Nepal: one year after the earthquake

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ April 25th, 2016. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
Destroyed house near a temple in Nepal

This photograph was taken last week – an old woman still lives in this house … the temple still stands defiantly against all odds

What has happened in Nepal since the 2015 earthquake

It’s exactly one year since a devastating 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. Nearly 9 thousand people lost their lives and over 21,000 people were injured. Millions were displaced. Continuous aftershocks created more damage including a 6.7 aftershock on May 12th which killed 200 people. For 12 months aftershocks ranging from 5.5 down rattled the country on a near weekly basis.

Following the earthquake a huge international humanitarian effort was made to help Nepal in various capacities including on the ground and economically. Nepal’s highly dependent tourism industry plummeted to 20% in terms of visitors.

With thousands of city and rural homes destroyed and damaged, tent villages were set up along with tin shelters from international aid agencies. Meanwhile the Nepalese government promised to help and financially support reconstruction efforts, quickly.

The reality of what has really happened in Nepal since the earthquake

Not much. I’ve been beyond disappointed in what’s happened on the ground here in Nepal. A lot of very little has happened here. Yet at the same time the country has forever changed. Much as I wish it hadn’t.

Let me elaborate.

The negative aspects of post-earthquake Nepal:

The first section of this article is a look at the negative side of post-earthquake Nepal from my own view living here. Some of what I have written will no doubt upset various sectors of society both nationally and internationally. The raw truth often does this I’m afraid. Later we’ll look at the positive side of things.

The Nepalese Government has failed its people

4.3 billion US dollars has not been spent on a single brick of reconstruction in Nepal over the past year (source). The immediate aid money was atrociously mishandled to the point that no one knows what happened to it all (source). And, of course being Nepal, no one will accept responsibility. Any money that has been spent had been used to set up a reconstruction authority that refuses to work (source).

Rural village in Nepal devastated by the earthquake

Rural village in Nepal devastated by the earthquake and left to fend for themselves

The situation is so bad that even the German Parliament has asked where its aid money has gone (source). The current Nepalese Prime minister has said rebuilding will take decades to complete (source).

Why has this happened?

One blatant word: corruption. And quite frankly the 130 political parties in this tiny nation are woefully unskilled.

Children celebrating Nepal's new constitution

Nepal’s constitution was rushed through post-earthquake after nearly 10 years and still managed to be flawed – so flawed the aftermath was often likened to be the “second earthquake” for Nepal.

Following the earthquake the near 10 year overdue Nepalese constitution was rushed through (source). There was a national mindset that this would set the country right and help kick-start reconstruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It brought the nation to a shameful standstill as human rights were blatantly overlooked (source, source).

Ethnic minorities protested at the border with India and soon after a blockage on imports was put into place (source) by these same people. India is Nepal’s chief trading partner. Instead of addressing the issue (the constitution) the Nepalese government immediately placed the blame on India who refused to send goods over the border where violent protests were occurring. A seething #backoffindia national campaign covered up the real issue which was happening in Nepal.

India has always been an easy escape goat for Nepal to vent its anger and frustration at. This was no different. Fuel and gas shortages brought the country to a standstill …. only it didn’t for the wealthy elite of Nepal who profited tremendously.

Nepal’s fuel blockage and black-market profits

I’ve been in many fuel shortages in Nepal. Most wither out after a few weeks when people start to protest. This time was different though. There were very few protests. National sentiment had sunk in that this was a waiting battle with India over what the Nepalese government called an illegal blockade. Given that the protests were largely on the Nepalese side and the international community saw this, virtually no international political support was given to Nepal (source). The Nepalese political rebuke in a nutshell? Everyone supported India because it was richer. One of Nepal’s characteristic faults is not taking responsibility and criticism which had now pivoted to the national psyche.

Long gas queue in Pokhara

Vehicle fuel, cooking gas and supply shortages decimated Nepal’s earthquake effected people while others profited highly from the black-market trade where there was no shortage

During the months that followed huge gas and petrol queues appeared all over the country. But for the wealthy there was no issue. The black-market had no shortage of either fuel or gas (source, source).

The divide between rich and poor became blatantly obvious in Nepal

The poor in Nepal continued to sit in makeshift post-earthquake shelters as no construction materials, aid or heating supplies could be brought in (source). Meanwhile the government wrangled with itself over how to even begin the planning stages of reconstruction let alone on the ground support for those devastated. Mass protests never happened. Why?

Well, if you are living day-to-day you cannot take time off work or your farm to protest without your family starving. Let alone if you are one of the millions effected by a catastrophic earthquake. Meanwhile, if you were wealthy, you could afford black market rates at USD $5 per liter of petrol. Moreover with one-sided national media blaming India many in rural Nepal believed this was indeed “India’s blockade”.

The divide was obvious. The results pushed the Nepalese people further into a greater cultural change powered by national corruption and inadvertently aided by an influx of private and international aid organisations trying to push their own agendas forward.

The black-market economy of favors and profit

By the end of the monsoon and winter seasons five months of anti-India sentiment waned as people saw the wealthy prosper on blatant profiteering via the black-market (source) while there were virtually no protesters at the border. Soon after the borders were officially opened and fuel was let in. However, to this day there is still a rampant black-market and gas shortage.

During all this there was a political standoff over Nepal’s reconstruction authority plans. Commodity prices had doubled and no one could politically agree on how the authority would begin. People who had their houses destroyed were waiting for their USD$2000 in emergency aid months after being made homeless by the earthquake. Meanwhile the reconstruction authority, basically, would not begin work (source).

Spurred on by the need for survival many people stopped waiting for government aid (source) and began reconstruction themselves. International NGOs and volunteer organisations helped and hindered. There was a catch-22 occurring. If you repaired a house yourself it might not be to earthquake resistant standards but at the same time may no longer qualify for reconstruction aid when it did arrive (source, sourcesourcesource).

There was also a recent development of child slavery in Nepal taking place (source) which further fueled the worry over NGOs in Nepal often cited as being corrupt.

Nepal’s profitable international volunteer influx

Volunteering in Nepal has always had a dark side. Orphanages in particular have long been a problem with dubious records and for profit silent objectives. Post earthquake international volunteers have arrived in their thousands. Many are simply not qualified. Building a house can be done locally – there’s no need to come here to do this. The results of coming here to do so have changed the culture of Nepal to dramatically negative levels.

Missing buildings in Kathmandu post earthquake

Entire buildings in Kathmandu have been razed as makeshift new streets appear where there was none before

As people waited endlessly for the Nepalese government to provide aid, individuals and teams of international volunteers arrived en masse with money and equipment. Suddenly light bulbs went off in both well meaning and needy people along with corrupted people. Volunteers = money (source).

Many private volunteer agencies also saw the financial benefit of “helping Nepal” (just Google volunteer in Nepal to see the mass of pay to volunteer agencies). Fundraising at home, charging volunteers money and and exorbitant expense fees. Just last week I sat in a cafe doing a review when I overheard two people from the USA discussing how they were charging USD$200 per volunteer application!

The volunteerism effect on culture in Nepal

You’ll need to excuse my lack of political correctness here. But sometimes things need to be said as they are. 5 years ago you would be hard pressed to see a Nepalese girl holding hands with a local boy on the streets. Let alone a non-national boy. This is just how relatively conservative Nepal was.

Post earthquake this has become far more common. Nepalese girls with foreign men. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this pre-se however why has all this happened post earthquake as opposed to the year before the earthquake?

Looking at the cross-cultural couples it’s strikingly obvious that the couples are nearly always Nepalese local and a foreign volunteer. It’s human nature for relationships to develop if you spend several months working in a community in a rural village.

Small community house in Nepal

Communities have been changed forever in Nepal – not by the earthquake but by the cultural invasion of volunteers

The apparent dangers are largely ignored though. The foreign influence both culturally and financially on local traditional values in Nepal is damaging and largely irreversible. Nepal’s culture is vast and complicated. It’s by and largely conservative with traditional values based on belief systems. Arranged marriages still out weigh love marriages (no matter what your guide will tell you). Today those and many other traditional values are fast disappearing as they have in other popular volunteer countries (source, source).

A father looking at his daughters attraction to a young foreign volunteer would once raise scorn. Today that father see’s the possibility of hope, money and a brighter future should his daughter marry a “foreigner”.

Controversial and not politically correct I know. But these are the changes happening in Nepal post earthquake. How many volunteers have had cultural training before coming to Nepal? I would say 5% based on established UN and VSO training practices.

Add to this the increase in heavily financed “missionaries” delivering aid in conjunction with strongly and publicly spreading the word of their religion have buckled many with local beliefs.

Nepal will not learn from other countries mistakes so it’s up to the end-user considering to volunteer in country to consider the potential damage they seem to be doing (source).

Volunteers bring in money

If you visit Nepal today the restaurants are profiting from volunteers who like to eat out. Weekends are busy in Thamel and in the Kathmandu clubs too. However ask a local souvenir shop owner how business is and he’ll tell you no one is buying. Volunteers usually only buy before leaving and by then they’ve figured out where the wholesalers are.

Likewise hotels are only at 50% for this first tourist season. Volunteers stay in apartments, houses or home-stays. The listings of apartments and accommodation in Kathmandu is overrun with volunteers looking for pristine housing at premium prices. Then there are volunteers looking for dirt cheap accommodation … the same one’s that locals are looking for. The same locals in need of housing. The cost of renting has sky rocketed since the earthquake. Again, think about the homeless since the earthquake who can’t afford these high rents.

Here’s another thing to consider. These volunteers are spending money in places where most of the wealthy have businesses. Landlords, wholesalers, volunteer agencies etc. While there is a trickle down effect it’s marginal. Meanwhile, tourism numbers look to be on the rise by this volunteer influx and I guarantee there will be inflated tourism figures released next month due to this (source).

One must realistically look at the damage “pay-to-volunteers” cause vs the benefits (source). At the very least there needs to be national regulatory body overseeing volunteers in Nepal … but it’s Nepal so the chances of that happening are very slim. There is some hope though as volunteers in other parts of the world understand the shortfalls (source).

China takes full advantage of Nepal post-earthquake

Ever since the constitutional crises and subsequent “blockade”, China has been leapfrogging their long-term strategy to get a foothold in Nepal. And it’s working.

Back in 2012 China Bank opened for business in Nepal meaning the Chinese could send money into Nepal with ease. Getting money out is harder but it usually comes in the form of antiquities, black-market exports and cold hard cash (source, source, source).

2013 and 2014 (pre-earthquake) saw more Chinese tourists in Nepal than ever before. Most come on package tours which were lead by Nepalese companies owned by the rich. This has changed and instead of a trickle down effect a large majority of today’s profits are never even entering into Nepal.

Today, walk down Southern Thamel near Jyatha and you’ll see countless Chinese hotels, exporters, tour operators and language schools. This is further fueled on by lucrative financial deals made with China at the highest levels on down. Much of this has even resulted in free visas for Chinese nationals to Nepal (source).

Dare I ask if there are free visas coming to the rest of the world who have supported Nepal for decades?

Chinatown in Kathmandu

Part of Kathmandu looks like China now …

Its stunning to see how many Chinese businesses have opened here. Most exporting goods one way or another out of Nepal. Meanwhile there is a huge rise of Chinese-male to Nepalese-female marriages. Why?

It’s simple. Foreigners can’t own land in Nepal. But they can get married and stay here. Have a baby and then you can put all the land, businesses and money in their name and remain the sole foreign guardian. Sounds daft but it’s how things are working now. Just see what’s happening in The Philippines or Malaysia where this has been common practice for several generations now.

The result: a high volume of high profit export businesses. Local business are bought out by the Chinese (this is already happening). While in about two generations, second generation Chinese / Nepalese children will be entering politics in Nepal.

While the above is a grim reality there seems like very little can be done to stop it without harsh measures being taken. Something Nepal is nowhere near capable of achieving given the current situation.

The positive side of Nepal since the Earthquake

As you may have figured out this side of the article will be considerably shorter than the negative part. That’s not to say the negative side completely outweighs the positive. In someways it doesn’t. It just depends on your views on the future of this Himalayan nation.

Nepalese girls during Holi

Festivals and life continues on in Nepal

Nepal is still standing no matter how the international media portrays it

There’s still a perception that Nepal was flattened by the 2015 earthquake. This is simply NOT true. Throughout the past year I’ve met countless new tourists who have literally said “Where’s the damage?” If you’ve never been to Nepal as an average tourist it’s hard to see the damage. Is Nepal safe to visit? Yes.

Yes, if you visit some rural villages or the outskirts of Kathmandu you will see broken housing. The damage is everywhere, but it’s not that visible to most tourists.

Take a look at the skyline of Patan to see the before and after earthquake shots.

Kathmandu Durbar Square is sadly the one exception. Then again it was a political mess before the earthquake destroyed the southern temples. I can write an entire article at how badly this world heritage site has been managed over the past ten years. But, we are trying to keep positive here. As a new tourist you’ll still get a good couple of hours out of visiting it. But it is a mess and I strongly advise you to take extended old city tours (Kathmandu Valley Guidebook) to substitute the squares neglect and mismanagement.

Kathmandu Durbar Square (Basantapur) today

Kathmandu Durbar Square (Basantapur) still stands today though it’s badly mismanaged

Visit Chitwan, Pokhara or Bardia as a tourist and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any visible damage. Go to rural central Nepal and you will see the post-earthquake homeless still waiting for aid just as Britain’s Prince Harry did (source).

Nepal is getting tourists back

Last years peak tourist season saw a dramatic drop in tourists number compared to the previous year. Ignoring inflated official figures hoteliers have said they had 25% occupancy in Nepal (source). This is exactly the same figure I am finding here myself too. So I believe it.

This first 2016 peak season it looks to have increased to 50% during March. It’s too early yet for “official” figures but my own figures and word of mouth indicate this to be correct.

Barring more fuel blockades or political mishaps I believe that come Septembers peak season Nepal will be averaging 70-80% of tourists compared to 2014.

People no longer rely on the government for help

The first part of this article pretty much covers why this is. Sufficed to say that should there be another natural disaster the people of Nepal will not wait for national help (source).

Cultural heritage reconstruction is happening … slowly

It’s taken nearly 8 months for any reconstruction work on heritage sites to begin in Nepal.

Last month saw the first temple reconstructed in Nepal (source). Not to take away from this but this German funded endeavor took place on a very small temple shrine beside the massive and historically important Changu Narayan temple which is desperately in need of reconstruction.

Heritage reconstruction in Panauti Nepal

Heritage reconstruction has slowly begun on certain projects within the Kathmandu Valley

Meanwhile the Department of Archaeology has begun some work on the Taleju temple in Durbar Square (with USA embassy funds). And at a small Narayan temple in Panauti. In Bhaktapur reconstruction has begun with massive funding from the German Government (source). In Boudha and Swayambunath private funding have escalated repairs. Likewise the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust is carrying out repairs in Patan.

Perhaps more importantly the authorities in charge of cultural heritage have listened to the many people who encouraged them to re-build traditionally.

As someone close to the situation:

You would not believe how close we were to seeing centuries old temples being rebuilt in concrete!

Think money, overseas deals, corruption and little sense.

Wildlife conservation is going from strength to strength in Nepal

Successful wildlife conservation is not what you might expect to find in Nepal. But Nepal is bucking international trends and has shown no increase in rhino poaching for over three years (source). Tiger populations are also increasing (source). And poachers are being caught regularly (source).

How is this possible is a country so devastated by an earthquake a year ago? Perhaps the right people are in charge of conservation in Nepal. It’s not all good news though. Politicians are arguing about replacing conservation sites with foreign aid financed hydro-power plants (source).

Likewise it’s surprising to see so much hostility come from international animal rights activists when it comes to successful conservation in Nepal. Taking everything into consideration Nepal’s conservation of wildlife as a whole is working. Perhaps other countries should take notes from Nepal’s success in this area!

Digital Preservation of Cultural Heritage has arrived in Nepal

I have to shout about this a bit as it’s a project I have worked very hard on over the past year. We have been the first to bring digital archaeology and 3D preservation to the country to help save Nepal’s cultural past. With the help of the Institute of Digital Archaeology in Oxford we’ve used their 3D cameras and our own technology to help digitally preserve many of Nepal’s remaining monuments.

It’s a massive undertaking that’s working better than we ever envisaged. The Digital Archaeology Foundation was set up as a last bastion to preserve Nepal’s cultural heritage due to the astonishing lack of documentation on these buildings and artifacts not being recorded in Nepal. Let alone the bureaucratic quagmire that have led many buildings to fall into undocumented ruin pre and post-earthquake.

3D render of a temple in Nepal

Digital preservation of Nepal’s cultural heritage is saving the past today for tomorrows generations

Our ethos is quite simple – we are preserving Nepal’s cultural heritage today, for the generations of tomorrow.

It’s been an exhausting year trying to accomplish this but we are so very happy at what we’ve accomplished so far. So much thanks is due to Amir the country director here in Nepal for his outstanding dedication and personal sacrifice to help preserve Nepal’s heritage.

The past year is just the start of our three phase plan. Do please check out our digital archaeology project in Nepal for more information.

A year of lessons not learned … for Nepal

One year later and only one in a thousand people have received government aid. Of that it’s only a meager grant of USD$2,000, or part thereof, and that was only released a few weeks ago. 770,000 homes have received nothing. That’s not including the estimated 4 million people that were displaced (source).

Yesterday, while government ministers took to a remembrance ceremony #HelpQuakeVictimNepal trended number 1 on Twitter as the youth of Nepal made their voices heard.

Their message to the hierarchy was clear:

Nepal was remembering the dead, but not the survivors

The question now is who was listening to their messages? And if they were listening did it have an effect? What’s more, what will happen if deaf ears continue to be turned away from the very real plight of the masses?

Perhaps the old guards dislocated deaf ears will be its downfall.

Nepal’s future is …

So that’s been the past year here in Nepal from my own perspective. I know it won’t be to everyone’s liking but sometimes some raw reality of what’s happening in Nepal is what people need to raise awareness.

Nepal has changed since the earthquake in ways I did not expect. It does sadden me not to see the country I’d fallen in love with 10 years ago change so very quickly.

Man waving Nepalese flag

Nepal’s future lies at the feet of it’s people

Part of the reason I’ve returned to Nepal so many times is the unique blend of harmonious, diverse and traditional cultures here. The unique Newari architecture and cultural heritage which can be found no where else on the planet. The diverse environments of the mountainous Himal, lush valleys of the Pahad and the steaming jungles / plains of the Terrai.

With 5 seasons the climate is ever changing and enjoyable.

Though cliche in many parts of the world it’s the people of Nepal that keep me here. Those smiles, the honesty, the friendliness, the sense of humor, the kindness and the fun.

… moving forward

Nepal’s future is moving forward. I’m often too conservative and value tradition a lot. However I’m doing my best this year to look to the future. Time moves forward and cultures have changed since they first appeared on the planet.

While reminiscing on the past is easy and enjoyable it’s important to move with the times. Today’s Nepal is not the Nepal of one year ago. It can’t be. One must also move with this change if one is to progress or dither into nostalgic literature for solus.

Given that, I’m hoping when the reconstruction does begin architects will build something better than the current bland concrete buildings going up. I’d much rather show people something interesting about today’s new emerging culture than just dull grey concrete blocks.

Graffiti in Kathmandu

Nepal has changed … there’s no going back, we can only charge forward taking the past with us – this artist seems to agree

Perhaps I’m not the only one who thinks this way …

In the coming year there will be great change in Nepal again. It’s inevitable. The very core of Nepalese society has changed since the earthquake.

What changes will occur? That will be up to the Nepalese people themselves as they know better than anyone else what has happened to them over the past year.

Nepal’s future is rightfully in the hands of its people whether they realize it or not.

The year ahead may finally be known as: Nepal’s great awakening.


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26 Great responses to Nepal: one year after the earthquake

  1. Charlie says:

    We visited Nepal this year. We purposely took a taxi out to a damaged village. The taxi overcharging was one thing. But the lack of rebuilding reeked of neglect.

  2. Misha says:

    How can this be allowed to happen? Your article explains how. But it still upsets me to know so little has been done.

  3. Erika says:

    Wow. I’ve been reading some earthquake posts but this is certainly the most indepth. Well done.

  4. Luke says:

    Good advice for all volunteers thinking of going to Nepal. Get some cultural training before you go.

  5. Abegail says:

    Heartfelt post. The information is well researched and enlightening to get a perspective from the ground rather than detached media.

  6. Timothy says:

    Great read. I hope the raw honesty in this post instills some change in Nepal.

  7. Anna's World says:

    Incredible article Dave. Well done for taking so much time to tell the real truth of what’s happening on the ground in Nepal. It’s so difficult with the fall of modern media journalism to really know what’s going on.

  8. Ram says:

    It’s been so sad to read so much over the past few days. Most media focused on the people in villages. Refreshing to see such a wide prespective here. Thank you sir

  9. Derek R says:

    If an earthquake its California I wonder what the difference would be?

  10. Gordon says:

    It’s amazing to think that one year ago people had their homes destroyed. Today, they still have no homes. Why did we donate money?

  11. Lee says:

    Outstanding piece. The suffering of the Nepalese people rests on their own shoulders. Rich or poor, they have a choice.

  12. Charbs says:

    A really riveting and inspirational piece (in all the wrong ways) that moved me. I was there last year during the earthquake and saw first hand the experience in front of me (Kathmandu). I just came back from KTM yesterday after a 5 day trip and sadly everything you mentioned in this blog was what I witnessed. I did come back inspired to try to take a few weeks off of work and volunteer (or so I thought?). After going through a few websites, some were charging upwards of $2000, or 200,00NPR!! Then I stumbled upon your article and I am glad that I did. I was wondering if you could recommend or point me in the right direction of a legitimate NGO who’s focus is on the better well being of the country and it’s people rather than on their pockets. I will be very grateful. Thank you again for this great piece and I look forward to reading more.

    • I wrote something about volunteering in Nepal here. Other than very large voluntary orgs there’s little out there that I truly recommend in regards to actually wanting help. Many contact me but I don’t have the time to investigate these agencies to see if they are genuine or not. You might try the UNHCR or WHO and ask if they have any recommendations. Details of which are on the link.

  13. carrentalschandigarh says:

    You did a great job Dave. Well done for taking so much time to tell us about Nepal. This is very heart touching post and I like “The positive side of Nepal since the Earthquake” most in this post. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Great article, thanks for sharing your experience! Cheers!