Nepali Times

A month that felt like a year

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

It has been one month since a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck central Nepal on April 25, killing nearly 9,000 people. The damage to the country is still beyond comprehension: 600,000 homes destroyed, 25,000 schools reduced to rubble, most hospitals in the districts damaged, and 6 million people directly affected. Kathmandu’s once-precious World Heritage Sites are in ruins, and the tourism industry has been wrecked. Four hydropower plants have been damaged, and four more under construction will now be delayed. One month later, most government offices in Kathmandu are operating out of tents.

But despite the scale of the disaster, two facts stand out: The quake was not unexpected, and it could have been far worse. A mega-earthquake hits Kathmandu every 80-100 years, and the city’s houses and temples sit on top of layers of debris from previous quakes. The first historical record of an earthquake was in 1255, when most of Kathmandu was levelled and the king crushed under his own palace.

Nepal got off lightly considering that Kathmandu and everything in it moved 1.8 meters southward and was lifted 1.3 meters on April 25. The death toll in Kathmandu was under 1,400, and while numerous 100-year-old brick and mortar buildings in the city’s old quarter and historic temples crumbled and collapsed, 80% of the more recently constructed concrete buildings remained intact. The mobile telecommunications network was jammed but did not go down, Kathmandu airport was only closed for 12 hours because of aftershocks, landslides blocking the highways linking the city were quickly cleared, and electricity was restored within days.

What was unexpected was the high death toll in the mountains to the north of Kathmandu. Some villages there were wiped off the map by avalanches, while in others, 90% of homes were destroyed. Three districts to the east that escaped the main quake were devastated by the magnitude-7.3 aftershock of May 12.

The death toll could have been even higher was that the earthquake was below magnitude 8 and the shaking lasted less than a minute. Additionally, it was a Saturday, so most students were not in school, most offices were empty, and in the farms in the mountains, most families were out in the fields harvesting potatoes or weeding the maize patch.

The state’s first failure was lack of preparedness for a disaster that everyone — from international organisations to local groups — had been predicting. Nepalese politics has been in disarray for the past eight years, with parties’ bickering over a new constitution leading to two elections and frequent changes of government. A bill to establish a Disaster Management Authority had been languishing in parliament, and the government was only just starting to move toward better disaster preparedness when the earthquake came last month.

This meant that when disaster struck, there was no proper contingency plan in place, no prepositioning of supplies, no orderly evacuation of people to open spaces. It was local communities and neighborhoods that sprung into action to search for and rescue, with their bare hands, those buried under the rubble.

Volunteers and relief workers started moving out to the mountains as soon as the scale of the disaster became clearer. The government got off to a slow start and seemed overwhelmed even by the deluge of rescue and relief assistance from the international community. Kathmandu’s small airport became a bottleneck as more than 800 big jets arrived within the first three weeks.

Then there was the problem of getting those supplies to remote villages. The earthquake occurred in some of the most densely populated and rugged mountain regions of the world. The settlements, however, are spread out across the mountains, making it difficult to reach everyone. Although the Indian and Chinese air forces and the U.S. Marines brought in helicopters, Nepal needed at least 100 such aircraft to meet the vast need.

One month later, Kathmandu is still rocked by aftershocks, but shops have started to open, and the streets are beginning to see traffic jams again. The crisis has given Nepal an opportunity to reverse the outflow of young people to India, the Gulf states and Malaysia by creating jobs in reconstruction and rehabilitation. Nearly 20% of Nepal’s population works abroad, and although they send $5 billion home every year, the absence of able-bodied men from the workforce has an economic and social cost.

It was peak spring tourist season when the earthquake hit. About 100 trekkers perished in avalanches in the Everest and Langtang areas. Tourists already in Nepal fled, and others cancelled trips. The Thamel tourist area of Kathmandu is deserted. Even scenic Pokhara, which was not affected by the quake, is empty. Hoteliers are hoping visitors will start returning in July and August, which is the tourist season for such trans-Himalayan regions as Mustang, Dolpo and Tibet.

Nepalese resilience

Our newspaper, the Nepali Times, has started the “Help Nepal by Visiting Nepal” campaign which is gaining traction on social media under the hashtag #VisitNepalAutumn2015. What the international media does not tell the world is that large parts of Kathmandu are not in ruins, only two trekking areas have been damaged, the airport is functioning normally, and tourist hot spots like Pokhara and Chitwan were not affected.

On April 25, as the quake hit, 12 of us from the Nepali Times were hiking up on a ridge overlooking Kathmandu when the entire mountain shuddered and swayed. We looked down at the pall of dust that had shrouded the city below and were convinced that Kathmandu had been destroyed. We feared for our families and were happy to see when we got back down that they were all safe.

Since then, we have moved the newsroom to tents in the garden to escape the aftershocks, or to wherever we could find electricity and Wi-Fi connections. We have gone into digital-first mode, uploading everything online and compiling articles once a week for the print edition on Fridays. Our printing press was badly damaged but is still in working condition. Needless to say, the last four issues have all been about the different phases of the rescue, relief and rehabilitation, telling miraculous stories of survival, of the generosity of strangers, and of Nepalis helping Nepalis.

In many ways, we were lucky. Despite the tragic loss of life, Kathmandu and Nepal got off lightly this time. It was a test, a rehearsal, and we have been warned to be better prepared for an even bigger quake that one day is sure to hit us.

A version of this appeared in Nikkei Asian Review

Read also:
Monumental loss Stéphane Huët

Survivors help survivors

Monday, May 18th, 2015

In the backyard of a house in Chabahil next to a patch of knee-high corn, Rabi Manandhar is packing tents, mosquito nets, medicines and a box of soap for earthquake survivors in a village of Rasuwa district.

Manandhar himself lost his pregnant sister when his house in Kathmandu collapsed on 25 April, but he has been here every day with colleagues from the Help Nepal Network (HeNN) to organise relief supplies bought locally from the $460,000 raised from overseas Nepalis and others for earthquake relief.

Manandhar’s colleague, Arun Singh Basnet, broke his right leg during the earthquake and is sitting under a blue plastic sheet interviewing a survivor from Dolakha who has come to HeNN looking for relief material for his village.

“We have been overwhelmed with support from Nepalis living abroad, and are trying to push out relief supplies as fast as we can,” says Basnet in between speaking on his mobile to source more mosquito nets and coordinating with a survivor who needs to fill a truck going to Kavre tomorrow.

Help Nepal Network helping earthquake survivors

HELPING NEPAL: The Help Nepal Network distribution centre is working out of tents in Chabahil (from l-r) Lata Ghimire, Arun Singh Basnet, Rabindra Mishra and Rabi Manandhar. Basnet broke his leg and Manadhar lost his pregnant sister when his house collapsed on 25 April. Photo: Kunda Dixit

The Help Nepal Network was set up in 1999 in London and has been fundraising among the Nepali diaspora and friends of Nepal to help education and health projects through campaigns like its ‘$1 a Month’. But it has been the earthquake that has brought hefty cash donations.

“We have managed to leverage the social media to reach Nepalis across the world, and the response has been truly staggering,” says Abhaya Shrestha of HeNN USA, “we expect it to dip a bit as international media attention wanes but we will be there as long as Nepal needs help to rebuild.”

The Network’s Kathmandu office has had to move twice after the two earthquakes damaged buildings it was working out of, and is now housed in tents pitched in a family’s kitchen garden. The place is a hive of activity with volunteers, survivors, and HeNN staff all busy rushing out supplies to villages most in need.

Lata Ghimire who looks after health issues is briefing a group of MBBS students who are volunteering to go to a shelter in Dhading. She then interviews villagers from Rasuwa to assess the needs.

“There are 1,400 in your village, not everyone is sick, right?” Ghimire asks a survivor, “How many have open wounds? How many have fever? Is there a health assistant?” She notes all this down to decide what kind of medicines and how much to hand out.

Most people at the centre this week seeking relief supplies heard about HeNN from founder president Rabindra Mishra’s Facebook account which has nearly 400,000 followers. After identifying a local volunteer youth group or partner, HeNN works with them to transport and distribute supplies to the neediest in the affected village.

“Social networking has been a great help in spreading the message both in the diaspora as well as among Nepalis affected by the earthquake,” says Mishra, who also heads the BBC Nepali Service. “It has brought out the best in Nepalis both here and abroad. That is probably why we will survive and overcome this crisis.”

Six schools that HeNN had built over the past six years in Sindhupalchok were destroyed during the earthquakes, but one in Bhaktapur that had been retrofitted is undamaged.

Says Rabi Manandhar: “We are now working with NSET  (National Society for Earthquake Technology) to rebuild schools with seismic resistant design.”

HeNN doesn’t just procure food or tents randomly, but responds to what locals say they need most urgently in specific villages. Survivors arriving at the centre from Nuwakot say they need soap and mosquito nets more than tents, and HeNN immediately orders these for delivery. A family in Sindhupalchok needs pots and pans, and farm equipment.

“We don’t need food, we need shelter and need to start planting crops,” says Krishna Thapaliya, a teacher from Kavre, “we have been pushed back into the 17th century.”

Govinda Sharma wants a truck full of tents, mosquito nets, soap and tooth paste and brushes to take to a Dalit neighbourhood in the village of Budhasingh in Nuwakot. “People aren’t asking for tin roofs because they have heard the government is going to give it to them, but we need mosquito nets to protect children in the shelters,” Sharma says.

In other villages, families have salvaged tin roofing from collapsed buildings, but don’t even have hammers and nails to fix shelters. While food may not be a priority in one village, it may be urgently needed in the next. Lata Ghimire says the health needs are also changing, she is now getting more requests for oral rehydration salts and HeNN is helping rebuild latrines through volunteers.

She adds: “We have to be flexible and fast with response, the need is different in different places.”

HeNN tries to help with transportation, but sometimes villages bring their own trucks to ferry supplies. Many don’t know what Help Nepal is, and are surprised when told that their supplies was bought with money from Nepalis living in America, Britain or Australia.

Hierarchy of Needs 3 weeks on:

1 Tent, mattress

2 Mosquito net

3 Tin roof, hammer and nails

4 Medicine

5 Food

Read also:

Nepalis helping Nepalis Rubeena Mahato

Rs 1 million in 2 hours Rabindra Mishra

Homeless in Nepal

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

The challenge now is to provide both short-term shelter and long-term housing, mainly in rural areas but also in ravaged urban centres


Photo: Sarbendra Pachhai

The numbers are staggering: 600,000 homes destroyed, 20,000 schools in ruins, government buildings reduced to rubble, dozens of bazar towns that look like they are carpet bombed. And that was before Tuesday’s 7.3 aftershock which finished off the houses that were left. No one has even bothered to revise the figures.

As logistical hurdles and bureaucratic delays overcome to get more emergency shelter, medicine and food to the affected areas, attention has started turning to the enormous task of rehabilitation and reconstruction. As we report in the 15 May edition of Nepali Times, there is the urgent need for shortterm emergency shelter so families can tide over the approaching monsoon and winter. Then there is the longer-term need for massive reconstruction which could be financed by remittances, government grants, subsidies and soft loans – all with the intention of creating jobs at home to stem the expected exodus of even more Nepalis going abroad to work.

Short-term shelter requires coordination between government and agencies like UN-HABITAT as well as smaller relief groups in order to quickly cover the sheer geographical scale of the affected area. It is important that these temporary shelters not become permanent homes, and that people are given the financial means and technical assistance necessary to rebuild in the longer-term.

Future reconstruction of the devastated Kathmandu Valley towns, urban centres and district headquarters will need a different kind of focus: how to brace ‘non-engineered’ unreinforced masonry buildings. There is no strict code for these kinds of houses, but there are ‘rules of thumb’ that need to be followed and monitored. As Sonia Awale reports the fact that so many of the reinforced concrete buildings are standing and the traditional clay-mortar brick houses crumbled after the earthquakes has bolstered public perception that concrete is good. That would be fine, except that reinforced concrete construction demand that rules about preparing and using cement are strictly followed.

So, like everything else in Nepal, it comes down to implementation. The 1993 building code needs to be updated and enforced, masons must be trained in reinforcing brick and their work monitored, safer and cheaper designs need propagation. There many alternative housing solutions (some of which we have listed on page 15) but the trouble with alternatives is that they are difficult to scale-up to a national level and be accepted by the mainstream. The lesson from Haiti is not to have grandiose and expensive government housing projects. Efforts by individual families to rebuild on their own should not be derailed, and government must not be bypassed. However, the state must be put on notice that it can’t botch reconstruction assistance like it messed up the distribution of compensation for conflict victims in which many genuine families never got help.

Most rural rebuilding will have to be (and should be) household-led under benign but vigilant state regulation. The role of local government in the districts should be to provide financial support, enforce technical standards, monitor reconstruction without actually building homes. Proposed housing types should be specific to each community and use existing local materials and skills. A lot of this is already starting to happen, and much of the reconstruction will by default use local materials. However, many will opt for reinforced concrete which needs training and oversight. Unless locals have a sense of ownership (of both private houses and civic buildings like schools) the new construction will not be maintained and looked after.

In some places most families can only afford and understand local construction practices (Tsum, Langtang and other remote areas). In others there will be even stronger aspiration to rebuild concrete houses, especially in urban centres like Dhadingbesi, Charikot, Gorkha or Chautara.

Traditional masonry buildings, whether made of stone or mud-brick, can be reinforced with concrete tie-beams and steel columns but this is neither feasible nor desirable in many contexts. There will be a need to promote earthquake-resistant building methods and planning strategies that are appropriate to particular communities. Schools and homes that are intact or only slightly damaged need to be retrofitted.

Following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the local practice of using timber bracing (dhajji dewari) was widely adopted and over 120,000 houses were rebuilt using this technique in Pakistan. Similar methods have been adopted in Turkey, Italy, and Portugal after major earthquakes. There are other ways to build stronger homes using locally available materials, and this knowledge needs to be shared widely and conveyed to people engaged in reconstruction so that they can choose for themselves.

Transportation planning needs to be considered alongside rural reconstruction, given the impact of roads on a mountain landscape already prone to landslides. The survival of our towns and villages depends not just on their reconstruction but also on their ability to tread the ground lightly, respecting an unstable geology and climate.

In urban centres, there is an imperative to implement settlement planning that incorporates new open public spaces, earthquake-resistant community centres, and evacuation routes. Rebuilding of towns and urban centres must strengthen both community-level and government institutions, not undermine them. The idea to limit the height of buildings in the Kathmandu Valley may be misplaced since this can create other problems such as sprawl, which is disastrous in itself.

So far, there is little reason to hope that our elected leaders have either the understanding or the willingness to learn. The culture of business as usual was on full display on Wednesday as CA members scrambled shamelessly to hoard tents for themselves in the full glare of the media. However, we do have a savvy Minister of Urban Planning and officials with experience in relief and reconstruction in other parts of the world. They should be more assertive
and proactively overcome the state’s paralysing inertia and ignorance.

Read also:

A state in aftershock Victor Rana

Learning from disasters Vinod Thomas

A concrete future Sonia Awale

A more responsive state David Seddon

Moving to safer shelters Om Astha Rai

Lessons from Sichuan

Monday, May 11th, 2015

CHENGDU – The epicentre of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake was 80 km to the north-west, and everything swayed in the capital. Some older buildings crumbled. The tremors were felt 1,000km away in neighbouring countries. The airport was closed for a day, and then became the staging area for a massive relief operation. Highways were blocked by landslides, delaying emergency rescue and relief to the mountain villages. Up to 80 per cent of the buildings in poorer rural areas near the epicentre were destroyed, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was severely damaged. Strong aftershocks, some above 6 magnitude, kept hitting the area for weeks afterwards.

Sound familiar? That isn’t a description of the 25 April Nepal Earthquake, but the one that struck China’s Sichuan Province exactly seven years ago this week at 11:30 AM on 12 May 2008. The earthquake hit scattered communities in a remote part of China that was largely untouched by the country’s economic boom, and killed about 100,000 people, injuring nearly 400,000. An estimated 7 million people were left homeless.

The most tragic part of the Sichuan earthquake was that it struck during school hours killing thousands of teachers and students. Some 7,000 schools were destroyed, killing 5,500 children. In school after school in Wenchuan and Beichuan, teachers and students were crushed or trapped under shoddily-built school buildings. At least 1,700 were killed in just one school in Mianyang. The loss of children was so serious in a country with a strict one-child policy that the government made an exception for many parents allowing them to reverse their vasectomies.

Even though some 25,000 classrooms were destroyed in Nepal on 25 April, a  similar catastrophe was averted here only because the earthquake struck on Saturday. Still, about 1 million school-going children will be affected and may be attending classes in Temporary Learning Centres from next month.

China’s emergency response was led by Premier Wen Jiabao himself, and was internationally praised for its prompt deployment. More than 3,000 people were rescued from the rubble in the immediate aftermath, and 100 helicopters were used in search, rescue and relief. Many who took part in the Sichuan relief work were part of the China International Rescue Team that were dispatched to Kathmandu on 28 April.

“We learnt many lessons from the earthquake, and some of them will be relevant for Nepal as it tries to deal with the aftermath of its disaster,” said Dai Yonghong of Sichuan University Institute of South Asian Studies. “The top agenda now should be economic transformation to build a beautiful Nepal in future again.”

Indeed, China’s central government and Sichuan Province turned the crisis into an opportunity to invest $150 billion for reconstruction, rehabilitation and relocation of some townships like Wenchuan and Beichuan. An investigation into collapsed schools showed that contractors cut corners and did not follow building codes.

A unique aspect of the reconstruction was that Chinese cities on the eastern seaboard were encouraged to ‘adopt’ individual towns in Sichuan affected by the earthquake and investment in their reconstruction. For example, Guangzhou adopted Wenchuan. “We unleashed the power of the whole country to help the reconstruction,” said Zhihui Song of Sichuan University.

China West University donates funds to Nepal earthquake relief

SICHUAN ASSISTANCE : President Li Jian of China West University presenting $15,000 raised by students and faculty for Nepal earthquake relief to former Foreign Minister Madhav Ghimire on 6 May in Nanchong, Sichuan.

At a India-China-Nepal trilateral cooperation conference hosted by the China West Normal University this weekend in Nanchong, the discussions were dominated by how Nepal’s neighbours could help in Nepal’s reconstruction. Participants felt that India’s advantage was its proximity, and China would help with its experience from Sichuan in rebuilding homes, with construction equipment and financial assistance.

Rupak Sapkota, who is doing a PhD at Beijing’s Renming University, said China should “think big” in Nepal’s hour of need. “Post-earthquake reconstruction of Nepal could be the first big project that the Chinese-led Asian Infratructure Investment Bank could be involved with in the region,” he said.

Read also:

Needed: A Marshall plan Editorial 

Shaking things up Editorial

Dress rehearsal for the next big one Editorial

Could it happen here? Dewan Rai

It will happen here Aruna Uprety


Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

SHORT-TERM: emergency food, medicine and shelter
MEDIUM TERM: Semi-permanent housing, seeds for planting season
LONGTERM:  Reconstruction, jobs

In all the criticism about the slow government response to the 25 April earthquake, what many forget is that governance in Nepal was a disaster zone even before the earthquake. Slow delivery of services, lack of coordination, mismanagement, ad hoc decisions and corruption have been the hallmarks of our soft state. Despite the restoration of democracy and regular elections, accountability has somehow always fallen between the cracks. Leaders who traditionally thrived on patronage have felt no need for performance-based legitimacy.

Maitighar candle

Photo credit: Gopen Rai

Although it can’t be an excuse, poor management of earthquake relief was a  given. Why were we even surprised? How could we expect the Nepali state to  become the epitome of efficient management and speedy delivery overnight, just because there was an earthquake? In an ideal state, elected leaders would be forced to be decisive, to prioritise and act to ameliorate the massive suffering caused by this disaster. It would have streamlined procedures to receive maximum assistance instead of creating hurdles, it would have expedited delivery of urgent medical and food supplies to remote areas instead of letting it pile up at the airport, it would have encouraged donations to pour in instead of creating obstacles and obfuscation.

Instead, what we saw were politicians and bureaucrats showing the same inertia and lethargy as they have during ‘normal’ times. They pushed paper, waited for rubber stamps and ‘clearance from higher-up authorities’ as if it was just another humdrum day in our banana republic. All right, we’ll say it: the bureaucratic delays in the initial days after the quake cost lives. The earthquake killed people, red tape killed many of the survivors.

Then there are the politicians. There are? We haven’t seen them since the earthquake. This would have been a time for the top leaders, ministers, elected members of the Constituent Assembly, to be observed to be doing something. Politicians thrive during times of disasters to demonstrate their crisis management skills. Even cynical politicians will “never let a serious crisis go to waste” as former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once notoriously put it. Here in post-earthquake Nepal we didn’t even see many examples of leaders exhibiting the energy to even do token relief. The Prime Minister toured Sindhupalchok by air 10 days after the earthquake, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been holed up in a secluded villa in Man Bhavan for the past week, and only briefly gate-crashed a relief distribution event organised by the Guru Dwara. The President, it must be said, shunned media attention and made low-key personal visits to ruins of Kathmandu’s historic heart.

And when the politicians and the government did act decisively, it was to spread even more hopelessness and confusion. Just like the famously absurd sound bite by a palace official after the royal massacre in 2001 about it having been caused by the “accidental discharge of an automatic weapon” this time too, officials were busy shooting themselves in the foot every time they opened their mouths.

The Central Bank issued a dreadful statement that all earthquake aid had to be channeled through the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund (‘otherwise they will be seized’) that immediately halted most emergency cash donations from abroad. The PMO tried to clarify it was only for NGOs set up after 25 April for earthquake relief, but its interpretation sowed even more confusion. Then some wiseguy in government said we don’t need any more aid. Not to be outdone, another smartass told foreign rescue workers “we don’t need you anymore we can handle it ourselves”. The government is the subject of ridicule across the world, it is squandering the goodwill that Nepal and Nepalis command internationally – testament to which is the tremendous and prompt delivery of relief flights.

To be sure, this was a disaster that would have overwhelmed even the most efficient, best-prepared and well-endowed government. The impact zone is vast and rugged, settlements are widely scattered, you’d need hundreds of helicopters to reach every nook and cranny where there are survivors in dire need of emergency relief.  And although it started slow, there are signs that the government is getting its act together in streamlining customs and expediting delivery of supplies. The Army and Armed Police together have 120,000 personnel deployed in the 12 districts, and by all accounts have gone beyond the call of duty, despite their own family tragedies, in search, rescue and ferrying supplies. Civil society, individuals, overseas Nepalis and the private sector have stepped in to fill the gaps.

The Nepal government has got its work cut out. In the short-term there is still the need to get emergency food, medicine and shelter to the areas where they are most needed. In the medium term, we will have to turn our attention to semi-permanent housing as well help with seeds for the planting season as the rainy season approaches. This is of vital importance so subsistence farmers who have lost their granaries have something to eat in the coming year and will not have to depend on outside food aid. Then there is the colossal need for reconstruction of the 300,000 homes and 15,000 schools that have been destroyed.

This needs a Marshall Plan type movement with seamless coordination between the government, local bodies, the international community, the UN and the multilateral agencies. By now we have plenty of lessons learnt from Haiti to Haiyan about how to best manage the rehabilitation of vast populations. No two countries are alike, but there are red flags about where things went dreadfully wrong elsewhere, and why things worked brilliantly in places.

Minister of Supplies Sunil Thapa has decades of experience handling emergencies around the world for UNHCR. Similarly, we have many Nepalis recently retired from UN relief agencies, or are about to do so, whose expertise and experience we can tap. The legislation to set up a Disaster Management Authority that has been languishing for five years, and now needs to be speeded up.

But more than anything else, we in Nepal need to turn this tectonic shift into a  paradigm shift in the way we govern ourselves, how we plan, move towards a renewable energy economy, be more self-sufficient, enforce urban planning, zoning and safe housing regulations, and decentralise decision-making.

Nepal has turned into a no-man’s land because of overseas out migration. Village after village devastated by the earthquake have only women, children and the elderly. Post-earthquake reconstruction will need able-bodied men, and this could be an opportunity to stem the tide of migration by offering well-paying jobs at home, and to make it worthwhile for others already abroad to return.

Nepalis are used to hardships. We have a tremendous sense of national pride and a sense of self-worth. Our community ties bind us together and offer hope and solidarity in this time of great need. Now our elected national leadership must help the people who elected them so they can get back on their feet again.

Read also: 

Massive earthquake rattles Nepal Om Astha Rai 

Everyone their own way Om Astha Rai

Sindhupalchok’s sorrow Bhrikuti Rai

Monumental loss Stéphane Huët

Giving to the living

Not-so-big One Dambar Krishna Shrestha

Belabouring the obvious Editorial

“Let’s learn from Haiti”

Gods caught up in an act of god

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015
Many carvings have been rescued for the second time after 1934.

Many carvings have been rescued for the second time after 1934.


Gods brought down to earth.



 Diagonal crack across a Hari Shankhar figure worshipped till the morning of the quake.

Diagonal crack across a Hari Shankhar figure worshipped till the morning of the quake.

 Wouldn't have seen this up close if it hadn't fallen from a 3-storey temple.

Wouldn’t have seen this up close if it hadn’t fallen from a 3-storey temple.

Rescued struts and eaves from Patan Darbar.

Rescued struts and eaves from Patan Darbar.

 The hard work to inventory and reconstruct begins.

The hard work to inventory and reconstruct begins.

The temple is gone, but the God is intact.

The temple is gone, but the God is intact.

Shaking things up

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

What undermined our ability to deal promptly and adequately with search, rescue and relief was first and foremost a failure of politics.

It is difficult to imagine that things will ever be ‘normal’ in Nepal again after this catastrophe, but ‘normalcy’ does inevitably return over time.

Nepal earthquake

Photo: Gopen Rai

Devastating natural disasters like these are cathartic, shaking up society so much that they can help settle problems that looked intractable before the event. The Sri Lankan war and the Aceh separatist conflict in Indonesia both wound down in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit both countries hard ten years ago. There is reason to hope that a crisis of this magnitude will allow Nepal’s rulers to also draw a lesson or two, be more far-sighted and not hold the country hostage to their personal ambitions. Tall order, but no harm in hoping.

Earthquakes have tectonic origins and we call them ‘natural disasters’, but the devastation and loss of life they cause are often man-made. Poorly built houses, settlements on slopes vulnerable to landslides, botched rescue and relief, all cost lives. And the primary reason for such lethal negligence lies in politics – too much of it, or too little.

When you have too much politics, it means elected officials spend so much time clawing at each other to get to power and plunder resources that they have no inclination to work to fulfill the long-term needs of their constituencies. And when there is too little politics in a democracy, it erodes the accountability of elected officials. Nepal currently suffers from both: too much politics at the national level, and too little politics at the grassroots where we haven’t had local elections for 18 years.

The result is not hard to discern during the current crisis. National level politicians, instead of coming together during this emergency are already trying to make political capital out of it. Vocal political leaders who don’t miss an opportunity to be seen at public gatherings to give long exhortative speeches are conspicuously absent in the aftermath of the earthquake. They have all gone into hiding. The ‘youth forces’ and ‘young communists’ that the parties mobilise to burn buses and block roads could have been employed to dig up people trapped under the rubble of buildings, take relief supplies to remote areas or help manage shelters.

The absence of elected village, district and municipal councils has been felt most acutely during this crisis. Local leaders now have no incentive or compulsion to be accountable to their people. Some residual responsibility still remains in VDCs from elections two decades ago, and other communities where there is a tradition of collective response still make it possible for emergency services to be promptly delivered. But at the national and district level, there was deadly delay in search, rescue and relief.

Contrary to what some senior ministers said, this earthquake was not “unexpected”, everyone knew it was coming). What was unexpected was that it was not a M8.5 mega-earthquake which could have killed at least 100,000 people outright in the capital. Tragic as the loss of life and damage in Kathmandu Valley was, it fell far short of that worst case scenario. The phones worked most of the time, electricity was back within three days, the hospitals were intact and 85 per cent of the residential buildings survived. The highways out of Kathmandu were open, and the airport wasn’t damaged. We may not be so lucky next time.

Seismologists have done a preliminary analysis of last Saturday’s thrust earthquake. Subsequent ruptures along the fault that set off the aftershocks trail off to the east. This means a lot of the tectonic tension beneath Central Nepal has now been released possibly postponing a mega-earthquake for now. However, this leaves a 500 year seismic gap west of the epicentre (Pokhara and westwards) where the chances of a major thrust event is even more likely. What all this simply means is that this earthquake was a lesson for us all that we must be prepared for an even bigger one in western Nepal which could happen tomorrow or 50 years from now, but it will happen. And a M8.5 earthquake in western Nepal will shake Kathmandu up even more than the M7.9 on 25 April.

Nepal is one of the most densely-populated mountain countries in the world, and there is no other alternative but to be prepared for future disasters. We have indications of it this time in the 12 worst-affected districts. The destruction is so complete and vast that even the most well-prepared state apparatus in the world would have found it a challenge to cope. Entire villages of 500 people wiped off the map by a massive avalanche, village after village razed, rivers blocked and valleys cut off – where does one even begin to respond? Very soon, search and rescue will be pointless, it will only be a question of getting relief supplies in. And that means tents, food and medicines in that order.

The bottleneck is not relief material, but logistics. The Nepal Army only has five small helicopters and a large one, even with additional air assets from India we are spread too thin. The international outpouring of aid shows that there is tremendous goodwill for Nepal, but all the food, medicine and shelter needs to be taken to those who need them most – and that is our job. To do that job well, to coordinate effectively, we have to first fix our politics.

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Coming out stronger from crisis, Anjana Rajbhandary

Believe it, or not, Tsering Dolker Gurung

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