It only lasted for 20 seconds, but the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that rocked Nepal at midday on 25 April 2015 has impacted the country on an unprecedented scale. More than 8000 Nepalese were killed. Twice as many were injured. Many people have been left homeless after their houses were destroyed. Others, scared of aftershocks, now sleep under the open sky.
Just over two weeks later, on Tuesday 11 May, another 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit the country. The casualty list continues to grow.
Although the initial quake also hit the capital city of Kathmandu, the worst affected areas are in the adjoining districts — some so remote that it took a week for the first batch of relief materials to arrive. In the capital, the heritage sites of centuries old temples and palaces were razed to the ground and many houses — old and new — collapsed. Pictures of cracked high-rise apartment buildings, the icons of Nepal’s economic progress, flooded social media. Many people believe that the impact would have been a lot more devastating had the earthquake not taken place on a Saturday, when offices and schools were closed.
While the response from the army, police and Nepal’s friendly neighbors were immediate, key government officials, political parties and political civil society have still found responding difficult, and efforts were often made by individuals rather than Nepalese society. The Prime Minister of Bhutan Tshering Tobgay personally delivered a check of US$1 million and a team of 68 people, comprising of doctors and paramedics. Air traffic controllers worked overtime and managed 450 flights on a single day at Tribhuvan, Nepal’s only international airport.
Many arms of the government worked well. The state-owned Nepal Telecom provided free text and phone calls as more international service providers like Skype and Viber joined in to make calls to Nepal free. The electricity grid was restored quickly and some key officials in the government worked non-stop coordinating relief work.
But the major political parties were completely absent from the scene. These parties, who boast of raising hundreds of volunteers at political rallies and enforcing nationwide strikes, could not garner the support needed to deliver relief to the very people who voted them into power. The absence of a national mechanism amongst the coalition government hampered co-ordination and impacted relief efforts. It took the government a week to clarify its position on whether NGOs could receive charity money and goods for relief or be given customs waivers. This lack of clear-cut directives and strategic thinking comes at the cost of forgone donations.
Initial relief efforts were conducted by volunteers who spontaneously gathered to start delivering tents, food and medicines to affected people. These groups were organized through social media to meet demand and supply. They delivered relief at zero cost, paying for their own food, water and fuel.
The political impasse in Nepal — which is blocking progress on finalizing a replacement for the interim constitution in the second Constituent Assembly — does not provide the right backdrop for managing such a disaster. The credibility of the prime minister’s relief fund is continuously questioned. International donors prefer to work through international agencies rather than give cash to the government. The absence of local governments for the past 14 years in the villages and towns has resulted in powerful political syndicates known as All Party Mechanism (APM). These APMs disburse money to party workers in a system that is ridden with corruption. Relief efforts being caught up in the political and bureaucratic system continue to be reported by the media.
As people get back to their lives, the challenge now is how to sustain relief and move to the phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Some global organizations are already here and it is important to be cautious that they do not convert this disaster into extended international engagement in Nepal. Resurrecting Nepal will require a long-term vision, but this is unlikely to come from the weak coalition government. India and China have shown keen interest in the redevelopment efforts, but the challenge is how they are seen coordinating efforts rather than competing with each other in helping Nepal.
Even before the earthquake, Nepal required a serious long-term view, especially towards infrastructure development. In preliminary findings, the National Planning Commission has estimated that about US$120–150 billion is required to build the infrastructure needed for Nepal to become a middle income country by 2030. The earthquake has been a setback, but hopefully it provides an opportunity to think of a long-term vision.