At 11:55 in the morning of April 25, 2015, the streets of Kathmandu were as bustling as ever. Residents and tourists alike gathered under the Dharahara Tower, a local landmark that attracted sightseers from all around the world. There was no suspicion of imminent catastrophe. But by noon, chaos reigned supreme. An earthquake of enormous proportions had just struck the nation’s capital and left destruction in its wake. The Dharahara Tower, a monument that had survived two centuries and several conflicts, was reduced to rubble. The same could be said for much of Nepal.
Six months have passed since Nepal was rocked by one of the century’s most devastating earthquakes. Measuring a staggering 7.8 on the Richter scale, the quake resulted in over 8,500 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. The quake also triggered numerous landslides, cutting off entire districts from aid and rescue efforts. As aftershocks continued to affect the entire region, the situation only worsened. A second quake in May further aggravated the crisis. Nepal now faces an uphill battle towards recovery, especially as reconstruction is hampered by long-standing political instability, cross-border tensions, and key social divides.
Even before the dust had settled, it became evident that the task of rebuilding national infrastructure and a fragile economy was almost Sisyphean. The financial damage alone amounts to over $10 billion — almost half of Nepal’s GDP. And the long term economic ramifications of the quake will likely only add to the damage. The United Nations estimates that more than 500,000 homes and temples were significantly damaged by the quake and many districts lost access to electricity and clean water in the wake of the crisis. Approximately 3 million Nepalis are still displaced, living in temporary shelters or camps as they try to restore their livelihoods. An additional three percent of the population dropped below the poverty line as a direct result of the quake. The impacts of the earthquake are omnipresent, and they give little sign of dissipating soon.
Despite these tremendous challenges, prospects for recovery seemed promising in the quake’s immediate aftermath. The international community rallied around Nepal, providing aid and troops to assist in search-and-rescue operations. These foreign teams were vital in rescuing victims from the rubble and contacting Nepalis trapped in remote regions. Conscious of the massive task ahead for the Nepali government, the World Bank assessed the damage and promised a loan of $500 million towards the rebuilding process. This figure was a pittance compared to the total damage, but it was still a substantial start and a sign of intent from the international community. This outpouring of international support seemed as if it could put the recovery off to an encouraging start. Six months later, however, the outlook is very different.
While the government Nepali government announced that it would require $6.7 billion to recover from the quake, it was unable to access over $4.4 billion of the funds pledged by foreign governments in June due to its inability “to create mechanisms and identify projects for spending the money.” This “inability to identify projects for spending money,” persists despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Nepalis are still homeless and over 80,000 families lack stable food and shelter. Now, the government and aid organizations find themselves in a desperate race against time to shore up shelter and resources before the winter. As time progresses, there seem to only be more and more obstacles to Nepal’s recovery.
The most significant impediment to a strong recovery is the pervasive inefficiency of the highly bureaucratic Nepali government. For one, short-sighted politicians have consistently neglected public safety and allowed public services to deteriorate — a negligent attitude that may have exacerbated the impact of the earthquake itself. More shocking, however, is the government’s inability to act decisively to organize a strong, coordinated response. Instead of actively promoting swift reconstruction, Parliament has stalled on bills related to recovery, thus actively undermining the rebuilding process.
A prime example of Parliament’s vacillation is its failure to pass a bill to reinstate the National Reconstruction Agency (NRA). The NRA is the body responsible for disbursing funds, but the legislation that established the organization lapsed in August. In spite of the urgent need for the body to exist and operate, Parliament has been unable to pass a reestablishment bill. As Kathmandu Post journalist John Narayan Parajuli points out, “The absence of a functioning government body [to lead] recovery and reconstruction” has meant a glaring lack of coordination. As a result, the $4.4 billion in foreign aid has not been touched, disappointing both donors and residents.
Similarly, in the weeks following the April quake, the Nepali government was heavily criticized for blocking the flow of aid through import restrictions. In complete disregard for the scale of the crisis, the Nepali government initially levied import taxes on incoming aid supplies with the exception of tarpaulins and tents. As aid began to accumulate on the Indian border, they exempted more relief supplies, but suddenly reversed their position on May 28, when it was announced that the tax exemptions would end on June 3, less than a month after the second quake and during a critical period for recovery. This decision was both irrational and counterproductive, impeding rather than assisting reconstruction efforts.
The stuttering rebuilding process was further undermined by recent protests over the new constitution, which was passed on September 20. The constitution was intended to be a secular, progressive instrument but has polarized the Nepali public. It established Nepal as a secular federation comprised of seven states. However, it angered certain ethnic minorities, notably the Madhesis, who disagreed with the framing of state borders. Other protesters have also argued that the constitution favors the ruling class and marginalizes minority groups. The protests have repeatedly turned violent, destabilizing the country and in turn impeding the recovery.
The fallout from the earthquake and protests has also contributed to growing hostility with Nepal’s neighbor and erstwhile ally, India. Narendra Modi’s administration was one of the first to support Nepal and send rescue operatives after the earthquake. That being said, it was simultaneously accused of pursuing its own foreign policy aims in Nepal. The Nepali public was angered by the overbearing Indian media and their tendency to glorify the Indian rescue mission rather than focus on Nepali needs. The outrage popularized the hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia and was bitter enough to lead the Nepali ambassador to India, Deep Kumar Upadhya, to reiterate Nepal’s gratitude to Delhi. Furthermore, Delhi has also voiced its disapproval of Nepal’s new constitution and has been a vocal supporter of the Madhesis, who have ethnic ties to India, causing ripples in Kathmandu over Indian interference.
The resulting tension between the two countries is a hindrance to recovery because Nepal still depends on aid and exports from India. When Nepal was hit with fuel shortages in September, the government accused India of implementing an unofficial “blockade” and restricting fuel trucks from travelling across the border. They alleged that the blockade was politically motivated, stemming from India’s anger over the constitution. India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded by claiming that the disruption was Nepal’s fault because Madhesi protesters were holding up traffic. Regardless of the reason for the shortage, it remains imperative that Nepal gains access to more fuel before winter strikes.
Overall, the fault lines in Nepali society and politics have contributed to the weakness of the recovery process. To strengthen the rebuilding efforts, Kathmandu has to commit to drastic reform and coordinate with different agencies and aid organizations to launch an organized reconstruction. They also need to resolve their issues with protesters and Delhi. At this point in the year, with the imminent prospect of a bitter winter and a secondary crisis for the homeless, the Nepali government cannot afford to stall any longer.
Art: Soraya Ferdman