In Nepal, earthquake survivors see progress, but can't yet taste it

A harsh winter, an energy blockade, and delays to $4 billion in foreign aid have taken a toll, nine months after an epic quake. Nepal's new government says help is on the way.

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
A girl and her mother sit outside a temporary shelter built after last year's earthquakes in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Reconstruction work is scheduled to begin in earnest in April.

Lumadi Poudel is weary of life inside his makeshift home of corrugated metal. But he does feel glad to have a roof over his head. 

Blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, Mr. Poudel qualified for one of 15 single-room metal shelters for the physically disabled set up by a relief group in the aftermath of last April’s massive earthquake. 

He and his wife and three children moved into the shelter in May, after the 7.8-magnitude quake cratered their house. Most other survivors in their hard-hit district of Sindhupalchowk have had to make do with tarpaulins.

Still, the harsh Himalayan winter has tested Poudel’s patience with the Nepali government’s sluggish reconstruction efforts. More than two million people are still living in temporary shelters, awaiting the dispensation of some $4 billion promised by international donors.

Their hardship has been exacerbated by severe fuel shortages due to an unofficial blockade since September along the Indian-Nepal border. Government officials accuse India of orchestrating the blockade which began after Nepal voted for a new Constitution last fall that could weaken India's leverage over its tiny neighbor. 

Nepal’s tenuous political climate has delayed quake reconstruction work. Now as a new government begins to settle in, relief may be on the way.

Dispatching engineers

Last month, the newly formed Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA) launched a public awareness campaign and began sending engineers to quake-hit zones to determine which houses need to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, lawmakers have passed a series of constitutional amendments intended to appease the ethnic Madhesi protesters who have helped organize the border blockade.

Yet Poudel remains skeptical at the notion of moving into a permanent home anytime soon. NRA surveyors recently came to Chautara, a town about 20 miles east of the capital, Kathmandu, to count how many families need new houses. He predicts it will take them two months to complete their assessment in the district. 

“By the time they return to Kathmandu and then decide to release housing funds, monsoon [season] will arrive,” he says. “I don’t think reconstruction will start before autumn.”

The long wait has only gotten harder for Poudel. The winter’s freezing temperatures have been even more difficult to bear than last summer’s sweltering heat, which was magnified by the shelter’s metal roof and walls.

The family hasn't received any relief supplies since May; power outages last up to 14 hours a day and daily essentials such as cooking gas are scarce. “It’s a miracle that we have made it this far,” Poudel says.

In place of cooking gas, the Poudels have resorted to firewood, as have most families across Nepal, including in Kathmandu. All five family members sleep in a single bed that was donated by a local hotel owner after his hotel collapsed in the April 25 quake and the series of aftershocks that followed.

The government estimates that close to 900,000 homes were destroyed or damaged by the earthquakes. Nearly 9,000 people were killed.

India denies role in blockade

For the last five months, protests against the new constitution have largely overshadowed efforts to rebuild the infrastructure, homes, and lives ravaged by the earthquakes.

Ethnic Madhesis, who have close cultural and historical ties to India, contend that the charter dilutes their political rights. They began holding sit-ins along the main trade routes into India soon after the constitution was adopted on Sept. 20. Clashes between protesters and police have left at least 58 people dead, including 11 policemen. 

India denies any role in the blockade and instead blames protesters in Nepal for impeding the passage of fuel trucks.

Nepal’s new prime minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, is scheduled to visit India this month, his first official trip abroad. But he has threatened to cancel the trip if the blockade is not lifted first, which would mean a break with protocol as he is due to travel next month to China, India's regional rival. 

The blockade has partially eased since late December, when the government proposed two constitutional amendments that guarantee more government jobs and parliamentary seats for the Madhesi and other minority groups. Parliament approved them last month.

Still, protest leaders say these concessions aren't enough and insist on the redrawing of provincial borders to increase their political power.

While negotiations continue, the Birgunj-Raxaul route, which handles more than half of all trade between India and Nepal, remains closed. Cargo movement has resumed at all other border crossings between the two countries.

Reconstruction begins

Beyond the blockade, reconstruction has also been held up by political wrangling over the establishment of the NRA, the conduit for foreign aid. The authority only became fully operational in mid-January. Now it has to figure out how to best allocate donor funds for rebuilding. 

So far the government has promised to provide grants of $2,000 to every family that needs to build a new house, and to offer subsidized loans ranging from $3,000 to $25,000 to complete construction.

“The delay, the ongoing political turmoil, and trade disruption will certainly impact two key inputs for reconstruction: human resources and construction materials,” says Govind Raj Pokhrel, an official involved in the reconstruction effort. 

The country’s central bank estimated recently that 800,000 people had been pushed into extreme poverty by the trade blockade, on top of the 700,000 people pushed into extreme poverty by the earthquakes.

To make matters worse, some 500,000 young people leave Nepal every year in search of work, contributing to widespread labor shortages, according to the Ministry of Labor.

“The quakes and the fuel crisis that has closed industries have increased the number of youths leaving Nepal for jobs,” says Govinda Mani Bhurtel, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor.

The government has set a five-year target to complete reconstruction. At least 143 settlements will need to be relocated entirely, according to a survey conducted by the government.

Madhu Sudan Adhikari, a spokesman for the NRA, says the government needs to ensure the safety of new housing sites and the proper distribution of funds before building gets underway in April. “This is a huge reconstruction effort,” he says, “so it will naturally take time.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.