As Nepal’s monsoon season draws closer, aid groups on the ground are faced with a ticking clock, and not a lot of alternatives.
The ubiquitous plastic tarps doled out by aid groups and meant to serve as makeshift shelters won’t withstand monsoon winds, Relief International’s Global Humanitarian Director Alex Gray told Devex, and Nepalese can’t use traditional construction materials — mud, thatch and stone — out of fear of a third installment of last month’s deadly earthquakes.
Now the only option for homeless Nepalese is to build shelters out of corrugated iron sheets, which are hard to come by and growing more expensive.
“All the CGI sheets in the country have been bought up,” Gray told Devex in a phone interview. “We met with a couple of manufacturers, and they said [it would take] a month to produce our orders. … By then the monsoons will be at our doorstep.”
Speaking to Devex from Kathmandu after traveling by helicopter to some of the hardest-hit villages in mountainous central Nepal, Gray found that overwhelmingly, survivors’ biggest concern is still shelter.
But as building materials grow more scarce, earthquake survivors must rely on international and regional donors to send materials. But India, Nepal’s southern neighbor, is coming to the end of its supply of CGI sheets as well, made worse by the Nepalese government’s decision to reinstate a tax on all aid to the country.
“This will slow down everything, and make it way more expensive to bring in building materials,” Gray said.
What’s the most recent shift in how Relief International and responding agencies on the ground are approaching shelter and reconstruction?
In Nepal, from the very beginning we all knew we only had a month or two months. It’s interesting to see how quickly the conversation has shifted from tarps and poles to actually looking at reconstruction. And this has been the mega disaster we’ve all been anticipating would happen, because of the mountainous terrain and the isolated communities. A lot of these communities in the mountains are going to be completely cut off for some time, and so if reconstruction is going to happen for them, it has to happen now. In the area I was today, in Dolakha, more than 90 percent of the houses have been completely destroyed or too damaged to be livable.
How are donors balancing the need for emergency shelter with the need for shelter resilient enough for monsoon season?
In some ways it’s a classic dilemma. By spending three months of effort and resources doing emergency shelter, you’re taking resources away from a longer-term solution. At the same time, shelter and recovery never get that much funding. It falls to the government and the people themselves to find solutions.
For this particular crisis, we made a decision at the beginning to address the community’s shift in attitude toward building materials. People’s homes — in the mountainous and rural areas, not in the cities — were completely destroyed because they’re made of stone or wood and then sealed on the outside with mud. Wood is scarce, and it’s very precious to find stones that you can build houses with. If they can’t afford corrugated steel roofing, they’ll use thatch, which obviously doesn’t work in monsoon season. That’s the standard house design.
What other people are doing is using corrugated iron sheets for the walls and the roof, which is expensive. Instead, we’re providing the most in-need people with those corrugated steel sheets and also teaching people to build using reclaimed materials, be it debris that was there already, from their original house or community debris.
What was interesting today, our design is that people can reclaim materials in their community, to rebuild quickly. That dilemma that we normally have, of providing makeshift shelter in the short term, because of monsoon season we don’t have that option.
Who are the most vulnerable in the run-up to monsoon season?
It’s back to the dilemma. You can reach more people with a very temporary solution, or you can focus and target and start working with the most vulnerable who will not be able to get themselves back on their feet because they don’t have a very active livelihood, especially in Nepal where you have the whole caste system and so much prejudice against the lower castes. I think that those people will not bounce back, and so with limited resources the dilemma is getting them back on their feet.
In a way, everyone in Nepal is vulnerable. For those who need to purchase corrugated steel but can’t afford it, they are also vulnerable. The government had announced they were going to introduce a standard pricing for manufacturers and introduce this regulation on pricing and thickness, but that fixed price doesn’t apply to the suppliers, only to the manufacturers, so there is some danger [of price gouging]. It leaves the supply pretty vulnerable to suppliers’ inflating the prices.
Are donors coordinating well on the ground?
District governments have actually said to stop giving out tarpaulins, that people need to get their houses in a more stable state before the monsoons. Some donors are still giving out tarpaulins, even though they’ve been banned in some districts and the community says they don’t want them. Not everyone in the shelter cluster is in the early recovery cluster where some of these issues are spoken about, so there’s a bit of an information gap.
[The U.N. Development Program and others] are piloting a project to form community groups, to educate and increase awareness of debris removal and demolition. It was something that was done in Haiti as well and in Gaza: Prioritizing which community assets have to be built back first. We’re starting a cash-back program to pay volunteers, both for debris removal and training them to separate usable and nonusable waste.
I think a big part of that is the unique problem of monsoon season and the fact that winter is coming. Reconstruction in three months will be impossible. You can’t build in the rain, especially if you’re building with mud walls.
Molly is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.
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