Two years ago today, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, killing almost 9,000 people, injuring 22,000, damaging over 600,000 houses, and leaving thousands homeless. Rebuilding after such a disaster is always a huge logistical challenge for any government. But postdisaster reconstruction also represents an opportunity—a chance to ensure that the process is done in a way that rebuilds for everyone, including those who live on the edges of mainstream society.
Earthquakes and natural disasters inevitably hit people living in poverty the hardest: the poorest members of society are more likely to be living in overcrowded and poorly constructed housing that succumbs to the quake, they do not have the financial resources needed to begin rebuilding, and they are more likely to be dependent on government services that break down in the aftermath of the disaster.
Vulnerable members of society, such as women and children, the homeless, and people with disabilities are also more likely to face hardships. All this was true in Nepal, while the country’s excluded Dalit community has also faced disproportionate difficulties.
In Nepal, the process of rebuilding is being led by the National Reconstruction Authority, based on its Post-Earthquake Needs Assessment. It is making serious efforts to respond to needs in earthquake-affected areas. Yet, the percentage of the budget spent on disaster response alone is not a sufficient indicator of success.
It is also important to ensure that the money is being spent in a way that effectively meets the needs of all Nepalis. Ensuring true success will require the National Reconstruction Authority to listen closely to voices from the ground, and to make the necessary adjustments to its policies as the process unfolds.
We saw what this means when we visited two earthquake-affected areas west of Kathmandu in central Nepal in January this year—Salyantar Village Development Committee in Dhading district, and Mashel Village Development Committee in Gorkha district. Talking to people in the area highlighted some of the shortcomings of the current process—and areas where the National Reconstruction Authority can take steps to respond more effectively to local needs.
Salyantar, for instance, now has a new two-story public school, built with a ramp for people with disabilities to enter the main building’s ground floor (disability access is a fundamental right guaranteed in Nepal’s constitution). Yet, wheelchair users will not be able to access the toilet, library, or computer room, which can be reached only by stairs. Similarly, in Dhading district, most government offices, including the health administration office, are located on the top floors of buildings without elevators, making it almost impossible for people with disabilities to access public services. Clearly, better planning and coordination is needed.
Talking to members of the local community also highlighted shortcomings in the way that funds for home reconstruction are currently being distributed. An initial grant of 50,000 Nepalese rupees (NRs), about US$485, has been offered for building new foundations. But receiving this money requires an applicant to travel to the relevant district capital (Nepal has 75 administrative districts).
For poor rural people living in remote, mountainous areas, making this return trip can take up to a week. One person told us that to receive the grant, he had to spend NRs 20,000 for travel, food, and accommodation, and then pay an addition an NRs 10,000 to an agent to get the relief—leaving just NRs 20,000. Another woman told us that it cost her NRs 100,000 just to remove the walls damaged by the earthquake. Families of people with disabilities need to pay even more to build a ramp, as well as extra labor costs to provide care for the disabled family member.
In theory, these issues can be brought before a complaint hearing mechanism set up within the National Reconstruction Authority. But this mechanism is largely a formality because so few earthquake-affected people are aware of it. Those few who are and have filed complaints are still waiting for a response. In addition, the coordination mechanism for involving donors and others in rebuilding schools is also labyrinthine, stunting the process of school building.
Clearly the challenges facing Nepal’s government after the 2015 earthquake are enormous, and much has been achieved already. Civil society organizations such as our own are trying to support this effort, by making sure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard by the authorities. By listening to those voices, we believe Nepal’s government can ensure that reconstruction addresses the needs of all, building a stronger, more just society as a result.