Nepal’s Earthquake – Day 10 Update

KATHMANDU is substantially back to normal now. The damage to heritage buildings is starkly evident, but the rubble is mostly cleaned up, streets are free, and most businesses are open. Food, electricity, and water supplies are adequate. Most of the tent camps that sprang up are gone: Only people with no home and no other option remain camped.

It appears that 10-15 percent of residents have left the capital and gone to an ancestral village to stay with or to check on family members. News reports suggest too that some people have returned from the camps to homes in Kathmandu that are unsafe due to concern about looting or a sense that they have no other option.

In the metro area almost all modern homes and small buildings are OK. Old structures, mostly built of brick with mud mortar, are down or damaged. Most buildings of 5+ stories show cracks; An initial assessment reported that some are repairable; others will have to be dismantled (and soon, for the safety of other buildings nearby).

In The City Overall

It has been a close call and a lucky escape for most people, though the loss of heritage is terrible.

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In Rural Parts Of The Kathmandu Valley

In the rural areas, it is not as good a picture. There were a greater proportion of old buildings, hence more damage. Relief efforts are still inadequate but improving quickly. It seems probable that everyone can be assisted with food, water, and shelter adequate for the monsoon season fairly soon.

Outside The Kathmandu Valley

Outside of the valley, things seem far worse. The more rural the area the more likely that a village had a preponderance of old, unstable housing. It’s hard to be sure how representative the media coverage of the countryside is, but clearly there are many places where most buildings are damaged and destroyed.

Aid is beginning to flow out, but has reached only the areas closest to roads and larger towns. There are still many places waiting for first response which now, 10 days on, will be recovery and relief rather than rescue.

The True Numbers

Hard figures are hard to come by. The death toll has remained remarkably small considering the event: about 7,500 so far. With areas still unsurveyed, a final toll of 10,000-12,000 seems possible. Severe injuries amount to a bit less than double the number of fatalities.

The number that varies the most is estimate of damage to buildings. Numbers range from over 100,000 to many times that. The highest estimates would mean that about 3 percent of houses in the country have been destroyed and 7 percent have been damaged.

Context For The Numbers

Less than a quarter of the country was affected by the quake, and almost 20 percent of Nepalis live in urban areas which are relatively undamaged. In places where there is major damage, it is a lot worse than the 3 percent / 7 percent figures suggest.

Complications To The Relief

The government was almost completely unprepared. The Prime Minister is reported to have told foreign aid agencies and ambassadors that no one could have predicted this event. The Minister of Information and Communications has said the same to the media. This is utter nonsense of course. The earthquake was inevitable, though the timing was unknown. Most estimates of the effect of a major quake were far worse than what happened. Despite many discussions, exercises, and conferences sponsored by foreign countries and aid agencies, there were few plans in place.

Relief was stalled for days by bureaucracy. The Department of Customs insisted for more than a week that relief supplies coming in pay a 13 percent Value Added Tax plus Customs Duties (20 percent for tarpaulins, for example). They also moved at normal bureaucratic pace rather than expediting clearance for supplies whose donors were willing to pay the tax and duties. The Department of Customs denies all of this, but it is irrefutable fact. In theory the charges for relief supplies have now been waived off, but doubts remain.

For the first week, the government insisted that all incoming financial aid could only be spent by the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. Bank accounts created after the quake were appropriated by the government, and the government insisted that funds transfers to other accounts be turned over. Public outcry over the failure to disperse any of those funds in the critical early days has led to this rule being, theoretically, waived too.

What money the PM’s Fund has now disbursed has been sent in bulk to towns and villages. There have been no local or municipal elections in Nepal since 1997, and the localities are administered by political-party cadres. It is feared that allowing politicians rather than elected officials to administer relief will lead to massive leakages.

Nepalis Have Made Their Own Good News

In the absence of government action, there has been an outpouring of support from the Nepali people for their fellow citizens. Media, banks, business, and airlines have started relief funds, though the results from those are uncertain (and the expensive media adverts these entities have placed announcing their actions seem wasteful.) But direct action by individuals, youth groups, neighborhood associations, and locally-managed NGOs have distributed food, shelter, blankets, water, and sanitation equipment. In villages and neighborhoods where houses where destroyed, it has been local people who have done most of the clean up. Incidences of looting and price gouging have been thankfully rare.

Several Large Food Kitchens Have Been Set Up

In the early days, the Sikh community served 24,000 hot meals each day in Kathmandu: They are now moving out of the city to rural areas and growing their support. The tiny Muslim community has out-punched their size, partly because the southern Terai plains where most Nepali Muslims live was relatively untouched by the quake. Hindu and Buddhist religious groups have also filled in the gaps left by government incompetence.

Rebuilding Will Take A Long Time

The first order of business is to get food, water, and shelter to the victims before the monsoon season starts in June. This is possible with support from outside, but it’s by no means certain given the inaction and failures of the government so far and their resistance to foreign personnel on the ground. (Comparisons in the media of the effectiveness of the foreigners and the ineffectiveness of the government rankle.)

Once basic relief is distributed, little will happen until late September. This is partly due to difficulties of transportation and construction during the rainy season and party due to a culture that says “nothing except growing rice can be done” then. Depending on the degree of damage to the housing stock, it may take from one to three years to rebuild.

And as rebuilding housing will be first priority, we can expect reconstruction of the damaged cultural heritage to take many years, perhaps decades. There is lots of work ahead, and Nepal will need help, financial and technical, from the world community for a long time.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.