More than eighteen months have passed since the devastating Nepal earthquakes of April and May 2015. The quakes claimed 9,182 lives, injured 22,300 and damaged or destroyed 755,549 private houses and 6,278 government buildings. The mountainous districts of Gorkha and Rasuwa were among the most devastated, both by the earthquakes and subsequent landslides. It will take years for survivors in the hardest-hit districts to return to their previous ways of life. Out of necessity, many are attempting to find new opportunities. Most continue to live in temporary circumstances, such as shelters built from corrugated galvanized iron and bamboo, waiting for assistance. Thousands whose settlements were irrevocably damaged continue to live in displacement camps, uncertain as to whether they will ever return to their homes or be relocated. Some have rebuilt on their own, typically through high-interest loans, remittances from abroad, or work exchange. Monetary resources aside, building materials, skilled carpenters and masons are scarce. Weather patterns in the region are increasingly erratic, and extreme rainfall events are making already precarious slopes even more prone to dangerous landslides.
Since November 2015, The Nepal Critical Transitions Project, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation's RAPID Program and facilitated by Portland State University and The Mountain Institute, has been conducting research in Gorkha and Rasuwa Districts on the key social and cultural factors that shape the recovery from this natural disaster. Our goals are to learn from this dynamic process in Nepal so that lessons can be applied in country and in other parts of the world. Our aim is to help the government and aid agencies better understand local needs and communicate more effectively with local communities. The results of this effort are being shared with the mountain communities where we do our research, the Government of Nepal, national universities and with aid organizations worldwide.
The Government of Nepal designated fourteen Districts as “most affected” by the April earthquake and an additional 17 were also impacted. A district is composed of several Village Development Committees (VDCs) comprised of nine Wards each. Aid in Rasuwa and Gorkha Districts is being provided at the VDC level.
When we visited Gorkha and Rasuwa Districts in October and November of 2016, we witnessed vast differences in recovery outcomes within the same VDCs. It appears that the accessible Wards, typically near roads, main trails or helipads, are disproportionally receiving assistance compared to the less accessible Wards. Certain settlements have had their local infrastructures (monasteries, churches, schools, health posts, community buildings, etc.) rebuilt and the homes are in varying stages of reconstruction. In other less accessible locations, many more homes and government buildings are still in the same fragile or devastated conditions as immediately following the disaster.
The national reconstruction program, implemented for less than one year and funded by four billion U.S. dollars pledged (not all of this amount has been collected) after the earthquakes, remains in the early stages. In some communities, government contracted engineers have only recently conducted damage assessments. Others are just now receiving the first payment of the promised 200,000 Nepali Rupees (approximately U.S. $2,000) per household for reconstruction. The assessments and distribution of funds are moving slowly for various reasons, including the extreme mountain geography, very limited banking and other services, and the lack of capacity in the Government of Nepal.
Outside aid is also unequal. There was a major proliferation of international and national non-government organizations (NGOs) in Nepal before and after the disaster. The coordination between aid organizations and the government is often problematic. Similar to government programs, accessible communities are frequently served more than less accessible ones. Some NGOs only worked during the brief relief period immediately following the natural disaster. The focus on short-term relief, but not livelihood reconstruction, is common to other natural disasters from Haiti to Sri Lanka. In November 2016 a concerned local teacher from a devastated area in Gorkha shared with our team that “the government and NGOs need to stop providing us with fish, we need nets.” Like many, he also lacked trust in the Government of Nepal’s ability to properly implement the rebuilding program.
In the less accessible research sites, we observed aid reaching the communities from various Christian churches. In Gorkha and Rasuwa, every VDC we visited in our study had a church, as did most communities (some more than one). After the earthquakes, the church buildings were typically rebuilt quickly and in select cases improved. Since the earthquakes, there has also been an increase in conversion from Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity of various Protestant denominations. To some, Christianity is associated with modernity and development. It also stops expensive Buddhist and Hindu ritual obligations. Youth may also gravitate to Christianity, seeing it as linked to social change. The long term consequences of this shift in traditional communities are not well understood.
In our research of 400 randomly selected households (1,992 individuals) in two Districts (four VDCs), 16% or 64 households (320 individuals) were living in displacement camps. These camps lack opportunities for residents to develop new skills and can be located quite far from devastated communities.
The residents of displacement camps are exposed to real dangers. They can fall prey to human trafficking and other illicit activities that exist in Nepal. In the most desperate camps, there is evidence of suicide. Some of the displaced villagers out-migrate to cities and abroad for wage labor. In more accessible camps that have received aid, many residents remain to tend fields and livestock at their settlements. Some are also starting to use pesticides in agricultural plots near the lower elevation camps to increase yield and stave off insects. This is in contrast to their original, higher elevation settlements where they practiced organic farming. Those trying to return to their villages have endured multiple setbacks, including landslides, damaged trails and challenging winds, rains and snow from an extended monsoon and winter season.
Opportunities are slim in the camps. Some residents are finding wage labor activities to assist their household, and there are select NGOs providing training and livelihood improvement opportunities, financial help and youth psychological counseling. Unfortunately, wage labor rates are often quite low and are typically higher for men than women. We recently witnessed two camps in Rasuwa where the government and landowner decided to evict the residents and have them resettle in a new camp. In November 2016, conditions were so bad at one camp in Rasuwa that the residents are threatening to strike if their situation does not improve.
Some households are not waiting for aid and are rebuilding on their own. In Gorkha, local residents are relying on social institutions, such as parma—a traditional system of work exchange, to rebuild homes and community buildings. In the past, parma was used for farming and herding; it has now been innovated to assist in the recovery. We also witnessed innovations in traditional housing designs, such as building homes lower and with lighter roofing materials so that the next earthquake will not cause as much damage when the roof falls. However, it appeared that few if any of these homes were built to code. Additional social capital was being employed during local ceremonies to help rebuild infrastructure. For example, during the Nepali holiday of Tihar, one community from the Tamang ethnic group in Rasuwa raised money communally to fix trails damaged by landslides after the earthquakes. They achieved this through the traditional deusi and bhailo events—where youth go from house to house singing festive songs. On this occasion, the songs were about how the village was decimated by the natural disaster.
The future of these communities remains unclear and the recovery process is just beginning for so many. Opportunities and challenges differ by community. Some survivors remain invisible to the government and aid organizations which creates inequality and impedes recovery. Others are rebuilding without outside assistance. Change is occurring at such a rapid pace. That is why the Nepal Critical Transitions Project is gathering essential information specific to each locale to better understand these dynamics. The lessons learned will be shared with government and aid agencies and with mountain communities in Nepal's most devastated districts.
Written by Dr. Jeremy Spoon, Principal Investigator for the Nepal Critical Transitions Project. Dr. Spoon is an Associate Professor at Portland State University and a Research Associate at The Mountain Institute.
For more information about the Nepal Critical Transitions Project, contact Dr. Spoon: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about our work in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes, check out these stories:
One of our most innovative, sustainable livelihood projects in mountain communities of Nepal is featured in this blog and video:
To support our work in Nepal's remote mountain communities, please consider donating to The Mountain Institute. Thank you!