What’s really holding back reconstruction in Nepal

It is easy to blame the Nepali government but it is also important to ask where the internationals stand in this fiasco.

A man walks past the collapsed monastery at the Swoyambhunath Stupa, a UNESCO world heritage site in Kathmandu, Nepal [Reuters]
A man walks past the collapsed monastery at the Swoyambhunath Stupa, a UNESCO world heritage site in Kathmandu, Nepal [Reuters]

A year ago this weekend, an earthquake in Nepal killed around 9,000 people and destroyed three quarters of a million homes. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then.

The survivors may feel that not much has happened: around two million of them are still huddled miserably under tin sheets and tarpaulins, awaiting the onset of a second monsoon. Meanwhile, among the direct and indirect consequences of the disaster, billions of dollars have been pledged (but not spent); the country’s rulers rushed out a flawed and contentious new constitution, provoking months of protests in which dozens died; and this in turn led to a four-month disruption of imports from India that crippled the economy.

It’s been a dreadful 12 months, which have left many people deeply depressed about the state of the country.

Nepal earthquake: Rebuilding process still lagging one year on

What, then, is the most consoling thing that can be said?

In the days after the earthquake almost everyone who could became involved in spontaneous, amateur relief efforts to help those in the affected areas. Months later, several of these were revived, as survivors struggled to survive the Himalayan winter.

Patchy humanitarian response

After that, one probably has to look at what hasn’t happened. Thanks to a difficult, slow, and patchy humanitarian response, which probably at least managed to give most people something, and a large measure of luck, there has been no secondary disaster.

There’s been no major outbreak of disease. A weak monsoon last year meant there were fewer devastating landslides on the weakened slopes than feared.

READ MORE: A second disaster awaits Nepal’s heritage

In difficult circumstances, immediately after the quake, a Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) was hurriedly completed.

It's not actually surprising that the survivors have been so poorly served: the survivors of flooding and landslide disasters in preceding years haven't yet been taken care of either.

This proved to be quite seriously flawed, but was the basis for a donor conference at which $4.1bn of reconstruction aid was pledged.

Four days before the conference, the government decided that the money would be spent by a National Reconstruction Authority (NRA).

But as soon as the money was pledged, politicians switched their attention to power politics. The “fast track” constitution had a lot to do with forming a new government, which would control this unprecedented windfall.

Rebuilding private houses is the biggest and most difficult task of reconstruction. This scheme is already highly controversial, and it looks set to give the World Bank, which is paying for it, a splitting headache for years to come.

A survey of households was supposed to be complete by September, and the first payments made before the autumn Dasain festival. In fact, only now is the survey well advanced, and a few hundred households have received their first payment of $500.

Given the delays, and the number of hoops recipients have to jump through to receive $2,000 altogether, which isn’t enough to build a house anyway, it’s not surprising that many poor families are opting out.

Around 26,000 people remain in camps, with no plan for their relocation. And those who live in districts of which only small parts were devastated – such as Okhaldhunga or Makwanpur – have been completely overlooked.

Tragically, but tellingly, instead of sticking around to rebuild the country, outward labour migration has surged. Remittances are up 20 percent in the last year.

“It followed a normal [post disaster] pattern,” according to one foreign expert, “except it was worse.”

People fetch water from a well near the debris of collapsed houses damaged during the April 2015 earthquake, in Bhaktapur, Nepal [Reuters]

Survivors poorly served

It’s not actually surprising that the survivors have been so poorly served: the survivors of flooding and landslide disasters in preceding years haven’t yet been taken care of either.

Amid all these problems, the four-and-a-half month “blockade” of imports, especially fuel, across the Indian border deepened the crisis. It caused great public hardship, perhaps especially in urban areas which are most reliant on imported commodities, and massive damage to the economy. It also undoubtedly hindered humanitarian operations.

But while it is politically expedient to blame everything on the blockade, insiders say its humanitarian effect should not be exaggerated.

READ MORE: The disaster in Nepal after the earthquake

For one thing, many of the problems existed before the blockade began, and remain after it ended. For another, Kathmandu’s roads remained congested thanks to a booming black market in fuel, in which politicians and officials were evidently complicit.

The international community – in a move which has not been previously reported – found it necessary to make a series of unpublicised demarches (or official diplomatic requests) to the government to ensure that the relatively small amount of fuel which was needed for humanitarian logistics was made available.

About seven tankers a month were required by each of the three “humanitarian hubs”. Somewhat belatedly, the government obliged.

On December 2, six months after the donor conference, following much political interference in the selection of its CEO, the NRA was finally established. However, it remains only semi-functional because of understaffing. Bureaucrats think it would be “career suicide” to work there.

On the anniversary of the disaster, the NRA is only now beginning the first, modest disbursement of reconstruction funds. Critically, “epic levels of uncertainty” remain over which projects will be implemented. What permission will someone who wants to rebuild a school, say, even with her own money, have to obtain from which offices? No one seems to have any idea.

A woman boils water at a temporary shelter in Dhunche, Rasuwa District, Nepal [EPA]

It is, of course, easy to blame the government, and it does bear most of the responsibility – especially after taking so much trouble to discourage or hinder others from doing anything to help. For many months, survivors were even told not to rebuild their own homes.

But it is almost as important to ask where the internationals stand in this fiasco. After all, they are paying for much of it, as well as supposedly being a font of expertise.

It appears that by early this year the international community was beginning to realise that the NRA was not going to be ready to “concretise” the donors’ pledges with actual plans in time to have anything to show on the anniversary.

Donors confused

By March they started talking about doing a Post Disaster Needs Framework (PDNF, to go with the PDNA) “which has taken up everybody’s time for the last six weeks”. This is a planning document to be launched with great fanfare as a mark of progress on the anniversary.

“I would say that there’s a 50 percent chance that after next week we’ll never hear of it again,” says one of those who spent time on it.

Even some bigger donors say in private that they “don’t know what’s going on”. According to an insider, they are “letting themselves be driven”. Smaller donors are “totally confused, and who can blame them?”

“What can you do?” says another, “It’s all got tangled up in politics.”

One might just as well ask: “If you can’t get the job done, then what are you paying for?”

Indeed, it seems that some donor headquarters are now asking that. With three “Level Three” emergencies currently going on around the world, plus the European refugee crisis, there is a great danger that Nepal will lose some of the funds that have been pledged if it can’t put them to good use soon.

At the beginning, there was much talk of “building back better”, not so often heard these days. Practitioners see post-disaster reconstruction as an opportunity to make the country more “resilient” to the next disaster.

“Here,” apparently, “that seems a pretty distant possibility. In policy terms, it feels like we’re back in 2012.”

Who, for instance, will respond to secondary disasters such as landslides this monsoon? At the moment there is no answer to that question, and the Home Ministry and NRA are each pointing to the other.

Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for more than a decade. His new book of history and reportage, Kathmandu, is published this month by Haus.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


More from Author
Most Read