What has happened in Nepal since the 2015 earthquake
I originally wrote this on April 25th 2016, one year after the earthquake. Now it’s April 25th 2017 and little has changed. That is the sad fact of post earthquake Nepal. Read on for some on-the-ground facts the hold no punches.
It’s exactly two years 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 Nepali Government has failed its people
4.3 billion US dollars was not spent on a single brick of reconstruction in Nepal over the first 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 only started to work in 2016 (source).
Why has this happened?
One blatant word: corruption. And quite frankly the 130 political parties in this tiny nation are woefully unskilled.
Following the earthquake the near 10 year overdue Nepali 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 Nepali 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. In late 2015 and early 2016 it was different though. There were very few protests aside from at the border. 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.
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 has become 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, source, source, source).
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.
As people waited endlessly for the Nepali 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 volunteer 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. Nepali 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.
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.
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?
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.
More on the post-earthquake cultural decline of Nepal
On the ground there is a resurgence of authoritarianism. In 2016 it was “discovered” that after 19 years of electricity shortages (up to 18 hours a day) that various corporations were illegally buying this electricity so the public went without. Again, this was all unknown until one offical discovered it. Virtually overnight 24 hour electricity returned to Nepal.
There were a few protests but they were disbanded. Ask a local why after 19 years of people dieing on electricity starved hospitals, businesses failing, high importation tax on fuel nothing more was said or done … the answer is that they will be arrested for speaking out.
“Less than 100,000 of the 525,000 required houses have been rebuilt or are under construction, according to the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), tasked with overseeing rebuilding.”(source)
Foreigner workers from certain countries have had business visas revoked under “newly discovered” laws. Journalists have been told not to visit any protests (source).
The media is quiet from the inside out in Nepal
Heritage sites linger in states of disrepair as those elected to rebuild them select “lowest bidders” who are rebuilding in cheap concrete. Ancient sacred buildings lose their status as heritage sites alongside illegal reconstruction of private buildings. Over one hundred year old rest houses are knocked down for road expansion (source).
Local communities are fighting to keep their heritage alive. Organizations like http://kasthamandap.org have formed to help rebuild Kathmandu’s oldest building using community funds due to the local muniicpality using concrete to rebuild. However this is only one community out of hundreds who are not able to protect other destroyed heritage sites.
Meanwhile Kathmandu city has become one of the most polluted in the world (source).
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.
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.
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
2015’s 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 found in Nepal here myself. So I believe it.
This first 2016 peak season looks to have increased to 50% during March.While for all of 2016 it was up 25% according to official figures (source). However it should be noted that records are not exact in Nepal and these figures vary wildly depending on who is reporting it.
Barring more fuel blockades or political mishaps I believe that come the end of 2017’s peak season Nepal will be averaging 100% of tourists compared to pre-earthquake 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.
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. Only to find out in 2017 that they still went with the cheapest bidder so many projects have been halted as local communities block bad reconstruction work.
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.
Is it no wonder then that very little has actually been restored.
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.
Our ethos is quite simple – we are preserving Nepal’s cultural heritage today, for the generations of tomorrow.
It’s been an exhausting few years trying to accomplish this but we are so very happy at what we’ve accomplished so far.
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.
Several years of lessons not learned … for Nepal
Two years later and only less than 100,000 of the 525,000 required houses have been rebuilt. For many it’s only a meager grant of USD$2,000, or part thereof, and that was only released last year. Numbers keep fluctuating from 770,000 homes that have received nothing to those that are no longer qualified. That’s not including the estimated 4 million people that were displaced (source).
This year for the second year running there seems to be little done as a memorial to the earthquake nor it’s victims. Perhaps there will be a last minute get together …
The message from the hierarchy is clear:
Nepal remembers the dead, but not the survivors
The question now is who was listening to the 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. Or perhaps they are well aware of this hence little is spoken out about these days.
Nepal’s future is …
So that’s been the past two years here in Nepal. 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.
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 again. 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 or even two years ago. It can’t be. One must also move with this change if one is to progress or dither into nostalgic literature for remembrance.
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.
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 Nepali society has changed since the earthquake.
What changes will occur? That will be up to the Nepali people themselves as they know better than anyone else what has happened to them over the past year.
On April 24th 2017 a small earthquake hit Sindhupalchok in Nepal a faint reminder of the past the few are heeding for the future (source).
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.
A few updates: Thamel 10 years of change & Pokhara’s Lakeside over ten years of change will give more insight into Nepal’s rebuilding. My guidebook below has been noted as being the only guidebook throughout the earthquake and subsequent years to be kept fully up-to-date.
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