Isabelle St.Clair ’17
On Saturday, April 25, 2015, a 7.8 earthquake hit the area between Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The earthquake led to the death of 9,000 people and the destruction of 900,000 homes as well as the demolition of several temples and shrines – many of which were UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the days following, the government, widely unprepared for the disaster seismologists had predicted, scrambled to attend to the needs of its people. Even today, the country struggles to recover from the earthquake’s lingering effects. Temporary housing provided by the Red Cross and uncleared rubble continue to litter the city.
Last fall, I participated in a human rights comparative program through SIT (School of International Training) that took me to Nepal, Jordan, and Chile. During the summer leading up to my departure, there were rumors that my program would send its students to India that year instead of Nepal as the country had just begun reconstruction. We were alerted towards the end of July that we would indeed be traveling to Nepal that September. And while we would be studying the Maoist insurgency (1996-2006), the issues surrounding Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees, and the women’s rights movement, we would also be focusing on the earthquake and disaster relief.
During my month-long stay in Nepal, I lived with a wonderful host-family. They lived in an area called Patan, a city just south of Kathmandu. The UNESCO World Heritage site, Patan Durbar Square (which was only a two-minute walk from my host-family’s house) was badly damaged. Many elevated platforms, one home to Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, were empty. Pieces that had been saved from the wreckage were on display in the neighboring museum, awaiting proper preservation and restoration. On my way to school, in the opposite direction of Patan Dubar Square, I passed Red Cross tents stranded in the middle of empty intersections and shaky scaffolding clinging to the sides of tall houses. Even though the remnants of the tragic earthquake were all around me, I never once felt unsafe while traveling around.
On that fateful day in April, my host-grandmother, who was alone and not at home at the time, had fallen because of the heaving ground and injured her arm. Nervous about injuring herself again, she now refuses to go outside without her husband or son. My host-father, a tour guide, also told me how difficult it has been for him to find jobs. Many people are scared of coming to Nepal, he once told me, because the earthquake made it a dangerous place. For Nepal, tourism is one of the country’s largest source of foreign exchange and revenue. With tourism at an all time low, the money for preservation and restoration efforts has mostly come from international aid organizations.
But why was the country so unprepared to handle the earthquake to begin with? At the time of the earthquake, Nepal had no written Constitution, inhibiting any process of enacting policies that could help victims of the disaster. The tension between political parties prevented the country from implementing the National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management, finalized in 2008. Besides the absence of crucial legislation, Nepal lacks a solid and effective governmental system at local levels, undermining equal distribution of aid in multiple municipal districts. Furthermore, from 1996-2006, Nepal was engaged in a civil war between the Maoist insurgency and government. Thousands of innocents were caught in the crossfire and many more were left traumatized. Slow transitional justice efforts have fractured the country, allowing government officials to dictate collective memory and refuse accountability. For example, UK aid aircraft carriers were denied access to certain villages due to the Nepali government’s growing resentment towards the UK over their ongoing prosecution of Colonel Kumar Lama, an army officer accused of torture during the Maoist insurgency. Additionally, the government also implemented a “one-door policy,” which forced all aid to pass through the Prime Minister’s office. This channel of money has left much of the monetary aid to collect in the PM’s fund, rather than be used across the country.
Fortunately, the disaster wasn’t as bad as it could have been. First, because the earthquake struck on a Saturday, most school children were home. If the disaster had happened during the week, many more children would have been killed. Second, Nepal has a strong civil society. In the aftermath of the earthquake, hundreds of Nepali people who had not been deeply affected rushed to the aid of their neighbors and friends. Local NGOs working closely with women, Dalits, and individuals with disabilities were the first to respond to their needs and demands for equal disaster relief. They rerouted money to divert it from going through the Prime Minister’s Disaster Fund, they provided their homes for those who had lost their homes, and more. With monetary help from the government, these local NGOS could provide them with resources today.
Unfortunately, there continue to be delays in the National Reconstruction Authority. Throughout the winter, families were left without proper shelter and young children and seniors were particularly vulnerable to the cold. While I was in Nepal, I saw a lot of international and national organizations rebuilding homes (a group of my friends actually spent their free days helping one NGO). But Nepal still has a long way to go before reaching a complete recovery. With the passing of the Constitution this September (I was there when it was passed), there is hope that the government will be able to better implement disaster recovery. After a month of living there, listening to my host-family, and seeing the country, I can see it happening.
Amnesty International, “Nepal: End discrimination in earthquake relief effort.” Amnesty
International (June 2015).
Neetu Pokharel & Som Niroula, “Earthquake Relief in Nepal Could Be Better if Civil Society’s
Hands Weren’t Tied,” Open Society Foundations (May 2015).
Gabriel Dominguez, “How political instability affected Nepal’s disaster preparedness,” Deutsche
Welle (April 2015).
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