Will donor conference address customs bottlenecks delaying aid efforts in Nepal?

A distribution of tents by Save the Children in Khokana, a town heavily damaged by the earthquake in Nepal. The overall relief effort in the country is being delayed by major customs bottlenecks. Photo by: KC Ortiz / European Union

With the cost of recovery in earthquake-ravaged Nepal estimated at $6.6 billion, preparations are underway for a donor conference this week to coordinate reconstruction and drum up support for the underfunded aid effort.

On the ground, aid partners are already pushing into recovery: clearing debris, building temporary shelters, and running cash-for-work programs in villages damaged by the April 25, 7.8-magnitude temblor and resulting aftershocks, which killed over 8,700.

But the overall relief effort is still being delayed by major customs bottlenecks. Further, rains, which broke in eastern Nepal in mid-June, are already hampering relief, triggering landslides, flash floods and cutting off remote villages.

“These procedures have slowed down the influx of goods into the country,” said Leszek Barczak, public information officer for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “It is a concern for us and the humanitarian community, as it does impact our ability to ensure pipelines are in place and goods are delivered.”

Goods have been blocked and flights denied permission to land since normal customs procedures were reinstated May 26, prompting some organizations to stop ordering supplies. Regulations and duties — which can amount to 40 percent of the value of imports — were largely waived for the first month of the response after the United Nations urged the government to relax these procedures, which were delaying distribution.

Now those seeking clearances need to be registered with the government and have a memorandum of understanding stating their right to exemption. Nepalese authorities also released a list of priority items that are partly or fully exempt from duties.

But exemptions are being applied, “very much on a case-by-case basis,” Barczak said. Nongovernmental organizations need to approach different ministries, which write a letter to the finance ministry, which alerts customs. The process can take seven days and cargo arriving without papers or with any unapproved items will be blocked, which is causing congestion at Tribhuvan International Airport and customs at the India border.

Both national and international NGOs are being affected, Barczak said, “not only for financial reasons but as the procedures are impacting the delivery times, at a time when delivering goods to the affected is crucial.”

Points of contention

The U.N. logistics cluster and NGOs are advocating with the government to smooth hurdles and seek clarity on evolving customs procedures — with more changes pegged for June 23 when the government said it will stop accepting relief materials and NGOs will need special approval before items are allowed into the country.

But negotiations are complicated, with Nepal’s government wanting NGOs to contribute money to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, rather than import goods.

“We’re encouraging all donor agencies to provide money rather than the relief items,” said Rameshwar Dangal, chief at the Disaster Management Division. Authorities have requested U.N. agencies and NGOs to import goods only if asked by the government and prioritize local procurement.

There’s also disagreement over what can be sourced inside Nepal’s landlocked borders. A critical point of contention is corrugated iron sheets, seen as crucial for recovery and the mammoth rebuilding process — with over half a million homes wrecked, housing devoured half the total needs in the government’s post-disaster needs assessment.

The government wants CGI bought locally and has not been waiving duties — and it has not shown signs of changing its position anytime soon.

“We can provide these in Nepal and we are organizing all Nepalese manufacturers and Nepalese products in the market to supply relief,” Dangal stressed. The disaster management chief further said the government has been giving 15,000 Nepalese rupees ($146) to people who have lost their homes. If NGOs imported CGI, “there will be duplication.”

But NGOs say sourcing CGI locally is not feasible.

“Suppliers of CGI sheeting in Nepal cannot provide the quantity and quality of CGI needed for this response,” said Serena Tramonti, media adviser for Oxfam, which has provided relief to over 240,000 affected people. It’s seen as the best material as “people can use them to mend their homes in a number of different ways and unlike tarpaulins, they can withstand the monsoon season.” With the reinstatement of customs, Tramnonti said Oxfam has been working with the government to find, “the most cost-effective way of utilizing resources available.”

Basic aid still needed

To bypass logistical hurdles and push into recovery, some agencies and partners, like the World Food Program, have started distributing cash.

“They have to do some sort of work for the cash, like debris removal; it’s not complicated,” Richard Ragan, WFP’s emergency coordinator in Nepal, said. This enables people to buy food and materials at local markets, stimulating the economy. Having handed out $45,000 in Makwanpur and Sindhuli by June 17, WFP and partners have been mapping other areas to identify where markets are open to roll out further programs.

“We know some of those middle-altitude areas, the markets are just now starting to revitalize,” Ragan said.

But while talk has shifted to recovery, Barczak cautioned that the need for basic aid was far from met.

“People [are] thinking the relief phase is over, but it’s not — many people remain in dire need of basic humanitarian assistance, including shelter, food and livelihood support and basic services,” he said. The U.N. extended its appeal for $422 million from three months to five to take into account the impact of monsoon, with relief to continue until September. But as of June 18, the appeal has only been 31 percent funded.

Regardless of when recovery kicks in, it’s clear the government will take a leading role in directing the process and NGOs will need to work closely with authorities. The June 25 meeting provides the opportunity to tackle contentious points and lay the foundation for a smooth reconstruction process — whether there’ll be any breakthroughs remains to be seen.

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About the author

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    Alys Francis

    Alys Francis is a freelance journalist covering development and other news in South Asia for international media outlets. Based in India, she travels widely around the region and has covered major events, including national elections in India and Nepal. She is interested in how technology is aiding development and rapidly altering societies.