Blockading Nepal’s Earthquake Recovery

By: Samantha Montano, M.S.  

Though recovery from disaster takes years, and in some cases decades, now, nine months after the earthquake in Nepal, we should expect to see some progress. In reality much of the country is still in “response-mode”, meaning they are still working on addressing emergency, life-saving needs rather than rebuilding. Why?  


2006 brought the end to a decade long civil war that resulted in Nepal’s government establishing a new constitution. For many, this constitution was considered a first draft, so over the years ideas were drawn up on how to improve it. For nearly a decade, the country argued over the content of the proposed draft. Over this eight-year post-war recovery period, Nepal's tourism and agriculture based economy struggled. In the 1980’s the national government took out loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank incurring a substantial national debt. Like most developing countries in this position, these loans came with strings attached that has led to 30 years of rampant government corruption, the near complete elimination of publicly supported social programs, and dependency on continual foreign assistance.


On April 25, 2015 the first major earthquake to strike Nepal in over 80 years sent large portions of the country into collapse. Though the earthquake risk was widely known, the socio-economic realities pre- disaster failed the government to implement earthquake mitigation – such as enforced building codes – or earthquake preparedness – such as a citizenry aware of how to sustain themselves until assistance arrived. Since so much time had passed since the last earthquake, the risk was not present in the collective memory of current generations. Nearly 9000 people were killed and around 600,000 homes damaged. The capital, Kathmandu, and entire rural communities were destroyed indiscriminately. An earthquake of this size in any country in the world would elicit an international response, but due to Nepal’s pre-existing socio-economic and political situation it was clear from the beginning that international support and cooperation would be critical throughout the recovery process.


Recovery is most effective when led by the local community. Local survivors know what they need to rebuild their lives and they usually know the best way to do it. Yet, after disasters we often (especially in developing countries) see non-local actors dominate the recovery process, whether in the form of interested governments, private companies, or international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Many of these groups have good intentions, particularly the international NGOs. They see a community need and believe they have the resources in the form of money, personnel, or expertise to address these needs. What is critical and often challenging is to find ways that the resources from the international community are used to support the leadership of the local community, rather than take over the entire recovery process. The resources of the international community are required given the sheer quantity and variety of needs experienced by individuals, groups, and governments after major disasters, like the Nepal earthquake, precisely because the overwhelmed resources of the impacted community.


So it was no surprise that in the weeks following the earthquake aid flooded in from across the globe. Search and rescue teams arrived from China, helicopters and equipment came from the United States, food and water from Bangladesh, and pledges of financial assistance from dozens of countries around the world. The UN activated their agencies to provide assistance with coordination. India, Nepal's neighbor to the east, west, and south, with financial support from the UN, took the largest role in sending life-saving aid to Nepal. In just weeks, $4.4 billion was pledged by the international community to aid Nepal through recovery, which though generous, was only a fraction of the estimated $10 billion actually needed.


Immediately following the earthquake, Nepal’s government took a number of actions that inspired a chain of events culminating not only in recovery coming to a standstill, but the entire economy. Noting the “window of opportunity” that typically appears immediately following a disaster, the government pushed through the controversial new constitution. While the international community and local citizens were digging for survivors the federal government enacted an entirely new constitution. After it passed in September, deadly protests quickly broke out in Terai along the border of Nepal and India. The Madhesi ethnic minority, with ties to Northern India, is protesting the new constitution because they believe it discriminates against their community. 40 deaths have thus far been attributed to the protests.


The big problem? India does not support the controversial constitution and has supported an “unofficial” exportation blockade since its enactment in September. As a landlocked country, Nepal is dependent on importing goods across the Indian border. During non-emergency times Nepal receives the majority of its goods from India, including 80% of their fuel.


The lack of fuel has had a number of devastating impacts. Most obviously it has brought the country’s transportation to a standstill. Even public transportation has been reduced to moving every other day. At times the only cars on the road are emergency vehicles. There is also not enough fuel to provide heat or to cook, a problem, as it is the middle of the winter. It has also caused locals to, understandably, cut down protected forests as a last attempt to stay warm this winter. The repercussions of this deforestation, depending on the extent, could cause further problems down the road as deforested regions interact with other hazards such as flooding. As would any country that endures a fuel blockade, Nepal’s economy has come to a standstill. In fact the economic damage caused by this “unofficial” blockade is expected to surpass the economic damage caused by the earthquake.


The blockade has had major repercussions for earthquake recovery. Not only are the supplies needed for rebuilding not coming through, but aid groups are unable to travel throughout the country to deliver the resources they have. Even well practiced UN agencies such as the World Food Programme are falling behind. Tensions are high among international NGOs and the local communities. Despite having the funding to address many of the immediate needs throughout the country it would seem that the international groups have been unable to access or produce what the local community needs. The extent to which local NGOs have been more successful is not immediately clear. Regardless, the reality is that hundreds of thousands of lives face immediate risk because of winter exposure and a lack of assistance.


In Nepal’s case, individuals are trying to recover from a devastating earthquake while simultaneously living in a state of emergency. In many ways Nepal has not left the phase of response since the earthquake. While recovery rarely has a clear starting point it is less than usual to see a country stuck in the phase of response so long after an earthquake.


Nepal is a reminder that at times the international community can only do so much, that a single country can impose an ideology that puts millions of people at risk, and that our attempts to help communities recover must account for the political and economic realities of the situation. Recovery does not happen in isolation. Countries do not stop to direct all their attention on rebuilding lives. Pre-existing arguments continue. It is impossible to consider why recovery in Nepal is not proceeding quickly without understanding the economic and political context within which it is unfolding.