From emergency aid to a new Nepal

Almost 3 million Nepali are struggling to recover from the April earthquake. Hundreds of aftershocks prevented reconstruction and a monsoon causing over 6000 landslides lengthened the emergency. A team of Belgian journalists followed the aid money to investigate the situation six moths after the disaster struck. They found patience, solidarity and some decent bandages to an open wound, but the insufficient reaction of the state is also causing complications and a total absence of real recovery.

  • © Nick Meynen Business woman Suman Shahi © Nick Meynen
  • © Tim Dirven © Tim Dirven
  • © Tim Dirven Childrens trauma can be aggravated if they have to stay next to the rubbles of their house for a long period of time. © Tim Dirven
  • © Tim Dirven ‘The quake took down houses and brick walls, but it also smashed the walls between the people’ © Tim Dirven

‘Two weeks before the earthquake we inaugurated our command centre to coordinate communication between hospitals, army and aid organizations in case of a disaster’, said Sarah Blin, Nepal director of the NGO Handicap International. She added that thanks to their protocols, almost none of the crucial medical equipment was damaged. ‘Doctors now know how to react when there is a sudden surge of surgery needs. Families were able to find their loved ones in the flooded hospitals.’

Plan International didn’t miss it’s start. The NGO had been active for years in the hardest hit district, Sindhupalchowk. Nepal director Mattias Bryneson: ‘Plan always works closely with local communities so we immediately knew their greatest needs. We rolled out a series of cash for work programs. The government needs to build the new hardware — schools for example. But based with our know-how, we can supply the software.’

State failures

‘If this continues, the economic damage can be as large as the earthquake itself.’

New hardware, however, is nowhere to be seen. Nepal director of Doctors of the World, Simon Castro Wooldridge: ‘The government says we should build back better but we say: better build back’. Nepal just promulgated a new constitution but people in the South are furious about it. They have een blocking all border posts with India for weeks now, causing an acute shortage of petrol and materials needed for the reconstruction. Simon: ‘If this continues, the economic damage can be as large as the earthquake itself. We cancel medical teams because there is not enough fuel.’

A second reason for the lack of progress is that the government was so busy with the constitution they didn’t find the time, or political will, to vote the reconstruction laws needed to release the 4 billion euro that the international community has pledged. The law should result in construction rules to build back better and would provide $2,000 per family that lost a home. Right now, nobody has got that money. Sarah Blin adds a third reason that is making the recovery slow and painful: ‘Faced with disaster, most governments relax the paper-trail. In Nepal on the other hand they only gave us more paperwork.’

Caritas International, another member organization of the 12-12 consortium that organised the fundraising in Belgium, is also waiting for a sign from the government. They helped 40.000 families into temporary shelters, but now can’t provide the much needed homes to get through the winter.

Stomach Problems

Many people live on inaccessible mountains. Dr. Manuel De Lara, head of the medical team of the NGO Doctors of the World, thinks that this reinforces inequality during the aid operation. Manuel: ‘A higher percentage of the people who live higher up have lost their house, because they don’t have good cement. These homeless will also face a harsher winter and they get less of the aid package.’ That’s why Doctors of the World is sending two mobile medical teams by helicopter.

Manuel is very worried about the winter. ‘We expect a surge in respiratory infections. At present, muscle pains and stomach problems are amongst the top four issues. The muscle pains usually come from the extremely hard work that many people now have to do. The stomach problems often come from the huge stress and the often associated excessive use of alcohol’.

Unlike before, Doctor of the World now also provides psychological assistance, especially for children. Their trauma is aggravated if they have to stay next to the rubble of their house for a long period of time. Even when the school buildings are destroyed, kids need distraction. Large tents where the children can be together and play were rapidly set up by both Doctors of the World, UNICEF and Plan International. At Handicap International the big challenge was to quickly reach the patients that needed an amputation, in order to have a better chance to get a proper prosthesis later. Up until now, Handicap has helped sixty people walk again with a prosthesis.

© Tim Dirven

Childrens trauma can be aggravated if they have to stay next to the rubbles of their house for a long period of time.

Money in exchange for work

Malnutrition is another structural problem as the earthquake caused acute hunger. Many families lost all the food stored in their home because in the days following the earthquake exposed food was affected by the rain.

Oxfam Solidarity, also one of the six member organizations of the consortium 12-12, handed out plastic bags to keep seeds dry and ensured that 25,000 farming families could still sow and can now harvest. According to the UN, certainly 530.000 quake victims need food aid – but at the end of September, 156.000 received no help at all and have no help in sight.

Despite all that, the focus is shifting from direct food donations to programs that enable people to buy food themselves. Plan International is working for example with cash for work programs, where groups of twenty to thirty men and women do simple work, such as clearing rubble from schools and roads. In return, they get 500 rupees (4.5 euro’s) per day. Each program lasts one month. The number of programs depends on the number of donations the organization receives. The capacity to expand is present, it all depends on how much donations they receive.

Transitional phase

‘The quake took down houses and brick walls, but it also smashed the walls between the people.’

In Batase, a village in Sindhupalchowk where Plan operates, we come across a large pile of empty rum bottles. Lanam Lama, leader of a working group that clears rubble from the school: ‘We really thought that if all the aftershocks were done, there would be not a single house still standing, we thought it really was the end of the world. So in the first weeks we just slaughtered goats and chickens and drank all the alcohol we could find.’

The “Last Supper” did not continue forever, because when we visited Batase, we saw several groups of hardworking people. There are 32,145 destroyed classrooms in Nepal. Currently, at Plan International, the aid is moving from emergency relief to early reconstruction. Temporary classrooms are being built and they should last a few years, until the government again takes over the construction of classrooms.

© Tim Dirven

Doctors of the World is also in a transition phase. Simon Castro Wooldridge: ‘In addition to our mobile teams we now build as many semi-permanent aid stations as possible. These have to last five to ten years. They cost $6000 each and we already built eleven. We work with local cooperatives, which we already know for years.’

In Sindhupalchowk, 61 of the 79 health posts were completely destroyed. Most of these buildings were built in the last ten years, but many Nepalis tell me that when constructing a health post or school with money from the central government, substandard materials are used to keep some money in the pockets of the constructors.

Where your donation goes

Of every 100 euros that arrives at 12-12, two euros go to the consortium, two euros to the campaigns of the six member organizations (UNICEF, Handicap International, Plan International, Doctors of the World, Oxfam and Caritas), 10 euros for project management in Belgium and Kathmandu and 86 euro to the concrete projects of the partners.

There is no doubt that this 86 percent of the 5.5 million euros that was collected provides semi-permanent health posts, cash for work programs, prosthetics and running camps and more – despite the many barriers that the Nepalese government throws up.

What is striking is the contrast between failing governments (both the Belgian, which did not send the requested assistance, as the Nepalese) versus effective NGOs and compassionate citizens. As Suman said: ‘The quake took down houses and brick walls, but it also smashed the walls between the people’.

© Tim Dirven

‘The quake took down houses and brick walls, but it also smashed the walls between the people’

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