doctrine of using armed force to conquer the countryside and then move onto the cities. On the other, an oppressive monarchy controlling a semi-feudal society. More than 17,000 deaths later, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, with no clear victor in the conflict. Some of the key points of this agreement were for a constituent assembly and a new constitution. In the first general elections held following the peace treaty, the Maoists swept the board, and quickly won a vote to abolish the monarchy.

Nepal now has a multiparty democracy, but one that has constantly seen politicians’ first priority as being how best to place themselves, and their party, in positions of influence. This was one of the reasons why it took until late December to even choose a CEO to lead the National Reconstruction Authority, which was to collect the $4.4bn pledged in June at an international donors’ conference in Kathmandu. The three main parties in what is now the Nepali parliament are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal Marxist-Leninist, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (which led the decade long uprising). All three of these parties started using armed conflict to overthrow various corrupt regimes in the past, but now all are firmly part of a political establishment that seems further away from the needs of everyday life than ever. The people who fought for a better society, either through armed struggle or civilian protests, are now sidelined, and left to the whims of their political representatives.

With this in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising that the passing of a new constitution last September resulted in a second crisis for the beleaguered country. After multiple failed attempts over the past decade, the new document was greeted with widespread enthusiasm in much of the country, but to a large section of society it provoked anger. The fast-tracked constitution reduced representation of the historically marginalised Madhesis, around 51 per cent of the population who live in the plains bordering India, despite earlier promises to increase their influence. As a result, a five-month general strike in the underdeveloped, yet economically vital, region led to blockades of major border crossings from India. The main result of this was a prolonged fuel crisis, with people reliant on the thriving black market to meet their fuel needs—at several times the usual price. India refused to allow its tanker drivers through the blockaded ports, which led to the accusation that the crisis was due to an “Indian blockade”. The border crisis also meant that vital supplies of medicine were blocked from entering Nepal.

Those opposed to the new constitution, such as author and journalist Prashant Jha, saw the fast-tracking of the new document as opportunistic. “They used the earthquake as a pretext to push ahead a process which I think has alienated substantial sections of the country and where a big region of the country does not share a sense of ownership,” said Jha.

Cue months more inaction by the government, as both sides refused to budge on their demands. Nepal, having made much of India’s alleged involvement, tried instead to reach out to China, the other world power that sandwiches in the Himalayan republic. But it wasn’t to be, with the infrastructure development required to channel fuel through the mountain range being seen as too great an obstacle.

The result was that the delivery of vital supplies to remote areas were hampered as NGOs awaited fuel to continue their operations. People were forced to cook with wood fires instead of cooking gas, often inside their homes, which led not only to an increased risk of respiratory problems but also loosened earth in woodland areas as they were chopped down. This all happened over a bitterly cold winter, where temperatures often dropped below zero.

Nepalis are often talked about as being resilient. That’s true, but it isn’t because of some natural trait—it’s because they have to be. Many Nepalis have lived through a brutal war, earthquakes, monsoons and landslides, not to mention poverty. It doesn’t need to be this way.

Nepal is the second poorest country in Asia, next only to Afghanistan. That means that the massive programme of reconstruction that’s needed was never going to be easy. The $150 worth of emergency aid promised to every destroyed household by the government, if it arrived at all, was barely enough to cover the costs of a temporary shelter, let alone an earthquake proof replacement house. But aside from the political issues in Nepal itself, there are also external factors to this.

Nepal is still being forced to repay instalments of its $3.5 billion debt to agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Much of the $4.4 billion in international aid promised to Nepal from other countries and agencies is also in the form of loans. “They’ve actually said in this instance that Nepal’s earthquakes were not catastrophic enough for Nepal to qualify for debt relief,” said Tim Jones, the policy officer for the Jubilee Debt Campaign. “So they expect Nepal to pay back their debts in full, which we think is absolutely outrageous. It’s outrageous how the international community keep requiring these payments to be made, then are able to get lots of positive publicity for themselves as they talk about how much money they’re going to give.”

It is also arguably in this fix due to the years of support given to monarchies and dictators supported by governments like the UK and US, regimes all now relegated to history but because of which generations of Nepalis suffered immensely, firstly through living under such conditions and secondly during the processes by which they were challenged.

The first steps towards reconstruction, as well as reconciliation between minority groups who felt alienated by the new constitution, may go some way to getting Nepal back on track. But there is always the fear of another earthquake, perhaps greater than that of last year, which is expected sometime in the future—perhaps in weeks, perhaps in centuries—which could bring the situation full circle.

Lok Bijaya Adhikari, the chief seismologist at the National Seismological Centre in Kathmandu, explained, “If we see the gap between these [earthquakes], in the eastern part [of Nepal] it is a 700 year period, central around 200 years, and for the Western part we have only one event that was 500 years ago, and that was the biggest one. We cannot say when another one will occur. Nepal will be hit by another great earthquake but we cannot say when, this is the problem.”

In fact, the 25 April earthquake fortunately, if you can call it that, fell on a Saturday when the schools were closed, and during the day when most people were out of their houses. Had it been otherwise, the death toll would have rocketed.

There can be the temptation after such a disaster to think that we have done our best, and that it will probably all be OK. We gave money to charity, perhaps we organised a fundraiser, we might even have changed our Facebook status. But we need the full facts about where the money is going, what still needs to be done, and what worked and what didn't. If not, sooner or later we will get another four days of disaster coverage when the next disaster strikes, wherever it may be, and have no idea where it came from or where it will go.

I’ll leave the final words to Dr Dipak Shreshtha, who spent weeks following the April earthquake treating hundreds of victims as the head of trauma at Dhulikhel Hospital. “Nepal society forgets very quickly,” he said. “Many people have maybe gone back to their normality, forgetting all those sufferings. But we also forget that we are ill-prepared. Still we are ill-prepared. If something happens, we are in the same situation again.”

Patrick Ward was in Nepal reporting for Aftershock Nepal, a GlobalBU project led by Bournemouth University.  

Patrick Ward is a journalist and writer in London. He likes historical non-fiction and sci-fi, which gives him the opportunity to read about what went wrong in the past and how it might be better ... Show More

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