Nepal: Two Years, Many Still Wait
It’s almost noon on a Saturday in Palanchowk. On the main road, women crouch and stir sweet doughnut-like selroti to crispy perfection. Families crowd into queues leading to the Bhagwati temple to behold the Kali Durga, said to be so beautifully carved, the King ordered the hand chopped off the artist who created her lest he craft a rival in another Nepali kingdom. Hens cluck on the roadside and a cow bawls at nothing, A thin man sits in his tidy yard weaving a new basket. The high Himalaya – white and gauzy - are suspended in the haze.
Niru was on the road. Her little son Akash ran ahead. Then the earth shook and a building crumbled beside him. Bricks fell and crushed his 17-month old body. “I had to pull him out with my hands,” says Niru. “Luckily, his head was not buried.”
On the next hill Keshari Kumasi Napit was outside in the yard. When the ground began to shake “I was so scared,” she says. She’d lost her husband, suddenly, two years before. On this Saturday she lost her house. “My home just fell down. If I had been inside, I wouldn’t be here to talk about it.”
That night, their houses in heaps and nowhere to sleep, many residents of the village took refuge in outdoor open spaces. They huddled together while the temperature dropped and the earth continued to tremble. Some wouldn’t eat or drink for two or three days. On every hillside as far as the eye could see, poor Nepali people endured the same frightening darkness.
“That night, I cried and cried.” says Keshari. “I lost everything.”
Nepal's worst earthquake in 80 years
Two years ago on April 25th, Nepali’s suffered the worst earthquake in living memory. At 7.8 magnitude and not far from Kathmandu, it was followed by several severe aftershocks that continued to cause loss of life, injury and damage. Almost 9000 people died, close to 22,000 were injured and more than 600,000 homes were destroyed, almost 300,000 more damaged.
There was some luck, if you could call it that – as the earthquake occurred at 1156 am on Saturday – a time when most people were outside working, and kids were not at school.
Narayan Giri wasn’t lucky. His mother was in his house when it crumbled onto their pretty terraced hillside. He was hand-cutting barley near Kathmandu when it struck. “It felt like someone had pushed me hard from the back,” he remembers. Narayan travelled back to his village as soon as he could. That took more than two days in the melee of the aftermath.
He found his mother badly injured. For ten days he cared for her in the miserable safety of the open grassy patch. But she died of her injuries. At 82 she was an old woman, and she suffered a long, painful death.
Narayan sits by his new house as he tells me the story. It’s not fancy, but it’s sturdy. Corrugated metal sheets are neatly bolted to a frame. The ceilings are high. There is solar power and a light in each of the three rooms. There’s a shaded veranda and a sturdy roof.
Narayan gestures to a tiny shack made of tin and broken bits of timber a few metres away. “We slept there for a year,” he says. His whole family – two adult sons, a daughter, her husband, his wife, her blind mother. “The monsoon rains soaked in, and the winds made everything shake.” Everyone I spoke with had a similar story of spending a year of cold nights in flimsy sheds, withstanding puddling water on the floor and winds at the door, the hours crawling as they waited for the relief of dawn.
Keshari, the lady who lost her husband, is now 64. She survives selling some produce from her land, and on the $10 she receives each month from a government pension. Niru, the woman who pulled her young son out of the rubble, is 25 – her husband works at a brick-yard and is usually away from home. Niru has no schooling (just about no one I spoke with did), and sometimes does hotel laundry for income.
They each now have a house like Narayan – not fancy, but sturdily built to withstand Nepal’s harsh hot, cold, and rainy climates. Their houses stand apart in the communities for the standardized design and solid construction. Most of their neighbours are still living in small makeshift shacks. A recent survey released by the Asia Foundation shows that more than 70% of Nepalis most affected by the earthquake are still living in temporary shelters.
Nepalis group together to help
Siddhi and Smriti Aryal, together with several Nepali friends, were the heart and brains behind the sturdy temporary houses. The Nepali couple – working in Bangkok in international health and women’s rights – worked fast in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake to form “Hate Malo” - translating roughly to “Hands joining in a ring”- to collect donations of humanitarian goods.
They and their friends including Nepali Manesh Lacoul, raised vital donations of tents, foodstuffs, medicines and bandaging. Connecting with other Bangkok-based Nepalis, Thais and expats, they shipped several pallets of humanitarian supplies to Nepal within days of the earthquake. “We distributed these supplies to many of the hardest-hit places in Nepal,” says Siddhi, who personally accompanied the shipments.
Once they’d distributed the humanitarian supplies, the group wanted to do something more for those who were suffering most.
Help for Kavre
Of all the places, Kavre district was one of the hardest hit. Government figures (which remain disputed by some) list more than 67,000 people needing new homes in Kavre alone. The picturesque, hilly district is less than 50 kilometres from Kathmandu, but it takes more than two hours to drive there on the windy, congested roads. About 90% of the rural poor lost their homes in the area – the mud-brick structures too weak to withstand the violent tremors.
So, together with the “Rise-Above” group, Hate Malo organized a fundraising party. I was there and it was a huge success. There was a DJ, delicious small plates prepared by some of Bangkok’s best restaurants, an arty venue and an array of door prizes, all donated by top chefs, hotels and other Thai businesses.
In total, the group raised $75,000 – enough for many dozen new homes.
Hate Malo chose a local partner – an NGO called Kavre Service Society (KSS) – to do the legwork. “We wanted no overheads,” says Siddhi, “no extras that would detract from the direct costs of the housing.” KSS agreed.
The leaders of KSS went to work, selecting people who would benefit most from new houses. “We wanted to reach the poorest people,” Siddhi says. “Households run by women, dalits (the lowest classes of Nepal), indigenous people and others who were vulnerable.”
A local teacher and social worker named Ramesh Kharel helped to select families in his village of Karelthok in Kavre district.
“When Ramesh told us we were selected, we were so happy,” says Narayan, who does odd jobs at the school where Ramesh teaches. KSS says they made sure that villagers agreed with the selections – that houses weren’t simply being allotted to more privileged classes. “We worked hard to find people who were truly vulnerable.”
It took longer than planned – about a year, but by August 2016 KSS had built 61 houses for some of the most vulnerable people of Kavre district. Building houses in Nepal isn’t easy. And it was especially difficult following the earthquake.
First, there was the simple question of finding materials that were already in high demand. Corrugated metal, hinges for windows, and solar panels were in short supply.
There was the undeclared Indian blockade, due to politics and unrest linked to Nepal’s newly-passed constitution that stopped fuel from entering Nepal for months.
There was the issue of a lack of skilled tradesmen who could build new homes that would meet the new earthquake-proof specifications. KSS had to bring in skilled builders from Kathmandu to do some of the work.
Then there is transport – some beneficiaries lived several hours away from the main town of Palanchowk in Kavre, and materials had to be transported hours, sometimes by porter.
There is bureaucracy. Nationally, political infighting meant it took more than eight months before the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was officially established. The NRA has frustrated many by sending mixed and frequently changed messages to local authorities. Every new house had to be approved by the local council, who were besieged by requests in communities where most houses had crumbled.
But over many months, KSS built the houses and families moved into them. I spoke with five families who benefitted, and they all told me they are so happy to have this housing.
Ultimately, these KSS houses are meant to be temporary. The government is promising 300,000 Rupees – or about $3,000 to every registered beneficiary to build a new permanent home. This too has been a long, and often fraught process.
Mr. Yam Lal Bhoosal, a joint secretary and spokesperson at the National Reconstruction Authority tells me the government plans to give cash grants for 627,000 homes in the most affected areas of Nepal. So far, according to figures on its website, the NRA has provided a first tranche of 50,000 Rupees (about $500) to 87% of those people.
Once they’ve received the money, people are meant to build a solid foundation before they receive a next tranche of funds to build the 1st floor, and then a final tranche for a 2nd floor. So far, according to the NRA website, just 4206, or well under 1% of beneficiaries, have received a 2nd tranche of funds to complete their first floor. NRA officials say it’s because Nepalis are not using the 1st tranche properly to build a strong foundation.
“We need to educate people,” says Mr. Bhoosal. “They don’t know how to make a good house. We have technical people in the field to help but we need them to make faster advances.”
When I talked to families, the issues ran deeper than building know-how.
Keshari Napit, the 64-year-old widow who lives on her own in her temporary KSS house, says she used the initial 50,000 Rupees to clear away the debris of her old house and recover some of her possessions. She points to water and cooking vessels on her front veranda, dented by stones in the earthquake, as examples. She works each day merely to survive to the next, and I’m not sure how she’s going to build the foundation required by the government. She doesn’t think she’ll ever see the 2nd and 3rd tranches of funding.
Niru says her problem is that she doesn’t own the land her temporary house sits on. Further, she doesn’t have any identification papers, and her father has passed away, so she says it will be difficult to acquire the papers she needs to prove her residency. Being poor, landless, and a woman in Nepal is not easy.
Housing for the landless has been a major issue following the earthquake – an Oxfam report last year put the number of landless affected at 40,000 families. The Nepali government adjusted its policy to allow cash grants to some landless families, but if Niru is entitled, she doesn’t know it. She says she and her three children “will live in this temporary house for a long time.”
Narayan says he too has no land. The owner of the land where he’s built the temporary house gave him permission, but Narayan says, without his own land, he is not eligible for the government funds. He too plans to live in the temporary house for a while.
When I ask the KSS homeowners what they want for their futures, their answers are simple. Their dreams are not big.
“I’d like some bedclothes,” says Keshari Napit. “I also need a few more pieces of clothing. Maybe some carpets for the floor as it’s so cold in the winter.”
She would also love some training so she had the skills to tend goats. “If I had a few goats, I could have more income,” she says.
What Keshari especially wants is a job for her adopted granddaughter – a girl she took in years ago when her father, working in construction, fell off a roof and died, and the mother died soon after. “My granddaughter has a high school education,” says Keshari, “but she can’t find a job.”
Niru says she’d like her children to get an education. She points to her eldest daughter Sorina, who is nine. “I’d like her to go to boarding school,” she says, “but I can’t afford that.”
Other families tell me they’d also like goats and some training to tend them. That seems simple enough. The government is hoping that international and non-governmental organizations will come through with “livelihood” packages that will help people earn more income.
They are badly needed. International organisations had initially pledged more than $4 billion dollars to earthquake relief, but are also charging the government with unnecessary bureaucracy, and a tendency to skim development dollars to government vaults through questionable fees and even bribes.
Livelihoods – jobs - are hard to come by in Nepal. If I’m honest, I was confused by Narayan’s grown sons – Rajesh (24) and Rajahn (22) – two healthy-looking men, both with high-school educations, who spend their days fairly idol. I was told they are in between worlds – too educated for manual labour, but not educated enough for office jobs.
Meanwhile, the government planned to train 500,000 masons to rebuild houses destroyed by the earthquake. So far, they have trained just 40,000.
“We have a lot of pressure to rebuild people’s homes,” says Mr. Bhoosal at the NRA. For now, homes have taken priority over Nepal’s famous heritage sites, which mostly show little sign of refurbishment. Mr. Bhoosal says he hopes the NRA will finish disbursements for homes by June 2018. That will be more than three years after the earthquake.
Today, throughout Kavre district, the sun glints off the metal roofing of thousands of temporary structures. Some, like the KSS houses, are well made and should last. Many others are ramshackle. The people living in them will likely have to withstand another monsoon season, leaks and puddles on their dirt floors, a relentless wind, and months of waiting for any more change to come.