Returning to the devastation of the Nepal earthquake
A year after the disaster, survivors in Sindhupalchowk, the hardest hit area, live in desperate conditions.
It’s 3.10am and I can’t sleep.
Minutes earlier, I woke with a start. The ground was shaking beneath my thin mattress, a low rumble reverberating through the surrounding mountains.
Then, suddenly, it stopped.
As I lie back down in my tent, willing myself to sleep, the dogs continue to bark for the next hour. Everyone is nervous.
We had just experienced a 4.5 magnitude aftershock in Nepal’s Sindhupalchowk district.
This remote region was the hardest hit area in the 2015 earthquake, one of the worst disasters to strike Nepal in 80 years.
Almost a year has passed since we first came here to report on the immediate devastation, when about 9,000 people died in the country and almost 900,000 homes were destroyed.
Since then, more than 400 aftershocks have rattled Nepal.
Despite $4.1bn in donations from the international community and promises by the government to rebuild, it’s clear that very little reconstruction has been done. And survivors are getting desperate.
We first met Uddhav Paudel, 28, when he was being treated at an emergency medical camp in Sindhupalchowk, just days after the quake.
He was still in shock – he had just lost his wife, two young sons and grandmother.
When the ground began trembling, the family huddled together to pray inside their brick home.
But as the walls started crumbling, Paudel shouted at them to run. Only he made it out alive.
It took three days for him to pull their bodies out from beneath the rubble.
As he rummaged through the ruins of his home, Paudel stumbled across two backpacks and a school journal – painful reminders of his lost children.
Today, he shares a small shelter made of flimsy metal sheets with his mother and pregnant sister-in-law. It’s all they can afford, and it provides little protection from the elements.
He still wears the same haunted, vacant look.
In a quiet voice, Paudel tells us that the nights are the hardest to bear. “I still see them in my dreams,” he says. “I wake up feeling very distressed and have to walk around to clear my mind. I see them almost every night.”
Mornings bring little comfort. Struggling to buy food after the earthquake, Paudel borrowed money from his neighbours. His hand required further medical treatment so he took a loan from a microfinance institution for another operation.
Now he owes $7,000 including interest. It’s a fortune for Paudel, who earns only $70 a month doing odd jobs in an office.
“People don’t say anything for a few months, but they soon start shouting at you to pay back their money. Sometimes they come to our house in groups of twos or threes,” he says.
During our filming, the winds begin to howl, threatening to blow off the metal sheets that provide Paudel and his relatives with their only protection. The monsoon season is coming, the second they will endure under flimsy shelters.
Nepal’s National Reconstruction Authority, the agency set up by the government in late December, has announced that permanent houses will not be ready before the heavy rains arrive.
Almost 12 months later, Sindhupalchowk is still a scene of utter devastation.
The district’s main hospital is operating under tents, which means doctors can’t conduct major surgeries. Most schools are conducting classes in temporary bamboo shelters. Lessons are disrupted when it rains.
Only the bravest – or perhaps most desperate – have started rebuilding their homes. The government wants all new infrastructure to be earthquake-resistant. If survivors don’t rebuild to the government’s specifications, they’ll not receive their $2,000 grant. But the authorities are still recruiting more engineers to teach people how to build earthquake-resistant homes. Until then, villagers must find ways to survive the extreme weather on their own.
Their frustration is reaching boiling point. Many, including Paudel, are contemplating leaving Nepal for opportunities overseas.
He says that his last option is to become a migrant worker in Dubai or Qatar. But his second operation didn’t go well and his hand still hurts, leaving him with few work opportunities. He only hopes that someone will offer him a better-paid job, and fast.
“If my father hadn’t constructed such a house, maybe my wife and children would still be alive,” Paudel says. “I don’t think I’ll build the same kind of house. The future generations of our family will have to go through the same problems we’re facing right now.”
With the rebuilding process so painfully slow, the government is working hard to convince survivors that they are the country’s top priority.
For now, Nepal’s people remain on edge every time the earth shudders, fearful that the next major earthquake will destroy all they have left.