Simon Rushton, Julie Balen and Olivia Crane from the University of Sheffield were in Barpak with Professor Bhimsen Devkota and Sudha Ghimire, working on a SIID-funded project examining the resilience and reconstruction of the health system following the Nepal earthquake. This is one of a series of blog posts and journal articles published by the team.
This April 25th marks two years since two major earthquakes and almost 500 aftershocks struck Nepal with the epicentre in Gorkha district, some 150km west of Kathmandu. The impact of this disaster was staggering, with an estimated 9000 lives lost, 22,000 people injured and 700,000 houses damaged or destroyed. Moreover, thousands of public service buildings and vast infrastructure – schools, health centres, offices, bridges, roads, agriculture, irrigation and water supply systems and telecommunication networks – were impacted, many of which remain damaged. With so many lives lost and so many livelihoods disrupted, two years later the official response still appears to be “too little, too late”. Why have the victims of the earthquake been left, primarily, to fend for themselves through two wet monsoon seasons and two icy cold winters? And how will such an inadequate disaster response from the government impact upon Nepal’s emerging political landscape?
A total of 14 districts were severely affected by the disaster, with an additional 17 districts experiencing some degree of damage. The Nepalese Government set up the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund and established a National Emergency Operation Centre, through which new sources of aid were routed, within approximately one week of the first earthquake. However, the National Reconstruction Authority took nine months to become active and the government response was, overall, widely criticized for being too slow. International donors played an essential role, as did parts of the growing Nepali private sector and, by necessity, its citizens.
Relief and support was offered by many countries: India, China, Japan, UK, USA, and Germany were among those that provided the largest contributions, though search and rescue teams from 34 different countries were involved overall. Likewise, regional and international agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, European Union and International Monetary Fund were among the highest supra-national donors. Besides these however it was the countless international, national and sub-national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organisations, together with so many affected local communities and family networks, that were critical in responding in which ever way possible.
In Barpak village, Gorkha, where we conducted our research 1 year ago, residents spoke of Nepali and Indian government helicopters and support during that early critical period. Triaging and emergency healthcare in the village was supplied by a private pharmacist, who trained youths to provide basic first aid support and used meagre resources from her family-owned pharmacy business; the government health centre was damaged and key health personnel were absent on the day of the earthquake (a Saturday) – a pattern that was seen across many rural health posts on that day.
Barpak village, April 2016 – one year after the earthquake many families lived in dangerous buildings or temporary shelters; Photo credit: Julie Balen
Two years on, and many of these same communities and citizens feel let down, forgotten and deserted. Far too many have not yet received any – and certainly not adequate – assistance or support, and have been left instead to, survive the traumatic events of 2015 and rebuild their homes, lives and communities primarily without external assistance. The most disadvantaged among them are those who were already marginalised in some way prior to the disaster; the extreme poor, the “lower” casts, the elderly, the disabled, the women. This is likely to widen disparities in the population, leading to poorer health outcomes.
Younger and older women – often with migrant husbands, fathers or sons – bore a large burden from the disaster; Photo credit: Sudha Gimire
In May 2017 local elections will be held for the first time in 20 years*. These upcoming elections are a key moment in the country’s fraught transition to democracy and it is expected that the local polls will pave the way for provincial and then national elections later in the year. The impact of the formal response to the earthquake on voting patters and outcomes remains to be seen. Have actions taken (or not taken) been a missed opportunity to grow support for Nepal’s leading party, and will earthquake-affected areas vote, instead, in favour of the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party representatives?
At present, we can only speculate whether the national elections will indeed take place this year, and what impact the staggering earthquake, and by comparison the vastly deficient government response, will have on Nepal’s politics. One certainty however is that Nepal continues to be disaster prone, and any elected government will have to do a better job of preparedness and response in future.
* Nepal emerged from a brutal decade-long civil war in 2006, which brought the end of the 240-year-old monarchy and transformed it into a republic.