Exactly one year ago, Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. It killed around 9,000 people, injured more than 20,000, left more than 2 million homeless and damaged over 900 health facilities and 8,300 schools.
While nongovernmental organizations and volunteers were quick to respond to the disaster and its 7.3-magnitude aftershock in May, the official reconstruction process has languished. While international donors pledged $4.1 billion dollars last June, it was only two weeks ago that the first families from one of the hardest-hit districts received their first installment of reconstruction money, promised by the National Reconstruction Authority.
While there are signs that life has returned to normal in Nepal, thousands of people who lost their homes are still living in makeshift tents and rubble still sits at the steps of the country’s most historic squares.
Those that remain homeless have already survived a brutal Himalayan winter and a monsoon in temporary housing or relief camps and are again preparing for the rains to hit from next month.
In fact, according to the Shelter Cluster, a Red Cross-led partnership, by November only 5 percent of households in the hardest-hit areas had been fully repaired or rebuilt.
Lessons learned and challenges to overcome
For those who responded to the earthquake in Haiti five years earlier, Nepal was a great concern because it was, again, one of the poorest countries in the world, and lacked the infrastructure and resources to deal with such a crisis.
There was no major outbreak of disease, and the influx of foreign aid agencies were not only extremely well-organized but they worked, and continue to work, with local NGOs.
However, there were major challenges for the NGOs that responded to the earthquake — challenges that intensified towards the end of last year when the government prioritized promulgating a new constitution over providing relief.
The new constitution triggered violent protests among communities living on the border with India, which led to the border being shut for 135 days until the document was amended earlier this year. The closure of the border left Nepal at a standstill — it led to a severe fuel crisis, school closures and medicine stockouts, among other serious ramifications that affected the earthquake response.
The World Food Program said the blockade at the border resulted in the increase in the cost of basic food, which added to the challenging emergency response in respect to the mountainous terrain and the volume of humanitarian cargo coming into the country.
“While food prices are now returning to normal across the country, markets and market access in earthquake affected areas have not returned to normal in many areas,” said WFP spokeswoman in Nepal, Seetashma Thapa. “Pockets of vulnerability persist particularly among certain ethnic groups and female-headed households; WFP’s work will be focusing on these groups.”
Tripti Rai, WaterAid Nepal’s country representative, told Devex that while the response in the first three months following the earthquake was commendable, since then, progress has been too slow.
“The difficulty has been that the government still hasn’t done a full assessment of the damage. It took eight months to establish the National Reconstruction Authority,” she said. “It has taken so long to get the house in order and that has been a bit of a disappointment.”
Rai said that while Nepal has made commendable progress towards achieving Millennium Development Goal 7C — to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic hygiene by 2015 — the earthquake affected progress.
“We can assume that it will take longer to reach the targets — we have to rebuild and bring the communities back to where they were before the earthquake,” she said. “Before the blockade we planned a reconstruction program with a two-three-year timeframe but that will probably be set back to five years.”
Rai said a major lesson learned from the earthquake response was the importance of collaboration; how to bring together different development sectors to instigate change.
For example, the government is now in the process of finalizing the Integrated WASH Sector Development Plan. The plan, Rai said, involves a variety of different sectors, from health to education to gender, that each work in areas of development within the framework of WASH with an integrated, harmonized approach.
“We need to look at how different sectors can integrate and how at the end of the day they can bring differences in the lives of communities,” she said.
The WFP said what made the response “easier,” compared with other disasters around the world, was the establishment of a humanitarian staging area near the international airport that brought together all the parts necessary to build the logistics network to support some of the hardest to reach places.
“It’s estimated that as a result of the establishment of the HAS, emergency aid was able to reach people weeks faster than it otherwise would have,” Thapa said.
However, she said the government focus on rebuilding shelter meant that other response priorities such as food security were excluded.
“While food security has improved significantly in most of the affected districts, due in no small part to the large amount of humanitarian assistance provided and the rehabilitation of critical roads to provide market access, more than 300,000 people still remain highly food insecure in pockets especially throughout the high-altitude, hard to reach areas.”
Looking towards the future, experts hope reconstruction efforts will be spurred to provide support, better living conditions and more dignity for Nepal’s people.
Now that the blockade is over, NGOs hope that previous challenges such as limited fuel and field mobility and access to construction materials would continue to improve.
But for Dirgha Raj Shrestha, national program manager at Ipas Nepal, an NGO that works to increase public awareness and train future abortion providers, the image of women giving birth in tents is still raw.
Shrestha said that the majority of health care facilities that were destroyed in the earthquake have not yet been rebuilt. He said it was time the country focused not only on reestablishing centers, but also on improving the services they provide. It’s one thing to encourage women to give birth at a facility, but it’s another if the facility is unhygienic, he said.
For Tripti, while the earthquake response was extremely challenging, she’s eager to see what the future will bring.
“If we look at the policy climate, it’s an exciting time because while the constitution does have people opposing [WASH] … the constitution does realize the right to WASH as a fundamental right. That’s a huge thing for the people of Nepal,” she said.
Sophie Cousins is a health writer based in India. She was previously based between Lebanon and Iraq focusing on refugee health and conflict. She is particularly interested in infectious diseases and rural health in South Asia. She writes for international medical journals, including The Lancet, and for international news websites such as Al-Jazeera English.
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