Commentary: Slow rebuild two years after Nepal earthquake

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Reconstruction work goes on after the April 2015 quake that killed nearly 9,000 people. Because the Nepal government has failed to issue permits, thousands of promised homes are yet to be built.

Lucinda Fleeson

is a Washington- based journalist and former Inquirer staff writer

Next month, Nepal will mark the second anniversary of a devastating earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and reduced to rubble more than 600,000 houses. But many Nepalese need no reminder, as they are still struggling with the after-affects.

Most of the Nepalese people whose houses collapsed still await grants promised for rebuilding. Meanwhile, more than 15,000 men, women, and children shiver through a second winter in canvas tents, corrugated metal structures, and other makeshift shelters.

This wasn't supposed to happen - particularly after countries and citizens around the world sent millions of dollars and supplies to help.

What has become heartbreakingly clear is that Nepal had few distribution mechanisms in place. The Nepal government promised to spend $936 million for residents to rebuild, in approved earthquake-resistant designs. So far only 3 percent of that amount has been distributed, according to latest statistics from the Nepal Reconstruction Authority.

I traveled to this Himalayan country last fall to work with seven young reporters to document and explain the slow grant process. The journalists obtained and analyzed more than 6,000 pages of grant documents for 552,812 people. To show the human cost of delays, they traveled up into the mountains along slow, bumpy roads to reach residents for interviews and video.

As their reports show, published this month on the Center for Investigative Journalism-Nepal website, the reasons for the delay of funds are varied: government chaos and lack of preparedness for either a major quake or emergency relief, confusing and sometimes contradictory regulations on safe building, and lack of manpower trained in the new techniques.

Perhaps typical were residents we encountered in an ethnic Tamang community tucked into one of the hills surrounding Kathmandu. One wrinkled grandmother in a kerchief was arguably one of the luckier ones: She now has a small house of corrugated metal, concrete foundation, and wood-framed windows and door. A nearby monastery donated the roof.

She received $300 in emergency food and other aid, but no money to rebuild the house, which cost $2,300. She borrowed half of that from moneylenders at an exorbitant rate to build what she had hoped would serve as only temporary shelter.

By necessity, it's now her permanent home, for herself, daughter, and grandchildren. "It's freezing cold," she said flatly.

Her neighbors are in the same situation - and they didn't know that the government had promised housing grants, nor how to register to qualify. "Relief?" another woman, Sanu Tamang, in a similar shelter, said incredulously. "I'm waiting for relief."

A community of 65 people alongside the road to the Rasuwa District bordering Tibet is not as lucky. Barefoot children in winter parkas dart in and out of canvas tarps fashioned into sprawling shelters tucked into a steep hillside. The people here had initially set up camp along a river at lower altitudes but found it unbearably hot in the summer. So they moved to higher ground, even though now they must carry water from a distance.

One reporter on our project found that many of the marginalized ethnic communities were not considered for grants because they had lived on government land; others were omitted from lists during frequent government changes. Phanindra Dahal of BBC-Radio-Nepal tracked 22 charities that had promised to build 22,000 houses - yet because the government has so far not issued permits, only 900 have been constructed.

The 7.9 earthquake struck April 25, 2015. Most of the modern structures in the capital city of Kathmandu stood steady, but nearly 100 percent of the mud, brick, and stone houses throughout 14 rural districts were reduced to rubble.

While the young journalists I worked with expressed exasperation over government delays, I reminded them that Nepal is a young democracy. Creation of a working federal bureaucracy is not so easy. There is no FEMA in Nepal.

A civil war with a Maoist insurgency ended in 2006; the monarchy was only abolished in 2008. Drafting a new constitution consumed almost eight years, followed by contentious debate over amendments, revolving around inclusion of numerous political parties and representation for the country's 130 ethnic communities.

Almost immediately after the quake, recovery efforts were further stalled for more than four months by an unofficially imposed but paralyzing blockade of petrol, food, and other necessities into Nepal from its main supplier and southern neighbor, India. (India had protested constitution amendments concerning border populations.)

Nepal's older generations dominate politics and are unwilling to loosen the reins, further frustrating the 50 percent of the population under 25, many of whom are more educated and more westernized than their elders.

Nepal may be running out of time in coping with the 2015 earthquake as new shocks could occur at any time, say experts, and may even lead up to a more powerful earthquake.

An international team, including researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno, concluded late last year that the deadly quake of 2015 may be only a "warning" of a more powerful jolt to come.

Lucinda Fleeson received a Fulbright Specialist grant to work with Nepali journalists, and their project was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. LFleeson@msn.com