Nepal facing disaster in the recovery from earthquakes

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Twenty-two months should be enough for rebuilding most of the half a million houses which collapsed or were partially damaged in the twin earthquakes that struck Nepal in 2015. But the only news of rebuilding success that I have come to know till date is the creation of a settlement of 467 houses, under the leadership of Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation, which was established by two of the most popular Nepali comedians. The two comedians - who are husband and wife - showed extraordinary passion and commitment to set an example in earthquake recovery work in Nepal. The duo devoted several months of their volunteer efforts to accomplish this. They not only raised funds from the public but also directly mobilized volunteers to undertake the actual work of rebuilding houses on the ground. This success is an outlier in the overall state of sluggish recovery across affected region in the country. Instead, after the disaster of earthquakes about two years ago, what we find now in Nepal is the disaster in the recovery work.

The disaster in earthquake recovery is as visible in the politics of power around the national disaster recovery institutions and aid-funded programs, as in local places where the earthquake victims continue to struggle for rebuilding houses and regain a normal life, for nearly two years now. To find out firsthand the state of the art, I recently had an opportunity to visit local areas as well as interact with key people at the helm of disaster recovery programs in Kathmandu.

In the first week of December 2016, I visited a small town of Sankhu, to the north-eastern side of the Kathmandu valley. Sankhu is among the townships most badly affected by the twin earthquakes in the valley. As we entered the town and began to visit the affected buildings, about a dozen curious people immediately encircled us. There were four of us in our team, including a white woman professor from Australia (Chandra Pandey from Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies, Kathmandu and Krishna K. Shrestha and Eileen Baldry from University of New South Wales Australia).

Seeing outside faces in their place, people initially suspected that we were yet another group of recovery workers, coming to collect information on their recovery needs. We had to repeatedly clarify, as part of our introduction and re-introduction, that we were there to know, out of our own curiosity, how things are developing after the earthquake, and that we were not for offering any recovery assistance (it was indeed a little embarrassing to visit the area without anything to offer). As there was so much interest among the people to speak to us, our team spontaneously split into two groups - and each had several people around us.

Barriers to rebuilding  

While entering a settlement in the town, I had noticed a four-story building under construction. People were working on the third and the fourth floors - it was indeed a five-story building. When I peered through it from the narrow road while approaching it, I saw a few people who started coming down the stairs and toward us, including an old man and an old woman. They came closer to us showing their eagerness to talk to us. The man and woman were husband and wife, and despite several others encircling us, the duo were the ones who responded to most of our questions (perhaps they were the ones who could face the outsiders well).

After briefly introducing our team, I started the conversation by asking: “Is this your house?” “Yes”, the man, who was apparently in his seventies replied. “I waited for the government to support us but that never happened, so I had no choice but to start building my house with whatever I have”, he added. I followed up - how could you manage funds to build such a good house? This time, his wife came forward and explained: “As you see the winter is coming soon and we are so worried we might die in the chilling shelter where we have been living since the earthquake in April 2015. So we sold some of our own private land and invested the money in building this house”. They mentioned that their previous house was completely flat after the earthquake, and rebuilding was an absolute necessity.

Photo 1: A part of Sankhu city in December 2016 (Photo credit: Chandra Pandey)

I wondered why they built up such a huge house even if they had to. I gathered that they had to build a multi-story house on a small parcel of the land so that they have enough space for three sons and themselves. They were a joint family, and unlike the massive youth migration in rural Nepal, the young members stayed on. Considering this, the size of the building looked reasonable to me. But when I asked about the design and approval conditions of the building’s underlying engineering structure, the size of the building appeared as a risk factor. The building design has not been approved, and there was clearly no consideration for earthquake risk minimization. The newly built house, thus, is another disaster waiting to happen, when the seismically risky Kathmandu gets another tremor, which is likely anytime.

The family had a long struggle before they could start building the house. “We do not have the formal title of the land. We have been trying to get one for many years now but to no avail”. The man explained the struggle to secure the title of the land which they have owned and used for generations. It came as a surprise that a big part of the settlement in the town was built up on land only informally owned by families living there. In Nepal, as elsewhere, without formal land title, it is difficult to get loan for buying or building a house. “We have been told by officials that we cannot get any loans without the land title, so we proceeded with whatever we had”, the woman added.

Obviously, this story is the case of a family who had enough land with good commercial value, and also at a place where it could be sold when needed. This opportunity allowed them to convert a parcel of land into cash needed for rebuilding the house. This is not what many other families in the town can do. In fact, following the subsequent conversations, I came to know that many earthquake victims are anxiously waiting for the land to be registered, so they could get some financial support from the government recovery fund. Interestingly, the recovery officials also confirmed, in a subsequent interaction with them in Kathmandu, that families need to have a formal land title before they can access the recovery loan.

Psychological despair 

Alongside the families struggling to rebuild houses, we also met people who lost their families and have still been living under trauma and mental disorder. In the middle of the meeting, a man in his thirties came closer to us. Clearly he wanted to speak to us but did not seem to feel comfortable. Recognizing his challenge, the same old woman said, pointing to that man: “In the earthquake, he lost his wife and a three-year-old son. He has gone mad since then and has been unable to take care of himself. His house collapsed and has been living as a refugee. No one from outside has offered any support to him. He is alive through the support we and other neighbors have offered.”  While listening to her, I was looking at his apparently depressed face that lacked confidence and even a will to express. As the woman described about his situation, tears dropped from his eyes. Clearly, the person was in need of socio-psychological support as much as the physical and housing assistance.

Photo 2: A house is being rebuilt while another remains as wreckage (Photo credit: Chandra Pandey)

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues who was interviewing another group of people a few meters down the road interrupted me -“Hemant, please come, here we have a very important story coming up”. I looked at him and saw that he was encircled by a group of women. I replied, “Hang on we have even troubling story coming up here, and I am deeply engaged with the people who are sharing their experience of surviving the deadly tremor.  You may like to join us instead”. I was deeply moved by the falling tears of the man. I continued to talk to my group and he did the same with his own. He later told me that at that time he was getting stories of women displaced after houses collapsed. Women-headed families also have very depressing stories. Overall, we all had a good sense of how bad the recovery effort was going in the area, and we also felt sad about our own limitations to make any contribution at that time, or immediately afterward, when people are so much in need of assistance to come back to normal life after the earthquake.

In fact, Sankhu town is not among the worst hit. It had many houses damaged, but luckily, the number of casualties was much lower than what it could have been, had the incident took place at night when people were asleep at home. Since the quake instead struck in the midday, many people had gone to their respective farms on the other side of the town. Located in the buffer zone between rural and urban region, many of the town residents still have farmland to the north and east of the city, and hence they live in a society that has simultaneously rural and urban characters.

Widow’s struggle

After we spent about an hour with the first group, we kept moving further into the interior of Sankhu town. As we walked further, we stopped talking to people who wanted to talk to us. While several people passed by along the way, one woman stopped and asked us: “where are you from, sir?”. We are from a University to know what’s going on after the earthquake, I Introduced ourselves. I knew from her introduction that she is a widow, with a daughter who was at school at that time of the day. She is sharing a paternal house with her husband’s brother and in-laws. Her house is also damaged but luckily has not fully collapsed. In the house-rebuilding discussion within the family, they have had a problem regarding who is going to claim what proportion of the external grant, if any. “As a widow woman, I have been always looked down by male leaders and been sidelined in the discussion regarding the management of the property both inside the family and in the community”, she explained the problem of a widow.  

As we wanted to move further after thanking her for her views, the woman stopped us and kept telling us her concerns. “Sir, can you provide some support to us in rebuilding our house?” she asked. We felt sorry for our inability and explained that we were not from any humanitarian agencies. By that time, I was getting a little more assertive - coming out of my research-oriented mind. I did mention that our team will definitely raise the issue of this town in some way so the government or people making decisions may become better informed of the situation of this town. That is what we could do at best (and I am writing this piece to deliver on my promise to her, just in case there are some earthquake recovery decision makers in Kathmandu who happen to read this).

Evidently, there is a crisis in political representation when it came to the issue of disaster recovery. In a highly disabling environment, some families could cope with the situation by mobilizing their own assets. But many of the poorer and women-headed families have suffered worst after the earthquake, and continue to suffer under the disaster in the recovery phase. This is reflected in a question asked by a woman carrying a child on her back: “Sir, won’t you be able send some money to help us rebuild our damaged house?”

 Eroding community

Further up in the town of Sankhu, we saw an old community building (the traditional paty in the Newari settlement) - where people came to gather, hang around, and chat - but now totally damaged by the earthquake. It was clear that after the earthquake, people lost this community space in the town. I could even see some invasive species of weeds coming up on the wooden beams and windows of the building. Interestingly, just by the side of this community building, we saw two concrete houses being built. A machine mixing cement and sand was rotating in full swing and laborers were carrying the material from the machine point to the building. These were private buildings under construction, while the community building received no rehabilitation intervention.

Photo 3: Damaged community hall and its front yard used to prepare building materials for rebuilding private houses (Photo credit: Chandra Pandey)

Just next to the site of the building construction were temporary shelters, where people were still living. We could see several mud and brick houses in the vicinity half-damaged and there was no sign of any effort to rebuild such houses of the poorer people. Clearly some private houses - of those who could afford to build - were being built, whereas those of the poorer families remained as wreckage.

Further up in the town, we saw a community pond most of which had debris coming from two collapsed houses to the east of the pond. I saw a group of men chatting in a local teashop just by the side of the pond, and wondered what they thought about the debris in the community pond. I asked "Why isn’t this debris cleared even so many months after the earthquake?" A man in his forties said, “We are soon going to get some budget from the government to clean this up”. Clearly, it was just a few hours of work for a few strong men like them, and it was all too clear - from what they were not doing and what they said - that community action was dying when it was needed most.

We walked further into the city, and then we took left turn along a gravel road.  We came across the Ward level office of the local municipality. It was already midday in the day and the office was open, with two staff working in the two corners of a spacious office room. A citizen charter was hanging on the wall inside the room highlighting the usual services related to registration and document validation. I peered through it and did not find earthquake recovery related information and assistance posted. On the outside wall, there was a small notice board where I saw some texts related to the earthquake recovery (which I can't recall but it did not sound anything significant to me). It was clear that the local government office was not doing that much of earthquake recovery business as warranted by the situation there.

 People are facing a number of constraints in the recovery process - from land registration to getting loans. I wondered why the voice of these people is not getting to the government offices in Kathmandu. I then asked a group of people who came close to speak to us, what role the local political leaders were playing, although I was conscious of the absence of elected local government for over 15 years.

“Local leaders and officials are all the same. They asked too high charges for land registration”, said one man from the little circle around us. Clearly, there was a failure of local leadership, and local-level governance to take initiative in solving local problems.

Sluggish national response

Nepal recovery is slow not because there isn’t enough money but because there is no efficient delivery mechanism in place. According to the spokesperson of National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the initial budget estimate of $4 billion for the recovery has been revised to $9.3 billion. This is indeed a huge program for Nepal, where the public spending rate is low due to cumbersome financial regulations. NRA has been seen as an attractive political space for political parties, and the appointment of its chief has been marred by controversy (and in about a year a new appointment has been made). Experts find that NRA’s institutional structure and its plan all look reasonable, but if they cannot be translated into practice, there must be something wrong in the very assumptions and plans of the NRA.

As a community activist from Sindhupalchowk district mentioned in a national workshop in Kathmandu, the current building code and its procedures have actually created problems, discouraging earthquake victims to rebuild houses. Current staffing levels at the national reconstruction agency is far from adequate to provide timely technical clearance for building houses, and no private technical service is entertained to take on the role left by the government. There is a lack of clarity on how the government’s financial support will be delivered to affected households - including who will get how much, when and through what procedure. Many other aspects of recovery are still unclear: how much of the aid money will be in the form of a loan and how much will be the grant, how this proportion will vary according to the wealth status of the affected families, and so on. How these procedural arrangements are adhered to in the recovery program implementation is the key, but the situation looks very pessimistic, looking at the incessant political battles for power and control of resources that underlie the recovery work. If there is anything that looks certain, then that is the impending disaster in the recovery work in Nepal, which could further deepen if another earthquake were to occur.

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