Nepali Times

Fixing what’s broken

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

Nepal’s tourism was in crisis long before the earthquake struck

tourism in post-quake Nepal

‘Build Back Better’ has become a mantra for post-earthquake rehabilitation in Nepal. As a motto it strives for an ideal outcome: the reconstruction of roads, schools, homes, government buildings, hospitals, utilities should not just be physical rebuilding, but restructuring each area from the ground up.

Nepal was a disaster zone long before the earthquakes struck. Education was in a shamble because despite enrolment numbers being up, the quality was poor. The health sector was either over-commercialised or under-served, putting basic medical care out of reach of most of the population. Kathmandu’s haphazard urbanisation and unsafe buildings make it a ticking timebomb that was not defused by the 7.8 quake on 25 April.

The root reason for all these problems has been poor governance,  political unwillingness and a disturbing lack of accountability on the part of elected officials. The earthquake, therefore, has given us the chance for a paradigm shift not just in the 15 districts affected but in the rest of the country as well. And the constitution offers the vehicle to make politics more just and equitable.

Much has already been said in this space about maximising job-creation during the reconstruction process, and the National Planning Commission has taken the lead in ensuring that this happens. This would be the start of a longterm process of reversing the outflow of our desperate young men and women to work overseas in appalling conditions.

The other mainstay of Nepal’s economy is tourism and this has taken a direct hit from the earthquake. Saturation coverage in the international media of the immediate aftermath has spread the perception that Nepal is completely destroyed. The fact that many tourist spots in Nepal like Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Muktinath or Mustang are not affected is not widely known.

In addition, alarmist travel advisories by some governments have frightened off potential visitors. Insurance companies take their cue from these blanket notices and the high premium has is further deterrence. Happily, as we write this, the United States, UK, New Zealand have relaxed their advisories and there are indications that they will be revised further as independent assessments of the Everest and Annapurna trekking trails and Kathmandu’s heritage sites become available.

Nepal’s tourism was also in crisis long before the earthquake. Visitor numbers were stagnant, spending per tourist was down, average duration of stay was getting shorter, repeat visitors were getting rarer.

It isn’t hard to figure out why: the quality of the product was going down with the chaos at the airport, the visa lines and the squalour of Kathmandu. The Annapurna Circuit and other trekking areas were marred by new highways. Chitwan suffered a 70 per cent drop in visitors after lodges were relocated and Sauraha became unpleasant. There were concerns of air safety for domestic travel after a series of crashes.

Air fare was another factor: it cost more for a tourist to fly from Kathmandu to Rara than to fly to Europe. Helicopter rescue in Nepal is as expensive as in the United States and is the highest in the world. Then there were the high profile disasters like the Everest avalanche last year followed by government bungling on permits, the tragic loss of lives in the Annapurna blizzard raising questions of the lack of early warning and shelters along the trail.

The ‘Turning Point in Tourism: Role of International and National Tour Operators’ conference organised by the group, Samarth, last week drew attention to these factors already affecting Nepal’s tourism before the earthquake. Robin Baustead of the Great Himalayan Trail Alliance said: “Nepal has fantastic mountains to climb, but it is becoming a much harder place to climb them in.”

Visitor numbers to Nepal have gone down in the past. It plummeted by 40 percent after the 2001 royal palace massacre, went down by 80 percent during the 2003 Gulf War, and shrank to a third of normal during he Maoist conflict. But in all these cases, the arrival numbers revived in a few months. This time, even the most optimistic scenario predicts a 70 per cent drop in the autumn season, and a 40 per cent drop in bookings for the spring. It will take longer to bounce back this time.

The Samarth conference drew up a checklist of things to be done to revive tourism revenue:

Set up a verifiable third party online knowledge base with up-to-date information on the safety status of trekking trails

–       Relaunch the Nepal brand in target markets, especially India and China

–       Clean up the airport, streamline visas, make it easy for visitors

–       Don’t reduce prices, improve safety and quality of services

Read also:

Rebuilding ourselves Kunda Dixit 

An opportunity for all: Nepal is open to visitors

Fixing tourism Karma Dolma Gurung

Tourism is down, but not out Om Astha Rai 

Where have all the tourists gone? Tsering Dolker Gurung 

Trekking in solitude Peregrin Frissell

Rebuilding ourselves

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

More than aid, we need help to boost tourism, investment, trade and to create jobs in reconstruction

The headlines in the media about this week’s International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction were scripted: donors pledges fell short of assistance needed for long-term rehabilitation because they are concerned about accountability and delivery in distribution. Aid agencies and governments have reason to be worried, given reports of emergency supplies piling up in warehouses, the politicisation of relief and government disarray. Despite billions pledged, hundreds of thousands of survivors haven’t even received the Rs 15,000 emergency grants yet.

But, as Emily Troutman argues a lot of the money raised for disasters around the world is also heavily skewed in favour of the donor. The colossal mismanagement of aid after Haiti’s earthquake has become the stuff of legend. Seeing the way Nepal relief is going, it doesn’t look like the aid industry has learnt its lesson. ‘In Nepal, I found patterns in the humanitarian response that persist in every disaster,’ Troutman writes. ‘Money will be wasted, aid will arrive too late. As in Haiti, local organisations with the expertise and commitment to really make a difference will be left out.’

A disaster is an opportunity for humanitarian organisations to replenish their coffers and cover overheads. Lot of the billateral aid pledged on Thursday is already earmarked for donor agencies. A recent investigation by the group Disaster Accountability also confirms that charities often fudge where donations go, hide overheads, and even blatantly misrepresent the actual assistance they provide.

To be sure, the destruction from the earthquake has been overwhelming, and the monsoon is set to move the mountains again. Nepal’s need for long-term reconstruction is so enormous that the country cannot go it alone. There is need for funding, logistics and the human resource to manage it all efficiently. Now is the time for targeted interventions, to do things less wastefully so that beneficiaries benefit.

We have argued in this space before that relying on crowdsourced funding for private relief work has filled the gap left by the state’s delayed and patchy response. But such aid lets the government off the hook and allows it to abdicate its responsibility. Piecemeal relief can never match the scale of operation needed, which only a national government has at its disposal. The Nepal government’s concern about aid dependency among survivors in parts of some districts is, however, valid. While farmers in remote areas will need help with food for the medium term, many living near roads who have paddy seeds are not planting them this season because there is so much free rice being doled out. We should be careful emergency food aid doesn’t crowd out long term food security.

Nepal has been labeled ‘aid dependent’ because about three-quarters of our annual budget for health, education and infrastructure comes from overseas development assistance even at the best of times. This has given foreigners and Nepalis alike the impression that this country will grind to a halt if aid was stopped. This may be the right time, then, for us to look beyond aid to trade, tourism, investment and job creation as better alternatives for self-sustained growth, and to build a prosperous future.

For the kind of natural and cultural assets Nepal posseses, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of tourism’s true potential for revenue and employment. Visitors who choose to visit Nepal do so because our mountains, heritage and biodiversity are such powerful draws, not because there has been any strategic marketing. We seem to excel at making it as difficult as possible for tourists to visit. Nepal should scrap visas, revamp our national airline, streamline entry points, encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more.

If they really want to help, donor governments should drop their inaccurate and outdated travel advisories, and the irrational ban on domestic air travel for nationals. High insurance costs are also dissuading tourists from visiting Nepal, especially after the earthquake. Distorted international media coverage that only shows destruction, and alarmist fundraising billboards of aid agencies in public places in Europe have frightened off potential visitors.

Instead of more aid, we should ask donor governments to facilitate more trade. For this we don’t have to look beyond our immediate neighbours. India and China are the locomotives that Nepal should hitch its wagon to. Europe and the United States can help by lifting tariffs, redeploying aid agencies to help promote Nepali products in their countries, as GIZ has done with Nepali tea. Nepal’s private sector is more than capable of stepping in if governments open their doors.

The path ahead for Nepal is clear: we need to invest in infrastructure and encourage post-quake reconstruction through grants and soft credit for massive job creation. The only obstacles are weak political willpower, poor delivery, and a culture of aid dependency.

Read also:

Deconstruction before reconstruction Editorial

Needed: A Marshall plan Editorial

Living off the land Editorial

How not to reinvent the wheel Bihari K Shrestha

25 June Donor Summit Om Astha Rai

The 8th summit

Monday, June 15th, 2015

After seven Nepali women got to the top of Mt Everest in 2008 and finished climbing the seven highest peaks in seven continents last year, they thought they had run out of challenges.

But when Nepal was hit by an earthquake on 25 April, The Seven Summits Women Team immediately put their knowledge of mountains and experience in managing logistics in remote areas to good use for relief and rehabilitation work.

WFP relief operation at Dolakha

The WFP’s Richard Ragan and member of the Seven Summits Women’s Team, Chunu Shrestha, at the Remote Operations Base warehouse in Charikot on Saturday. Photo: Kunda Dixit

Asha Kumari Singh is from Mahottari district in the plains, but knows Rasuwa district intimately ever since she spent two months here in 2007 for a mountaineering training course on Langtang Glacier. So, when the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) asked if she would like to be a field officer in Rasuwa for relief distribution, she readily agreed.

“I may be from the Tarai, but I am at home here and have many friends,” Singh said just after returning from delivering food and roofing sheets to the devastated village of Gatlang on Monday. “But my parents are more worried about my safety now, than when I was climbing Mt Everest,” she laughed.

Another mountaineer from the team, Chunu Shrestha, is based at WFP’s Remote Operations Base in Charikot where she helps assess the need in remote villages of Sindhupalchok so supplies can be dispatched by helicopter, road, or porter.

“It’s not just about loading a helicopter and sending it off,” Shrestha told us in Charikot on Saturday, “you have to know the specific need in every village. Some villagers are disappointed when you bring them sanitation kits, they want food. Others don’t need food, they want tin roofs.”

Other team members Shailee Basnet and Maya Gurung who have been working in Maya’s home village of Bhotenamlang of Sindhupalchok to distribute emergency relief, rehabilitate schools buildings and get classes going again. Another team members, Sushma Maskey is coordinating from the WFP office in Kathmandu.

Relief delivery mission at Dolakha

Mountaineers Pema Diki Sherpa and Nim Doma Sherpa about to go off on another relief delivery mission in their home district of Dolakha last week. Photo:  Jana Asenbrennerova

Two other team members, Pema Diki Sherpa and Nim Doma Sherpa have been assigned to supervise WFP logistics in their home district of Dolakha. The homes of their families in Simigaon has been destroyed, as have the school and monastery. But when we met them last week both were acutely aware that the need was greater in other villages, and they were ready to take emergency supplies to the village of Lapilang.

“Climbing the seven peaks and making Nepal known all over the world gave us a sense of personal fulfillment,” said Pema Diki, “but helping in earthquake relief is a different kind of satisfaction, it is like we are helping soothe our motherland when she is in pain.”

Read also:

High five Nim Doma Sherpa

They climbed another mountain Matt Miller 

Deconstruction before reconstruction

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Nine years after the end of the conflict and seven years after the first election to an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, the four main political parties finally came to an agreement late Monday night on the last pending element of the peace process.

Ostensibly, the deal involved a compromise on an 8-province model for Nepal’s future federal structure. If it was simple as that, the great wonder is that it took so long for them to hit upon that formula. Which means it was never only about the constitution only, but about getting to power, controlling state resources, and taking all the credit.

This week’s nocturnal compromise involved the NC-UML giving up its stand on six territorially-designated provinces, and the Maoist-Madhesi alliance letting go of its insistence that eight future provinces be ethnically demarcated conclaves. They met half-way to allow a commission to decide on boundaries and future federal legislatures and also how to name themselves. It is disingenuous that they have bargained as if it was a fish market about an arbitrary number for provinces without figuring out what those provinces are going to look like or what they are going to be called. However, it was probably the only compromise possible at the present time.

In a sense, what the four parties cunningly did was pass the buck on the remaining sticking points on the constitution to someone else somewhere to resolve later. It is the tragedy of Nepal that it needs a major disaster or a violent street uprising to shake things up. This time the ruse of the need for a national unity government for reconstruction gave a sense of urgency that lifted the deadlock on power-sharing.

All four main political parties got what they wanted from the deal. The NC and the UML had a gentlemen’s agreement that Prime Minister Sushil Koirala would make way for the UML’s KP Oli as soon as the constitution was agreed upon. The ailing Oli was impatient to become prime minister, but for that Koirala had to step down and to do that the constitution had to be passed first.  Koirala needed a graceful way to step down, and wanted to bequeath a historical legacy to bolster his stature at the upcoming party conclave. “Let’s go for eight, then,” a downcast and evasive Koirala is supposed to have said at the four-party meeting on Tuesday morning.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the UCPN(M) missed being at the centre of things, and by dangling carrots in front of Oli assured him of backing for prime ministership if it was going to be a government of national unity that included his party. Bijay Kumar Gachhadar of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (L) is in it only because he has an eye on a key portfolio in the national government. In doing this, Dahal and Gachhadar dumped 28 members of their 30-party alliance proving that this was never really about federalism or ethnic autonomy.

If one is to try to see the glass as half-full, then this is a step forward. A national unity government will be formed next month after the CA does the paperwork on the constitution. Oli may not be well, but he is more decisive than Koirala, and can hopefully inject  a sense of urgency into the reconstruction process. We want to be pleasantly surprised, but given their past record on governance and transparency (the lack thereof) we are not holding our breath on the new government suddenly become an epitome of efficiency and honesty. The same old discredited persona are going to be in charge, the thoroughly corrupt all-party mechanism that governed VDCs and DDCs are now going to on the national stage. It is a given that distribution of compensation for earthquake survivors is going to be a repeat of the inequitable way compensation for conflict victims was handed out.

Dolakha after earthquake

Photo: Kunda Dixit

This week in Dolakha we saw the enormous task of rebuilding. Of the 59 hospitals and health posts, 53 are destroyed. All 363 schools are damaged. Nearly two months after the quake 80 per cent of the inhabitants of Charikot live in tents. On Chaighyant St buildings look like a pile of Lego blocks. The famous Maoist dictum that there has to be deconstruction before reconstruction has a whole new meaning in post-earthquake Nepal, and not quite in the way Pushpa Kamal Dahal intended.

One way to ensure accountability is to announce local elections right away. That is the only way relief and rehabilitation budgets will be better spent so that everyone benefits and jobs are created in the process. Campaigning for that election itself may be a way to spur candidates and parties to be more responsive to the needs of the people not just in the 14 quake-hit districts but in the rest of the country.

Read also:

Constitution deal inked Om Astha Rai

Political tectonics Anurag Acharya

भूगर्भको चेतावनी

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

कुन्द दीक्षित

वैशाख १२ आमनेपालीलाई प्रकृतिले दिएको एउटा चेतावनी मात्र हो । त्यो चेतावनीलाई गम्भीरतापूर्वक लिएर अब हामीले पुनर्निर्माण गर्दा घर, स्कूल, अफिसहरू ८.५ सम्मको भूकम्प थेग्न सक्ने बनाउनुपर्छ । यसो गरे मात्र अर्को ठूलो धक्का आउँदा धनजनको क्षति कम गर्न सकिन्छ । र, त्यो ठूलो धक्का कुनै न कुनै दिन आउने नै छ, कहिले आउँछ भन्ने कुरो मात्र हो ।

नेपालमा भूकम्प आउनु नयाँ कुरा होइन । हरेक ८०–१०० वर्षमा काठमाडौँ ध्वस्त भएको छ । यहाँका शिलापत्रहरूमा सन् १२५५ र त्यसपछि गएका महाभूकम्पहरूको विवरण भेटिन्छ । सन् १२५५ को भूकम्पमा काठमाडौँ उपत्यकाका एउटा पनि घर बचेका थिएनन् । राजा अभय मल्ल समेत आफ्नै दरबार भत्कँदा पुरिएर मरेका थिए । सन् १४०८ को भुइँचालोमा पनि यहाँका धेरैजसो मन्दिरहरू भत्किएका थिए ।

२०७२ वैशाख १२ को भूकम्प अप्रत्याशित थिएन । मध्यनेपालमा ठूलो भूकम्प आउनु नै थियो, आयो । घडी हेरेरै आएको जस्तो गरेर ९० सालको भूकम्पको ठीक ८२ वर्षमा फेरि मध्यनेपाल हल्लियो । त्यसैले ‘नेपालमा भूकम्प आउँछ कि आउँदैन’ भन्दा पनि ‘कहिले आउँछ’ भनेर सोच्नु सान्दर्भिक हुन्छ ।

यस्तो तथ्य थाहा हुँदाहुँदै पनि वैशाख १२ गतेले हाम्रो तयारीको कमी, मूर्खता र नालायकीपनलाई उदाङ्ग पारिदिएको छ । तयारी हुँदो हो त पाँच वर्षअघिदेखि थाँती राखिएको प्रकोप तयारी प्राधिकरण (Disaster Preparedness Authority) स्थापना भइसकेको हुन्थ्यो । त्यसबाट आपत्कालीन तयारीका योजनाहरू अगाडि बढिसक्थे । ठाउँठाउँमा पाल, खाद्यान्न, राहत, आपत्कालीन उपचार केन्द्रहरू स्थापित भइसक्थे । नेपालभरि व्यापक जनचेतना जगाउँदै घर, डेरा, अफिस, स्कूल र अस्पतालहरूको भूकम्प खेप्न सक्ने डिजाइनको निर्माण र पुराना भवनहरूलाई सबलीकरण (Retrofitting) कार्यक्रमहरू अगाडि बढिसक्थे । यस्तो भूकम्प आइरहने ठाउँमा परिवार, समुदाय, छरछिमेक, शहर, राष्ट्र तयारी अवस्थामा नहुनु भनेको आत्मघाती व्यवहार हो ।

यहाँ भूकम्प अवश्यंभावी हुनाको कारण नेपालको भूगर्भ (Geology) हो । सात करोड वर्षअघि भारतीय उपमहाद्वीप अफ्रिकाबाट उछिट्टिएर हिन्द महासागरमा उत्तरतिर सर्दै युरेशियन प्लेटमा बजारिन पुग्यो । हिमालय उचालिन थाल्यो । जतिजति भारतीय प्लेट युरेशियन प्लेटतिर धकेलिँदै गयो, उतिउति हिमालय पर्वत उचालिन थाल्यो । त्यसैले हिमालय संसारकै सबैभन्दा तन्नेरी पर्वतशृंखला हो । भारत अझ् पनि वर्षको २ सेमीले उत्तरतिर घचेटिँदै छ र पूरै हिमालय पर्वतशृङ्खला वर्षको १ सेमीले उचालिँदै छ । हरेक ८०–१०० वर्षमा जमीन सतहभन्दा १०–२० किमी भित्र रहेका चट्टानका पाप्राहरू रगडिएर भाँचिँदाखेरि भुइँचालो जान्छ । वैशाख १२ गतेको ७.६ को भूकम्पले मध्यनेपाल र काठमाडौँलाई १.६ मिटरले उचाल्यो र पूरै पहाड, शहर, खोलानाला र हामीहरू ५० सेमीले दक्षिणतिर धकेलियौँ ।

वैशाख १२ गते नेपाली टाइम्स का हामी १२ जना पत्रकार साथीहरू काठमाडौँबाट दक्षिणमा पर्ने २२०० मिटर अग्लो चम्पादेवीमा पदयात्रा गरेर फर्कंदै थियौँ । एकैचोटि पहाडै थर्कन थाल्यो । भूकम्प आएको थाहा हुनेबित्तिकै हामी सबैका आँखा तलको काठमाडौँ उपत्यकामा परे । ठाउँठाउँबाट बम पड्केको जस्तो गरेर धूलोको मुस्लो निस्कँदै गरेको देखियो । छिनमै पूरै उपत्यकालाई कुइरोले ढाकेको जस्तो गरेर धूलोको बादलले ढाक्यो । ‘काठमाडौँ ध्वस्त भयो, केही पनि बाँकी छैन’ जस्तो लाग्यो हामीलाई र परिवारको पिरले सताउन थाल्यो । केही छिनपछि धूलो उत्रियो । अनि दूरविनले हेर्दा धेरैजसो घरहरू सद्दे देखेपछि मात्रै मन ढुक्क भयो ।

खासमा काठमाडौँमा ९० सालको जस्तो ८.२ म्याग्निच्युडको भूकम्पले धेरै बढी क्षति पु¥याउने अनुमान वैज्ञानिकहरूले गरेका थिए । काठमाडौँ संसारभरिका शहरहरूमध्ये भूकम्पको जोखिमका हिसाबले पहिलो मानिन्छ । पहिलो धक्कामै १ लाख मानिसको ज्यान जाने अनुमान थियो, २ लाख घाइते र ८० प्रतिशत घर ध्वस्त हुन्छन् भन्ने थियो । तर ९० को तुलनामा यस पटक ०.६ (८.२—७.६=०.६) म्याग्निच्युड सानो भूकम्प आयो । र, त्यो हिसाबले उपत्यकामा भएको १४०० जनाको मृत्यु दुःखदायी भए पनि अनुमान गरेजस्तो गम्भीर थिएन । काठमाडौँलाई त्यही ०.६ को म्याग्निच्युडले बचायो । त्यसै कारणले माटो र इँटाले बनेका धेरै घर ढले र कंक्रिट बिमले बनेका घरहरू चर्के पनि ढलेनन् । ८.२ म्याग्निच्युड भएको भए र थप १० सेकेण्ड अझ् हल्लिएको भए सिमेन्टको गारोका घरहरूलाई पनि क्षति पुग्थ्यो ।

घरहरू भत्कने कुरा भूकम्पले जमीन कति र कति बेर हल्लाउँछ भन्नेमा भर पर्छ । उपत्यकाको खास गरी पूर्वी भागको जमीन हरेक भूकम्पमा बढी हल्लिन्छ— यहाँको माटो र भित्री भूबनोट (Geology) का कारण । यसपालि सिन्धुपाल्चोक, नुवाकोट, रसुवा र गोरखामा जमीन बढी हल्लियो किनभने भूकम्पको झ्ट्का केन्द्रविन्दु (इपिसेन्टर) बाट पूर्वतिर बढी हान्निएको देखियो ।

भूकम्पको केन्द्रविन्दु नजिकको लमजुङ र त्यसभन्दा पश्चिममा यसको धेरै असर परेन । यसको अर्थ पश्चिम नेपालको जमीनमुनि चट्टानका पाप्राहरूमा संकलित हुँदै आएको दबाब या शक्ति निसृत हुन पाएको (Elastic Tension Release) छैन । पोखरा र डँडेलधुराको बीचमा ८ रिक्टरभन्दा ठूलो भूकम्प नगएको ५०० वर्षभन्दा बढी भइसकेको छ । वैज्ञानिकहरूको अनुमानमा नेपालको अर्को महाभूकम्प यही क्षेत्रमा जानेछ । त्यसो भन्दैमा काठमाडौँलाई केही हुँदैन भन्ने होइन । मानौँ, बाग्लुङको ढोरपाटनमा ८.५ रिक्टरको भूकम्प गयो भने त्यसले वैशाख १२ को भन्दा बढी क्षति पु¥याउँछ काठमाडौँलाई ।

यसपालिको भूकम्पले धनजनको ठूलो क्षति गरायो, तर शनिवार नभएको भए, राति गएको भए मृत्यु हुनेको संख्या अझ् धेरै हुने थियो । त्यसैले वैशाख १२ आमनेपालीलाई प्रकृतिले दिएको एउटा चेतावनी मात्र हो । त्यो चेतावनीलाई गम्भीरतापूर्वक लिएर अब हामीले पुनर्निर्माण गर्दा घर, स्कूल, अफिसहरू ८.५ सम्मको भूकम्प थेग्न सक्ने बनाउनुपर्छ । त्यसनिम्ति हाम्रो घर बनाउने शैली, प्रविधि र निर्माण सामग्रीमै आमूल परिवर्तन जरूरी छ । यसो गरे मात्र अर्को ठूलो धक्का आउँदा धनजनको क्षति कम गर्न सकिन्छ । र, त्यो ठूलो धक्का कुनै न कुनै दिन आउने नै छ, कहिले आउँछ भन्ने कुरो मात्र हो ।

(वातावरण र प्रकृति विषयमा विशेष रुचि राख्ने दीक्षित पत्रकार हुनुअघि भूगर्भशास्त्रका विद्यार्थी थिए ।)

Soon, the monsoon

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Nepal’s disaster isn’t over yet: it is just moving into the next phase.

Monsoon after earthquake

A lightning flash is seen over a shelter in Kathmandu. Photo: Kunda Dixit

If there were still doubts about just how challenging the rainy season will be to compound the misery unleashed by the earthquakes, the landslide on the Kali Gandaki in Myagdi district last week was a timely reminder. If the entire side of a mountain could fall into a major Himalayan river, blocking it for 16 hours even though it was 120km from the epicentre and there were no big aftershocks at the time, imagine what it will be like when the rains arrive.

Even as we write this on Tuesday night, a M5 aftershock with an epicentre in Rasuwa is rocking central Nepal. The mountains are still trembling, the slopes are unstable – all that is needed is water and gravity to complete the vicious cycle. Within a month, the monsoon will arrive unleashing the rains on these crumbly slopes. Central Nepal gets between 1,500-3,000mm of annual precipitation in an average year, and 85 per cent of that usually falls in the four months between June-September.

Villages and settlements in the direct path of existing landslides need to be urgently relocated. For Rasuwa, Sindhupalchok and Dolakha this means just about every other market town along the highways that follow rivers. Although many have already left, it will be a gigantic task to move the others to safer places.

Nepal’s disaster isn’t over yet: it is just moving into the next phase. The government’s relief mechanism needs to go back into rescue mode. It needs to be on high alert to detect, assess, evacuate and organise the release of water impounded by landslide lakes. Given the shortage of helicopters and low cloud cover, this is going to severely test rapid response teams. Information has to be prompt and credible so there is no crying wolf, and spreading unnecessary panic downstream. In a sense, we are looking at multiple Kali Gandakis and slope failures on the scale of the Jure disaster last year.

We were lucky this time that the shaking in the 25 April quake and the 12 May aftershock were not severe enough to affect the moraine dams of numerous glacial lakes in central Nepal and Tibet. These feed into all three Bhote Kosis as well as other glacier-fed rivers originating in Nepal. In a year with more-than-average winter and spring snowfall, the lake levels are high and moraines have been weakened, the monsoon could compound the threat. An early warning system that coordinates between China, various Nepali line ministries and the security forces need to be put quickly into place for this monsoon and beyond. We may not always be as lucky as we were in Myagdi last week because the Kali Gandaki landslide lake emptied itself out gradually.

However, the real emergency will be of the silent kind. Even at the best of times, the monsoon is a period of gastro-intestinal infections. With millions of people displaced or living in temporary shelters, the risk of water-borne diseases is very high for the coming months. This approaching crisis will be happening at a time when government response will be obstructed because highways will be blocked and bad weather will ground helicopters. On top of this, the health infrastructures in 14 districts around Kathmandu have been severely impaired.

In Chautara, the main wing of the Sindhupalchok District Hospital which was inaugurated earlier this year is so badly damaged it needs to work out of tents for at least three more years. Of the 75 health post in the district, 66 do not exist anymore. Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHV) who have been the backbone of Nepal’s progress in maternal and child health are severely traumatised by loss of family members and homes in all 14 districts.

Thankfully, awareness about sanitation and safe water is higher than it used to be among the public, and the government is gearing up. The Department of Health Services logistics division in Teku is a hive of activity these days. X-ray machines are being loaded for dispatch to Chautara and Charikot, a truckful of peanut paste is headed off to Rasuwa, and cold boxes with anti-tetanus vaccines are being rushed to Gorkha.

The health authorities are working seamlessly with WHO and UNICEF, which immediately brought in some of their Nepali staff from countries in the region to work alongside the government in the field. As we report in this issue despite the awareness and all the preparations, this is going to be a monsoon of misery and ill health. The main task is to keep outbreaks in check, focus on the most vulnerable populations including the 1.7 million children, new borns and the estimated 160,000 pregnant women in the affected areas, tackle malnutrition that makes children more prone to infections.

Nepal has taken dramatic strides in maternal and child health in the past 15 years, those gains are in serious jeopardy because of the earthquake. The backbone of that success was the work of rural health workers and FCHVs, and it is by backstopping them and boosting their morale that we will address the challenge of not just this monsoon, but of the future.

The task ahead is not just to reconstruct destroyed hospitals, but to rebuild the health system so that Nepalis don’t have to die because they cannot reach or afford quality health care.

Read also:

When it rains, it pours Sonia Awale

Landslide block Kali Gandaki

Singati after the quake

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