Kathmandu, Nepal – Nepal faces a monumental task to rebuild after the powerful April 25 earthquake, which killed more than 8,000, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and displaced more than two million.
With only a small window of time between the end of the rainy season in September and the beginning of winter, which will be particularly brutal for mountain communities living in temporary shelters, the task of reconstruction is an urgent one.
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The earthquake destroyed over 600,000 homes and damaged nearly 300,000, according to the latest government figures.
Yet, the debris still blocking streets and the slow pace of demolition are among the biggest impediments to rebuilding the country.
Sluggish debris clearing coupled with hazy government guidelines about how to reconstruct could hinder the country’s objective to “Build Back Better”.
One of four priorities enshrined in the Sendai Framework, adopted by the UN General Assembly in March, is “Build Back Better,” which entails reconstructing to safeguard against future disasters.
Nepal’s April earthquake was the first large-scale disaster to occur after the framework’s adoption, and the country will serve as a test case of sorts.
In many rural areas and historical urban centres of Nepal, where houses are built of brick and mud, homeowners themselves are largely undertaking the demolition.
Some municipalities have provided bulldozers and dump trucks, but most people have been left to their own devices.
In such cases, Nepalese have only basic handheld tools, such as levers and chisels, at their disposal, Amod Mani Dixit, executive director of the Nepal-based National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), told Al Jazeera.
“There is no expert supervision, no demolition expertise being used, and the resulting risk is high for workers, bystanders and adjacent property,” Dixit said.
It is the enormity of the task, as well as the lack of funding to carry out activities, which concern Renaud Meyer, Nepal country director for the UN Development Programme.
“The rate [of demolition] at the moment is extremely and frustratingly slow, because we don’t have the resources,” Meyer said.
“If we wanted to speed up the demolition, we would need more resources to bring in much more machinery and hire more people,” he explained.
Although a June 25 donor conference saw the international community pledge $4.4bn, Meyer points out that most of the funds were allocated to reconstruction.
Mobilising resources for the current, pressing issue of debris management has proved a major hurdle, he said.
“Donors prefer more glorious projects,” Meyer added, and so they’ve been prioritising “funding for things that are secondary, that can only be done once the debris is cleaned”.
Meyer said there are two ways to ensure funding for demolition: either through mobilising additional funding, which donors seem reluctant to do, or through reallocating some of the money earmarked for reconstruction, which can only happen through negotiations and agreements between the government and the donors.
Humanitarian experts say planning and coordination have been difficult given the paucity in specific, local level information about the destruction, with figures based on population growth estimates since the 2011 census.
When it comes to reconstruction, while Nepal’s government has promised several types of benefits for victims of the earthquake, including initial grants of $144, to be followed by grants of $1,922, and loans at 2 percent interest rates for rebuilding homes, confusion is rife over how to go about obtaining them.
This is happening for a number of reasons, including unclear procedures, inadequate information provided by local authorities in some places, and the spread of rumours in rural areas.
Many have already received the initial amount of $144, but a major concern is that even if people are able to obtain the grants, the money wouldn’t be enough to build a new home.
Manoranjan Baidhya, a 50-year-old NGO employee, whose childhood home in the centre of the capital Kathmandu was damaged beyond repair, estimates demolition alone would cost him up to $1,918.
“The money promised by the government is not anywhere enough for me to pay for both the demolition and the reconstruction,” he said. Given it was so difficult to procure the initial $144, he said, “I don’t have much hope to get the loans.”
Moreover, there’s a lack of clarity and guidance from the government over how to carry out reconstruction, and experts worry that people could end up rebuilding dangerous houses.
In late June the government released its Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA).
Lack of strategy
While NGOs say the PDNA has effectively laid out the scope of problems to be addressed, such as the earthquake’s impact on infrastructure, cultural heritage, education, tourism and other sectors, the absence of a clear reconstruction strategy is hindering progress.
Som Paneru, executive director of the Nepal Youth Foundation, an NGO implementing a skills training programme for reconstruction in rural areas, said the biggest dilemma for people in these areas is how to go about rebuilding.
“People have no idea what kind of materials are appropriate for post-earthquake reconstruction, how to build [earthquake-resilient] homes, and don’t necessarily have the human resources available to do the reconstruction,” Paneru said.
“The government should come up with a blueprint for what they want to do … and that should be shared with the aid agencies.”
Some experts say the lack of specific guidelines is partly due to the delays in setting up the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) formed in June to oversee “sustained, durable and planned reconstruction”.
A CEO for the NRA was only recently appointed on August 14, nearly four months after the disaster.
Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said guidelines will be issued “very soon” and the Ministry of Finance just needs to finalise the provisions for loans and grants. He insists they haven’t been held up by the delays in forming the NRA.
Dixit, NSET’s executive director, said the appointment of a CEO means the Build Back Better plan, “with all the proposed shelter designs, construction technology to be adopted and delivery systems” will be out soon and that should spur the government into action.
The government has already approved technical considerations, such as training for engineers and masons, and these will be adopted by the NRA, said Dixit.
He anticipates that people will start reconstructing after the monsoon and is optimistic that Nepal can be rebuilt in the five years outlined in the PDNA.
However, Dixit said, the government and the NRA must be transparent and apolitical.
“Timeframe is not an issue; being smart and reasonable is.”