Earthquake vacates villages in Nepal


Almost every household in western Nepal has a family member working in India, and the 6.6 magnitude earthquake that shook the region last month has added to the exodus.

Six people were killed, and there was widespread destruction. In Achham's Sanfebagar 90% of homes were damaged. But even a month later, there has been no detailed assessment of the damage, and even more villagers have been forced to migrate to India to earn money for repairs.

Like many in this arid region, Dal Bahadur Bhool is a subsistence farmer. His house was destroyed, and he has no money for repairs and no option but to follow thousands of others from far-western Nepal to earn some money in India.

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“His family has been under the tent for almost a month, his children are also sick with cold,” says Gom Rawal, a neighbour. “There is no other income for the family or help, so he is going to India in a few days to try to make a living.”

Five other families from the nearby Khaptad Valayanta and Putru villages in Achham are also preparing to migrate to the Tarai, where a few families have some land, or to India. “The number of people looking to leave is high among the families whose homes have been damaged,” adds Rawal, who is also the member of the Achham District Committee of the CPN-Socialist Party.

Pooja Kadayat of Sanfebagar-7 has already moved to Bangalore where her husband is employed after their home collapsed. Her uncle Dharma Kadayat says: “Many of us continue to live under tents in bad conditions, while some have gone south, there has been no proper survey of the exact numbers of how many have left.”

The earthquake epicentre was at Khaptad National Park in Doti, and struck at 2:12AM local time, with over 300 aftershocks over the following days. Achham and Doti district suffered the worst damage. Six have died and 10 were injured in Purbichoki where 11,000 houses sustained cracks and 120 were levelled. Many families are now either living under tents or have migrated elsewhere.

"We had a sudden rush of trauma patients from Doti and Achham who needed surgery, and we referred some of the more serious cases to Dhangadi," says Mandeep Pathak, an orthopaedic surgeon at Bayalpata Hospital, where the non-profit Nyaya Health Nepal provides free medical care to the people of surrounding districts. Many staff homes were damaged, although the hospital itself with its seismic resistant rammed earth architecture was unscathed.

Western Nepal has not seen a meda-quake for 500 years, and continues to be at risk of a disaster of 8M or higher. Central Nepal also saw an uptick in out-migration of people in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake that was 7.8 on the Richter scale.

In Sanfebagar, 6,000 houses have sustained cracks with a few completely destroyed. “Nonetheless, there is considerable risk to live in the buildings that didn’t come down,” says deputy municipality chair Shiv Bahadur Kunwar.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) provides compensation only after the full assessment, which is still pending. The local government has therefore stepped in, collecting funds from its budget and community organisations. “But one tent and a couple days’ worth of food is not enough,” says Kunwar. As winter sets in, more people under the tents are getting sick and one three-month-old girl has died of exposure.

Dijan Bhattarai of the NDRMMA in Kathmandu blames the 20 November general elections for the delayed response, but adds that reconstruction work will be done by July 2023. “But we are conducting a preliminary survey. Reconstruction will take place after we prepare the damage report to find long-term solutions,” he says.

The Authority has been providing Rs500,000 for houses destroyed due to heavy rains, Rs400,000 in the hills, and Rs300,000 in Tarai. But there are no such provisions yet for earthquakes. Delays, poor management and lack of relief will only exacerbate the problem.

“With migration comes the problem of social dislocation, low production, increase in criminal activities, competition for opportunities, unbalanced population,” says sociologist Ram Gurung. “Even if reconstruction or other jobs cannot be created quickly, it is necessary to properly counsel people affected.”

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Out-migration in Doti predates the latest earthquake. Sanju Thapa, ward chair of Patalkot in Sanfebagar, says many families have been concerned about increasing risk of landslides and other disasters. Over hundred of the 566 families in Patalkot have relocated in the last few years, and 90 more are planning to leave following the quake.

A landslide in 2010 killed 10 people of the same family in Patalkot. Some hundred houses were at risk, but nothing was done in lack of proper research and evaluation, adds Thapa.

“Before, only men would go to India for work, leaving behind the women and the children,” adds Min Bahadur Kunwar of Sanfebagar. “Now, whole families are leaving."

Most have moved to Kailali, Kanchanpur or Banke in the plains of Nepal, others have gone to Mumbai and other cities in India. Eight schools have shut down in Sanfebagar in recent years because there are no children left. In Bhagwati Basic School, where Kunwar is a teacher, the number of students dropped from 330 to 200 in just the past year, and he expects this to drop further.

Says Sanju Thapa: “This time, the earthquake has caused even more visible and invisible damage. People think the whole region is unsafe and are moving out, leaving behind the elderly, empty houses and barren slopes.”

Read more:

Rebuilding five years after 2015 quake, Alisha Sijapati

Concrete lessons of 2015, Sonia Awale

Anita Bhetwal