Nepal’s most vulnerable still at risk

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Nepal, which left over 8,500 people dead and 500,000 homes destroyed, the international community pledged more than $4 billion in aid to help the landlocked Himalayan nation recover and rebuild. During the first 6 months of the relief effort, essential progress was made with aid administered to the most needy, and shelters, health centers and learning centers established in affected areas, but as the Himalayan winter sets in, and temperatures begin to drop, relief organizations are now facing huge challenges with supply routes blocked and pledged funds still inaccessible.

The blockade at Nepal’s southern border with India began on September 24 as protests over Nepal’s new constitution erupted among Madhesis communities who inhabit the country’s lower-lying southern plains.  Protestors in these areas claim the new constitution has been designed to decrease the representation of communities in the southern plains and political observers believe ‘India’s blockade’ signals New Delhi’s unhappiness with the constitution. This sentiment is shared by Home Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal who believes India’s actions are politically motivated.

“Just after the constitution was put into effect, India stops the trucks at the border citing security issues. Our stand is this is a vengeance from India as they are not happy with Nepal’s new constitution. This is a trade blockade, just not officially announced,” he said.

India’s current obstruction of the earthquake relief effort is in stark contrast to the country’s initial reaction, when New Delhi pledged $1 billion for aid and reconstruction.

As the blockade runs into its third month, supplies of fuel, medicines and essential aid are beginning to run dangerously low, hindering the country’s recovery. According to the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries, 90 percent of Nepal’s factories have shut due to the fuel shortage, leaving thousands of adults without work. On the black market, oil prices have now soared beyond the reach of most families, leaving them to abandon the use of private transport. Aid agencies are also struggling to function due to insufficient quantities of gasoline, and deliveries of aid to rural communities are having to be scaled back.

The dire shortage of medicines in Nepal’s hospitals and pharmacies threatens to become a medical crisis if medical supplies are not allowed to begin passing through the Indian blockade soon. According to UNICEF, the regional medical stores have run out of BCG vaccines against tuberculosis and stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low.

“The risks of hypothermia and malnutrition, and the shortfall in life-saving medicines and vaccines, could be a potentially deadly combination for children this winter,” said UNICEF Executive DirectorAnthony Lake.

Helping Nepal’s children is now a priority for relief organizations, such as Pan International and UNICEF, because, as Mattias Bryneson, Country Director for Plan International Nepal, explains: “Children under 18 make up 44 percent of the population in Nepal. They are the future of this country, but continue to face challenges as they recover from the earthquakes. From the lack of safe schools to increased child protection concerns, like child marriage, child labour and exploitation, the issues that children face must be prioritized.”

The April earthquake destroyed over 32,000 classrooms across Nepal, only a small proportion of which have been reopened, and thousands of children have been out of school since the earthquake struck. In communities where aid organizations are active, thousands of students are now studying in temporary learning centers. However, these centers are not a long term solution and as temperatures drop below zero in the more mountainous region, many of these temporary learning centers will need to close during the coldest months of winter.

With schools closed and communities disrupted, children in Nepal have become increasingly prone to exploitation and trafficking. To protect vulnerable children, aid organizations have set up check posts between districts with staff trained to spot vulnerable children. These efforts have so far resulted in the rescue of over 300 children from trafficking, exploitation and slavery.

Sindhupalchok district was one of the most heavily devastated areas, with nearly 3,000 deaths following the twin earthquakes. Plan International has established numerous Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) in affected areas, as venues for children to take part in fun activities that support their recovery and allow them to process their experiences through songs, dance and play. With more than 26 CFS in Sindupalchok district, Plan International has provided support to nearly 3,700 children in the area.

To date Nepal’s victims have yet to benefit from the $4 billion pledged by the international community as the government struggles to establish a National Reconstruction Agency (NRA) that will manage and allocate the funds. Earthquake victims whose homes were destroyed have been promised $2,000 per family but until the political deadlock is resolved the release of funds is impossible. There are also concerns that when these funds are eventually released corrupt officials may divert aid initially pledged to help the country’s most needy. Until the NRA is established and functional, these funds, which are desperately need to begin the repair and reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure, will remain in limbo.

The situation in Nepal is becoming increasingly dire and it remains to be seen how long these political power plays will continue to hinder the country’s recovery and deny Nepal’s impoverished children access to the medicines and essential supplies which have been pledged by the international community. If consensus on Nepal’s constitution and the management of the NRA is not reached soon, the coming winter months will unnecessarily claim the lives of many more vulnerable children.

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