The succession of earthquakes which continues to rock Nepal has created a humanitarian crisis of comparable scale to the country’s 10-year civil war, compressed into the space of less than three weeks.
The first earthquake, on April 25, killed over 8,000 people, injured over 18,000, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. Perhaps a million people were rendered homeless. Due to the remoteness of the terrain and the inadequacy of the response, these figures were still incomplete, or mere estimates, when a second major earthquake struck on May 12.
The second quake toppled already weakened buildings, triggered a series of landslides further hampering relief efforts, and is presumed to have extended the disaster area further to the east. There were instant reports of deaths and injuries – the full extent of the second catastrophe will take some time to be known.
An almost unbearable situation currently exists for millions of people in Nepal. There have in fact been cases of suicide in the aftermath.
International hubris and national pride
Any government, as well as the disaster response capabilities of the international community, would always struggle to respond to such devastation in such an inaccessible landscape. Tragically, the response has been – and remains – shambolic and grossly mismanaged. It risks adding a man-made calamity to a natural disaster.
Relations between the Nepali government, including the powerful army, and the international community were marked by mutual suspicion before the earthquake. Foreign donors, who contribute around $1bn to Nepal every year, had become increasingly distrustful of government corruption and its ability to deliver services, although several of them were still increasing their contributions.
The government, meanwhile, felt undermined by the donors’ intermittent emphasis on the “inclusion” of marginalised social groups, and support for the prosecution of alleged human rights offenders. This stoked an essentially defensive nationalist chauvinism in some quarters.
When the first earthquake struck, both parties were found wanting.
For the international community to suddenly rediscover the well-known weaknesses of the Nepali government, and overreact to them now, helps no one.
Years of joint planning and preparation for an event that everyone knew would come collapsed as quickly and completely as the weakest building. The result was a slow and inadequate relief effort which has – over two weeks later – still failed to reach many of the affected people.
There was not enough transport capability, especially helicopters, and there were serious bottlenecks at the airport. Major delays were caused by bureaucratic confusion and there was bitter mutual recrimination – both in public and private – over who was to blame and who should be in control of resources.
Relations between the international community and the Nepali government have rarely been worse than they are now, yet urgent cooperation has never been more essential.
Work together now, work it all out later
Three British Chinook heavy-lift helicopters had been waiting for days in Delhi for permission to fly to Nepal, which has still not been granted. Then, on the eve of the second earthquake, Nepal’s army held a press conference, rejecting further foreign military assistance.
“We don’t need them now,” the army spokesman said. A further American contingent, which the US ambassador had just announced, would also not be allowed to come.
The government claimed that relief operations were now nearly complete, and all survivors will have shelter before the impending monsoon season. Yet, according to home ministry figures only 122,000 tarpaulins and 2,000 tents have been distributed, along with almost 2 million kilogrammes of rice.
If – on a conservative estimate – half a million people need feeding, and if that aid has been distributed equally, they’ve received 4 kilos each in two weeks.
This was all before the disaster was compounded and expanded by the second quake.
The situation is shocking, but less so for close observers of Nepal.
For the international community to suddenly rediscover the well-known weaknesses of the Nepali government, and overreact to them now, helps no one. The internationals must recognise their own less than impressive record, and that there is no alternative but to work with Nepal’s legitimate and democratically elected government. To attempt to work around it would be disastrous for the country’s stability, even if it were possible. It isn’t.
The government is undoubtedly struggling with various political and administrative challenges, including those arising from having numerous militaries operating within its borders, in what is a geopolitically sensitive region between India and China.
It also has an established duty under international guidelines such as the Sphere Principles and the UN guidelines on internally displaced persons to accept urgently needed humanitarian aid during a crisis.
From relief to reconstruction
During a relief operation it is normal for numerous national and international agencies to be in the field delivering supplies. This is less of a threat to the government than the risk of their people not receiving the relief they need.
After relief will come reconstruction. Hundreds of thousands of homes must be rebuilt, as well as public infrastructure. It is quite proper that the government would insist that this effort is run under its auspices. It is also the duty of the international community to insist that mechanisms be put in place which allow them to account for how their money is spent. Too often in Nepal there has been no such transparency in the use of donor funds.
That will be a time to think about how long-term programmes and relationships can be run better than they were before. Now, in the fast closing window before the monsoon, is the time to throw open the doors to as much relief as possible.
Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for over a decade. His new book of history and reportage is ‘Kathmandu’.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.