Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nepal since the quakes

I have traveled in search of mountains. Among the many places I've been lucky enough to put down a toe, something about Nepal and its people seeped into me especially deeply. In gratitude from a world away, I continue to try to see the aftermath of the violent earthquakes of April 25, 26 and May 12.

Anagha Neelakantan, writing at the International Crisis Group blog, describes the disaster:
Nepal’s people live a constant struggle to accumulate some insulation from the hardships and arbitrariness of life. They contend with a challenging landscape of hills, high mountains and plains threatened by dangerous rivers, capricious weather, an immutable bureaucracy and treacherous politics. It often takes just a little thing to tip the balance against survival. ...

... So far, over 8,500 people are known to have died and close to 18,000 injured. About a fifth of Nepal’s 28 million people have been affected, with hundreds of thousands still enduring unimaginable suffering. Thirty of Nepal’s 75 districts were hit, 16 of them severely. About 600,000 homes have been destroyed, and tens of thousands more rendered uninhabitable, leaving some three million people without a roof over their heads. Over one million people may end up being displaced.
Neelakantan was deputy director of the Crisis Group’s Asia program until 2013. Previously she worked for the United Nations Mission in Nepal and as a political analyst, becoming executive editor at the Nepali Times. In a place where foreigners are easily bewildered even as we are delighted, she knows what she is seeing. Some of her observations:
... there are already sharply divergent narratives about the earthquake and the response to it. These accounts reflect some of the faultlines in Nepali politics, governance and society, and in international engagement with Nepal. The complex politics surrounding the response to the earthquake will influence how much people suffer and for how long. They will also determine whether the enormous reconstruction effort needed in the affected part of the country will bring the country together, or return Nepal to the politics of partisanship and bitter polarisation.

One narrative, often embraced by some internationals, has the government as the bad guy: slow, incompetent, power-hungry and criminal, thus incapable of leading the reconstruction. From a Nepali perspective, internationals are often seen as unaccountable and un-transparent, expensive, and disrespectful of Nepali expertise and sovereignty. ...

... It is deeply ingrained in the psyches of internationals and many professional Nepalis that the way to fix grave problems in Nepal is by treating them as the subject of development projects. So reconstruction efforts after a natural disaster, for example, or compensation for war victims, are treated just the same as if they were programs in maternal health or sanitation and hygiene. Yet clearly, a natural disaster on this scale needs a response that is more robust, transparent and creative. Replicating often inefficient and overly complicated habits from the development world is one of the worst things that could happen to the reconstruction efforts, even if it is perhaps inevitable.

Nepal’s development industry, by which I mean international agencies and NGOs, as well as Nepali NGOs, the government and bureaucracy, is sclerotic and often inefficient. This is not to say it does not ever work; it obviously does, in some ways. Yet it also sometimes creates or entrenches dynamics of inequity or resentment. The development industry is by now fused with the Nepali state by such great mutual dependency that a rupture of any significance seems unlikely. ... All sides bear responsibility for the storied corruption of the sector and, at the worst of times, insensitivity to what could trigger new conflict.

Donor agencies are far from innocent in this grubby picture, despite holier-than-thou criticism of the government of Nepal and Nepali partners: their programming often ignores history; they are so enamoured of comparative experience and international best practice that they can miss the reality right in front of them; they privilege “expert”(read foreign) knowledge over “local”perspectives; they play favourites; and at their worst, they count the lives of internationals as having greater value than of Nepalis. Like their Nepali counterparts, their perspective is grievously Kathmandu-centric. ... [Kathmandu is the capitol and only large city, over 4 million people.]

... The tussle between Kathmandu and internationals is only part of the story. Politics, in the form of party politics, became an increasingly formalised part of the development projects following the peace deal. In the districts, “all-party mechanisms” became a way for parties to divide up the spoils of the development budget as a way to keep the peace at the local level. Similar mechanisms are being put in place for relief distribution. While in some areas they appear to be functioning reasonably so far, there have been reports from other areas that the distribution of relief has been politicised to the point of endangering lives. ...
Nepalis achieved a tenuous national peace after a decade of civil war in 2006. But institutions of government are still "under construction." Will they be able to rise to and constrain the challenges of this massive disaster?

Overlooking Kathmandu, 2010
And will Nature compound the human agony? The annual monsoon rains will soon drench Nepal. Accordingly to Accuweather:
... the wettest period stretches from the end of June to the beginning of September, a nearly three-month chunk of the year where storms bring unsafe conditions to those without a proper form of shelter.

During monsoon season, up to 80 percent of the yearly average rain will fall. With this year expected to align with average rainfall totals, Kathmandu could receive more than 40 inches of rain in less than four months."

[According to Tim Osburn of Shelterbox,] in some cases... villages sitting in higher elevations could see a landslide start a mere half mile up the terrain. At that point, there's nothing else to do.

"They've spent a lot of time and energy getting temporary shelters up," Osburn said. "But when standing up to a monsoonal rain, you could see the work going right down a hill after one of those."
World Policy reports that only 22 percent of the international appeal for the Nepal disaster has been funded.

Personally, I've contributed via Oxfam America and Mercy Corps, in both cases because they had programs in the country before this emergency. I can't swear these are good channels for aid, but I make the guess they are better than newcomers without experience. The Nepalis need us to do what we can.
Fields outside Kathmandu. Did they slide? Will they wash away? Or fill with displaced migrants?

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