#NepalEarthquake: Bureaucracy hinders relief

Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on 25th April 2016

Following the devastating earthquake which struck Nepal last year, destroying over 600,000 homes, injuring 21,952 people and killing 8,964 people, the international community rallied to support the impoverished Himalayan nation, pledging over US$4 billion in aid for relief and reconstruction.

Tragically, after twelve months, the majority of this aid remains unused and affected communities continue to live in temporary shelters while reconstruction to damaged schools and medical centers has barely started.

In the months following the earthquake, the Nepalese government succeeded in providing families with initial payments for damaged homes and lost family members – providing 25,000 rupees (US$250) for families to buy corrugated sheets and warm clothes and 40,000 rupees (US$400) for the death of each family member.

Furthermore, a number of large international aid agencies such as The Red Cross, Plan International, Save the Children and UNICEF were successful in meeting the immediate needs of affected communities by administering aid and constructing temporary shelters, temporary health centers and temporary learning centers.

Unfortunately, the country’s long-term reconstruction has been far less successful and as the country marks one year since the disaster, frustration with the government’s inability to manage the reconstruction effort is growing. On Sunday (April 24), around 200 protesters gathered in Kathmandu and marched on the government offices, demanding an end to inaction.

A major factor hindering Nepal’s recovery was the four-month blockade at the Nepal-India border which saw the country’s supplies of fuel, medicines and aid run dangerously low. The ‘unofficial blockade’ began on September 24 last year, as Madhesis communities protested about their lack of representation in Nepal’s new constitution.

Numerous observers believe that New Delhi was orchestrating the blockade, a sentiment shared by Nepal’s Home Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal: “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.”

The blockade was eventually lifted in February, but not before the Nepalese economy had been crippled with shortages that forced businesses and factories to close, transport to be suspended, and the prices of essential commodities to soar.

With the blockade lifted, the government in Nepal should now be able to focus on the reconstruction effort, but the government has continued to stall. Nepal has already received over US$4 billion in pledged donations towards the estimated US$6.6 billion reconstruction cost, which indicates that the problem facing Nepal is not a lack of funds, rather inefficiency and governmental bureaucracy.

To date, absolutely no government reconstruction has begun. The National Reconstruction Agency (NRA), which is responsible for overseeing Nepal’s reconstruction effort, only became a functioning government agency in December 2015, and has yet to approve any rebuilding.

Furthermore, the Nepalese government has declared a moratorium on construction, pending the development of new national standards for construction. At present, these guidelines have yet to be issued, effectively suspending any rebuilding until these new regulations are approved and announced.

Another challenge threatening the country’s reconstruction is a Nepalese law which requires government contracts to be awarded to the lowest bidder. Suresh Suras Shrestha, from the government’s Department of Archaeology, expressed concerns that those being awarded these contracts may not have the skills or knowledge to repair the country’s historic monuments and heritage sites.

In response to the government’s inaction, some citizens have started rebuilding independently, although these individuals have concerns that they may eventually fall foul of the new building regulations, or they will lose out on the government’s grants.

Alongside reconstruction efforts, Nepal’s governmental bureaucracy also appears to be hindering the distribution of food donations with an estimated 80,000 tonnes of rice donated by Bangladesh still locked away in storage hubs. Instead of being handed out for free, as these donations were intended, they will instead be sold at wholesale prices, because according to the government’s food agency, the Nepal Food Corporation (NFC), there is “no demand” for the rice. In stark contrast, aid agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) argue that disaster-struck villages are still struggling and continue to be in need of food aid. The situation is all the more tragic because the rice, which has a shelf life of just one year, is likely to expire in just a few months.

Nepal’s tangled bureaucracy is also frustrating and discouraging donors, fearing their donations may not be used effectively. As Christian Manhart, UNESCO’s representative to Nepal, recently explained:

“We just lost a donor who wanted to give US$400,000. Everything seems to be blocked because there are very lengthy government procedures.”

Mattias Bryneson, Country Director for Plan International Nepal – whose organization has successfully helped 287,847 individuals, built 310 temporary learning centers and enabled 21,021 children to resume their education – summarized the frustrations facing many aid agencies:

“We support the need to develop, and enforce, construction standards to ensure this scale of destruction does not happen again, but we nonetheless need to underscore the urgency in rebuilding schools and getting children back into safe, permanent classrooms. Tens of thousands of children have already spent a winter in temporary classrooms and if permanent facilities are not built soon, children will have to spend the coming monsoon season, and possibly even a second winter, in these same basic, weathered structures – we don’t want that to happen.”

In total, 35,000 classrooms were destroyed in last year’s earthquake. Building schools and repairing classrooms is central to the welfare of Nepal’s children and the country’s ability to move forward. Plan International have plans to build 20 “safe schools”, built with disaster-resistant construction, and repair 1,600 classrooms, but is just waiting for the go-ahead. “A year is too long for children to be spending in temporary classrooms made of bamboo and tarpaulins,” added Bryneson.

Kristen Long, who recently returned from volunteering in Nepal, explains that alongside these large international aid agencies, a number of smaller organizations are also making a valuable contribution: “This country is still recovering but there are a lot of organizations that are in place on the ground dedicated to rebuilding, creating jobs, and creating homes and safe space for Nepali people to thrive again.”

One such charity is Happy Kids, which has been helping Nepal’s poorest children by providing them with safe spaces to be children, to play and act freely. Another organization, All Hands, has been helping Nepalese families directly, giving them tools and helping them rebuild their own houses, while Conscious Impact has been helping rural communities rebuilding using sustainable brick press, designed to withstand earthquakes.

With the one year anniversary of the Nepal earthquake focusing the attention of the international community back on this Himalayan nation, it is time for the country’s government to stop dragging their feet, cut through the bureaucratic red tape and begin the reconstruction effort in earnest.

Thousands of buildings throughout Nepal await reconstruction. Pic: Leo Duff

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