As morning dawned last week in eastern Nepal’s Dolakha district, situated near the Tibetan border, Chandra Bahadur Tamang and his sons were rushing to the nearby forest.
They had packed quilts, mattresses and cooking utensils for the trip, but this was not the trekking that rich people do in Nepal, but rather a trip of the poor, who had become poorer still when the devastating earthquake in Nepal last April had destroyed hundreds and thousands of homes.
“We are landless people,” Tamang explained. “We had a small hut but the earthquake took it away. Now we are trapped between this roaring Tamakoshi river and the cracked hills.”
To compound their problems, monsoon clouds are already moving from the Bay of Bengal and are expected to reach eastern Nepal by mid June. “We don’t sleep when it starts raining,” Tamang said. The mountains still bear the scars of the earthquake and numerous landslides are within sight of where they live. Boulders the size of trucks are still lying on the roads.
The people of this region have received little aid from the government except for a few tents, food and NPR 25,000 (Us$250) over the last year. “We have been told that grants will be provided to build houses but don’t know where the money has gone,” Tamang said in a low voice.
Tamang’s story illustrates the fate of most victims of the deadly earthquake that killed about 9,000 people in Nepal on April 25, 2015. Even those living in district headquarters are struggling. Eighty-four year old Sun Bahadur Shahi lives in Dolakha Bazaar, an old traditional town located just a few kilometres from the district headquarters, Charikot. He has been suffering from fever for a week and has no medication. He and his family have been living in a makeshift house on public land since the quake.
“The government has asked us to leave this place as soon as possible as it is near to a road. We don’t have a house, where can we go? We don’t know why our own government treats us like enemies,” he said.
A few metres away from Shahi’s makeshift house, dozens of people were busy clearing away the debris of the destroyed houses. The few houses that remained standing after the quake are damaged. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) agreed to pay the wages of labourers so that they could clear the debris for the upcoming Machindranath festival. (A giant chariot is wheeled through the town during the festival, and the IOM paid enough to clear the debris from this specific route, and not more).
The politics of reconstruction
In August last year, Govinda Raj Pokharel was appointed the CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) through an ordinance that had to be endorsed by the parliament within two months. Unfortunately the Nepali political parties failed to reach a consensus, and the NRA was therefore temporarily dissolved. In December, a new government was elected, and it replaced Pokharel with Sushil Gyawali.
As the political parties fought over who would head the NRA, the earthquake victims were left with no help. Even after Gyawali was appointed, nine months after the earthquake, the NRA lacked the required human resources to implement its work. “We started with two people and now there are 86 staff working at the Authority. We are speeding up our work now,” said Gyawali. This is still only 40% of the total staff needed.
It was only last week, almost a whole year after the earthquake, that the NRA started distributing NPR 50,000 (US$500) per household in Singati village, as the first instalment of NPR 200, 000 (US$2,000) for rebuilding houses.
Junga Bahadur Budhathoki was among few lucky ones to receive a first instalment. However he does not know what to do with it, as it is insufficient to build a house as per new new earthquake proof standards issued by the government and that villagers are now supposed to follow.
“Labour costs are expensive, building materials prices are skyrocketing, so this is not sufficient,” he said. Soon the monsoon will be here, and there is no point in building something only to have it rained upon before it is completed. “I am planning to put this amount in a bank for few months and then start building house after the monsoon,” he said.
He did celebrate finally getting the money, though, by getting drunk in the middle of the day. When asked whether he used government provided money to buy alcohol, he took out an intact wad of notes of NPR 50,000 (US$500) from his coat. “Sir, I will never misuse this money, I will never,” he said, turning emotional.
Locals complained that very few staff have been deployed and they have to wait for hours or even days to process their payments. Those who walked for hours to reach the distribution centre in Singati had to return empty-handed and were asked to come back again the next day.
As per the rules of disbursement, once the foundations are laid – using the first instalment – the second instalment of NPR 80,000 (US$800) will be released after an inspection and approval by engineers. The last instalment of NPR 70,000 (US$700) will be disbursed after the main house is built for the roof. Of the 700,000 households affected only about 1,000 have received the first instalment.
Earthquake exacerbated Nepal’s water crisis
Many ponds and springs have dried up in the earthquake affected areas. “A few days after the quake there was an increase of water in our drinking water source but slowly it started to dry and now it is about to die,” said Indra Bahadur Khatri of Dharamghar village in Dolakha. Taps in local hotels have stopped working. “Normally the month of April is dry but this year it has been exceptionally hard,” said Bishnu Khadka, owner of Dovan hotel in Singati.
Khadka says it took a year for them to resume business as the building was badly affected. Buckets have replaced taps and the owners ask guests not to use water unnecessarily, and to avoid bathing or washing clothes, unlike in the past. “After shelter, the major problem here is drinking water. We use water from the river nearby, but for potable water we don’t have any options other than springs,” Khadka added.
According to the experts, water recharge systems were badly affected as water percolated faster due to the shaking. In many cases aquifers may have been disrupted. “The earthquake disturbed the regular recharge pattern resulting in early drying of existing sources or the emergence of new springs or spouts in other places,” said Govinda Pokharel, a geologist at the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation (NWCF).
Springs are the major sources of drinking water in mid-hills of Nepal. According to a recent research conducted by NWCF, about 15% of the 70 springs identified in Tinpiple (which covers an area of 14 square kilometres) and 30% of the 174 springs in Dapcha (which covers 25 square kilometres) of Kavrepalanchowk district have dried up within the last decade.
All photos by Nabin Baral.