Nepal, December 2015, First impressions
Author: Matt Kinsella
My work on Renewable World’s Community Implementation Model continues in Nepal, with the input and feedback of our team here. I have been here for almost four weeks and so far I have spent most of my time in the capital.
I arrived in Kathmandu late on a Monday evening, after a few days in Dubai. The plane was one of the many budget flights mainly carrying migrant workers home from the Gulf to Nepal. Even in darkness, the contrast between the two cities was immediately apparent. Dubai was baking hot, busy, brightly lit and brazenly modern. Arriving in winter, at night, in the midst of a fuel shortage, Kathmandu was almost exactly the opposite. I found myself turning up my collar, unaccustomed to the cool misty air after three months of African sun. Driving from the airport to my accommodation, the streets were quiet and dimly lit. Glimpses of the city’s rich history flashed past my window – intricately decorated historic buildings sandwiched between modern blocks; a shrine worn from generations of daily use; medieval alleys winding away from the main street to who-knows-where.
Kathmandu is a complex and multi-layered place, bewildering and bewitching by turns. In its maze of bustling alleys and narrow streets, ancient customs coexist with the pressures of a growing 21st century conurbation. One moment I find myself following a barefoot man carrying an unfeasibly large basket of hens on his head; the next I am sidestepping young men on motorcycles as they roar nonchalantly up the pavement. Beautiful medieval temples and world heritage sites are surrounded by obvious signs of modern environmental degradation – litter, polluted air and the sewage-infested Bagmati river. An astonishing variety of religious practices and iconography is visible across the city, arising from a uniquely tolerant and syncretic blend of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Kathmandu has hosted innumerable tourists, trekkers, hippies, seekers and soul-searchers. It has witnessed pilgrimage and protest, regicide and rebellion. The city even lent its name to a Cat Steven’s song.
And now, Kathmandu bears the marks of Nepal’s misfortunes this year.
On 25th April 2015, the country was struck by a violent earthquake and several strong aftershocks, killing around 9,000 people, injuring 22,000, and destroying or damaging around 800,000 homes. Visiting some of Kathmandu’s major tourist sites, the damage is obvious: centuries old temples in Kathmandu Durbar Square have been reduced to rubble, other buildings are damaged, cracked and shored with timber props. In tightly-packed side streets and residential areas of the city, gaps like missing teeth reveal where a building, someone’s home or workplace, has collapsed or been demolished.
Disasters often intertwine with politics in ways that are not immediately obvious, and that seems to have been Nepal’s experience. When the earthquake struck, Nepal was governed by an ‘interim’ constitution which had been in place since 2007, following a lengthy Civil War. The proposed permanent constitution had been delayed multiple times due to protracted political arguments, as former military adversaries struggled to reach agreement. Governance during this period was weak. Though seismologists had been warning of a major disaster for many years, highlighting the vulnerability of Nepal’s building stock and communities, the political leadership and policy measures needed to respond to such warnings were not forthcoming. The result was that many of Nepal’s communities, buildings and infrastructure were all the more vulnerable and under-prepared when April 25th arrived.
The earthquake also had immediate political repercussions. In the months after, the government was criticised for inaction, while the Nepalese military and foreign donors took the initiative in relief efforts. Frustrations at the political paralysis mounted, prompting a hasty reconciliation between rival factions and in September they finally published the new constitution. However, any hopes that this would pave the way for a more cooperative kind of governance have yet to be realised.
Some groups within Nepal felt excluded by the new constitution, sparking ongoing civil unrest,
largely in the low-lying Terai region bordering India. The location of the unrest has affected essential border crossings, since Nepal relies on these trade routes into India for many essential supplies. The only viable alternative for this landlocked state is to transport goods from China, through Tibet and across difficult Himalayan mountain passes. Nepal’s government accuses India of imposing an unofficial blockade. India blames the blockade on unrest on the Nepalese side of the border.
Whatever the truth of these allegations, a political solution is desperately needed: severe shortages of fuel, medicines and earthquake relief materials are impacting significantly on people’s lives. Many affected homes are still in ruins, with large numbers of people living in temporary shelter as winter sets in. Health workers report that cold-related illnesses are already affecting some of these people, particularly children and the elderly. UNICEF has warned that more than three million Nepali children under the age of five are at risk this winter due to shortages of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines.
Some commentators fear that another humanitarian crisis may now be unfolding in Nepal.
With colleagues Nick, Anita and Tripti, we recently visited some of the communities we work with in Dhading District, in the hill country that runs the length of Nepal, between the high Himalaya to the north and the plains to the south. Several of these villages have been badly affected by the earthquake and the subsequent fuel crisis: we saw many homes and schools in ruins and families living in temporary accommodation. The winter in Nepal’s hills and mountains can be severe, and with inadequate shelter, many of the young children and elderly people we met in these villages could be amongst the vulnerable groups.
I observed as Anita interviewed one family, and though I could not understand the words they were saying, their faces showed clearly that the emotions and memories of that day in April were still vivid. The sense of shock and loss was palpable. Anita explained to me afterwards – the family home had collapsed in the quake, trapping an elderly lady and young child inside. Both survived and were rescued, against the odds. With admirable resourcefulness, the man had taken a small loan and constructed a temporary home for his family, overlooking the rubble where their original house had stood.
Thanks to Renewable World’s appeal in May this year, this family were one of many who had received a solar lantern shortly after the earthquake. The communities had also been equipped with solar radios, helping to keep them in contact with news announcements. The feedback on these interventions was very positive – they had helped to ease the impact of the quake in some small way, providing light and a link to the wider world. Importantly, the appeal also paid for damaged Hydram pumps to be repaired and put in working order, and the benefit of these systems was clear. We saw fresh water being pumped for irrigation, helping the communities to grow a wide variety of fresh produce, both for their own consumption and for sale. Water was also being put to household use – cooking, washing, cleaning – and one community mentioned that they hope to use the pumped water for mixing mortar when reconstruction of their homes begins. Though these communities have been hit hard by the earthquake, it was heartening to see that they at least have basic supplies of water and food this winter.
More than this, as Nick observed, there was a sense that these small actions, a simple act of kindness at a time of loss and trauma, had helped to galvanise the affected communities and to bolster their own resilience. This resilience was evident in the warm welcome the communities gave us, in their smiles and laughter, and their determination to put a brave face on sad, frightening events. As the political disputes about the fuel crisis rumble on interminably, and the temperatures continue to drop, life in the hills goes on. It is this resilience which might give cause for hope.