The Earthquake Monsoon Cocktail: Challenges Of Relief And Reconstruction

When the 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, now labeled the darkest day in Nepal’s history, within days the death toll had reached 5,000. But unofficial estimates put the number at above 10,000. At least one expert estimated the number would hover in the 50,000 range. The number of injured has got to be some multiple of that number. Damage to property and infrastructure has been estimated to surpass the country’s GDP of $20 billion. The UN estimates 2.8 million people have been displaced, over 70,000 homes have been destroyed, and another 530,000 homes have been damaged. People fear rightly that the hills and mountains are now in a weakened state and more prone than usual to landslides during the monsoon season, only weeks away. The country might see a mass exodus from some parts to the southern plains.

Getting the tents, food, water and medicine has been the immediate priority, but rebuilding the damaged homes also has to be in the offing. Perhaps a new earthquake proof cheap design can be thought of. Enough aid has poured in to provide immediate relief. And since people know how much has come in, there should be heightened awareness so as to keep corruption and leakage to the minimum.

But not enough aid or pledges have poured in for the reconstruction work. The Nepal government’s decision to award $1,000 to the family of every person who died in the tragedy is a welcome step, and another $400 for cremation, but that is still not reconstruction. Through good work in immediate relief work the Nepal government should earn the right to ask the international community the $2 billion it is estimated will be needed for reconstruction of houses, damaged roads, buildings, hospitals, and some heritage sites. Japan has come out saying it will help with the rebuilding of the heritage sites, but that it will do the work directly. That is both magnanimous and wise.

While countries like India are gearing to move to double digit growth rates, Nepal just might have gone back a few years in terms of economic growth. One would think it would be hard for the country to go back to business as usual. Perhaps this tragedy will be that wake up call that will wake up the political leadership to give the country a sound constitution so development work can get going at a rapid clip.

The silver lining to the cloud in this tragedy has been social media and how detailed news moved fast and in depth, and Nepalis across the world came together, and in sharing they brought their friends all over the world together. Ordinary people were uploading images and video clips to their Facebook streams. All major media outlets globally provided profuse coverage that were readily shared over various social media channels. That resulted in a lot of fundraising. Facebook raised more money and faster than the US government.

The water problem, already bad in Kathmandu before the earthquake, has become acute.
On a good wet-season day, pre-earthquake, the city had to import 40 percent of its water from outside the valley. The earthquake has most likely damaged the traditional underground water system and the lack of electricity means those with bore holes don't have the power to pump water out of them. Already the shops that are open have sold out of bottled water. Much of this urban center has no running water in its taps.

This earthquake has brought forth a sense of unity among Nepalis across the world that is comparable to the post 9/11 unity among Americans. One hopes it will get carried over beyond relief and reconstruction to good governance, rapid economic growth and ultimate prosperity. But equally there is a strong fear that the political leaders of the country will not change from their corrupt ways. They will find ways to enrich themselves and their party cadres instead of helping the needy. For example, this step by the government has been ringing alarm bells: Govt to take all bank deposits meant for disaster relief. There is coordination and there is corruption. Lack of coordination is that relief workers who poured in from all over the world in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy found themselves stranded and underutilized for days.


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