The recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed weeks later by a catastrophic second quake will hamper Nepal for years. The UN have called to renew the aid effort after the Nepal earthquake as the humanitarian disaster starts to fade from the news agenda.
The difficulty after traumatic events like this is the world begins to forget very quickly as other, more immediate, stories occupy tv screens. Meanwhile villagers in remote locations in the Himalayas continue to die from starvation, exposure and hypothermia.
The Monsoon is approaching and thousands of families have been forced to sleep outside with no cover or access to clean water. The homes they once occupied are gone or so badly-damaged they are not safe to stay in.
Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is becoming inundated with villagers from the surrounding mountainside community.
“The crisis facing us is the lack of water and food in Kathmandu,” says local aid coordinator Paul Wilkinson who is working on behalf of the Lion Club – the Nepalese version of the Rotary Club.
“But that is just one aspect of it. There is hardly any power here, access to people up in the mountains which is hard enough normally is now often impossible. People are dying up there and it is incredibly difficult to do anything about it in time despite everyone’s best efforts.”
Mr Wilkinson is English and has lived in the capital city for two years. He visited Nepal regularly for 20 years before that. Last week he had to hike back 20 miles on foot along precarious mountain paths to his makeshift base in Kathmandu after the mountain roads became impassible due to frequent landslides and massive boulders on the road.
“Aid is coming in now although it has been patchy and it goes out as fast as we can get it in. We are still worryingly short of medicines, drinking water, food and tarpaulins to provide cover from the Monsoon. 5,000 tarpaulins came in two days ago and by last night they had all gone. We could probably do with 50,000.”
There’s no doubt aid pledges are pouring in: $10 million from the US, $7.6 million from the UK, and $3.9 million from Australia, among others.
But as welcome as this influx of funds is, the sad reality is that Nepal is ill-equipped to make full use of these resources. That is why countries are lining up to donate technical expertise via disaster response teams as well.
China has sent a 62-member search-and-rescue team to help the recovery effort. Israel has sent 260 rescue experts in addition to a 200-person strong medical team, while Japan has sent another 70 people as part of a disaster relief team. The United Nations, in addition to releasing $15 million from its central emergency-response fund, is busy trying to coordinate international efforts to maximize their effectiveness.
Nepal’s infrastructure was critically feeble even before disaster struck. With per capita GDP less than $700 a year, many Nepalese build their own houses without oversight from trained engineers. Nepal tried to institute a building code in 1994 following another earthquake that claimed the lives of 700 people, but it turned out to be essentially unenforceable.
To make matters worse, a shortage of paved roads in the country means that assistance can’t reach remote regions where it’s needed most. Local authorities are simply overwhelmed, as is Nepal’s sole international airport in Kathmandu. Planes filled with blankets, food and medicine are idling on the Tarmac because there are not enough terminals available.
The economic cost of the earthquake is estimated to be anywhere between $1 billion to $10 billion. For a country with an annual GDP of approximately $20 billion, the economic impact will be lasting. Tourism is crucial to the Nepalese economy, accounting for about 8 percent of the total economy and employing more than a million people.
Mount Everest, a dangerous destination under the best of circumstances, is the heart of that industry. The earthquake triggered an avalanche that took the lives of at least 17 climbers.
Nepal’s domestic politics are not helping. Nepal’s 1996-2006 civil war claimed the lives of at least 12,000 Nepalese, and the country’s political system has never really recovered. The government that stood before the quake was woefully ill-prepared to deal with a disaster of such scale.
There have been no elections at the district, village or municipal level for nearly 20 years, and the committees in charge of local councils are not organized enough to deal with the difficult task of coordinating emergency assistance. Things are not much better at the national level, where Kathmandu has seen nine prime ministers in eight years.
Not all foreign aid is altruistic, and some countries never miss an opportunity to capitalize on tragedy. For years, Nepal has been an object of competition between India and China. For India, Nepal has been a useful buffer state between itself and China ever since Beijing gained control over Tibet. Relative to China, India and Nepal are much closer linguistically and culturally.
Nepalese soldiers train in India, and New Delhi is a main weapons supplier to Nepal. For China, Nepal is an important component of its “New Silk Road” plan to link Asia with Europe, and offers a useful ally against Tibetan independence. China was already Nepal’s biggest foreign investor as of 2014.
While in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake both Asian powers are providing significant assistance, it’s in the reconstruction phase where the true competition between the two will emerge. Pay particular attention to the race to build hydroelectric power plants: both Beijing and New Delhi have been positioning themselves to take advantage of Nepal’s 6,000 rivers to feed their respective energy needs.
A UN official said there was still a need to focus on providing relief rather than reconstruction. More than 8,000 people died in the disaster and many remain homeless.
Nepal’s government, which has been criticised for being slow to respond, has called for more direct aid funding.
Finance Minister Dr Ram Sharan Mahat says less than 10% of the money being spent on relief by his government is coming from overseas.
Dr Mahat said he hoped future international donations would be managed directly by his government. There is resistance to this request by aid agencies who are concerned about corruption.
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