By Robin Low - Co-founder of Civil Innovation Lab
In 2015, Nepal was hit by 2 earthquakes that caused more than 9,000 deaths, more than 20,000 injured and more than half a million homeless. Nepal was already vulnerable before the earthquake, and earthquake, which created a dire situation left more people vulnerable.
1 year after the earthquake, there is not much progress to show. Local officials are stalling in disaster relief planning, and even with the large amounts of funds donated, nothing is built. Many locals who lost their homes a year ago were still waiting in tents or temporary housing.
I was in Nepal in 2015 following the earthquake, and worked with various communities running the last mile of disaster relief. There was a large donors’ meeting where billions were pledged, and some of the government officials met with several experts to seek innovative and sustainable way for disaster recovery, and things were looking positive.
A month after the earthquake, the situation on lack of access to food, medical supplies and shelter was getting better and the tents are getting delivered. Tens of thousands of people were given temporary shelters and promised support on building sustainable homes. Meanwhile, the international community raised more donations and billions more were pledged.
I was working with several organizations on finding ways for the survivors to make more income to rebuild, and promoting tourism and conscious consumerism, along with Nepalese exports. I have had constant contact with several locals in Nepal and I get updates on the progress. The cleaning up efforts to remove rubble was progressing at a slow but continuous pace.
Slow reconstruction hampered by a blockade.
Months later, after Nepal completed their constitution, an unofficial blockade happened, preventing fuel and other necessities from getting shipped over the Indian Border. Without fuel, a lot of reconstruction came to a standstill. But the slow reconstruction is not just due to the blockade. The Nepalese government took 9 months to fully set up the National Reconstruction Authority, and after it was set up, there is still a lot of red tape before any real reconstruction is allowed to happen. Further, the new reconstruction guidelines that are still developing are confusing and limiting.
Billions of dollars for reconstruction is virtually untouched. Many big International NGOs that owns fleets of new expensive vehicles have not carried out any construction despite the frustrations voiced by their donors. To make things worse, some large NGOs like the Lutheran World Federation and other faith-based charities are caught giving bibles along with blankets, which prompted the government to stop all organizations from carrying out their work without permits.
The 135-day blockade not only delayed reconstruction, without fuel, the task of delivering blankets to the communities in the higher elevation was impossible, resulting in many deaths due to the exposure to extreme weather.
In April 2016, the government started to disburse funds slowly to the survivors to rebuild their homes, but as the monsoon season is coming, construction would have to be delayed further, and survivors have to survive the hot weather under Tin Roof. As the temporary housing is built on their farms, many of these farmers in the rural areas can do nothing but to wait as they do not have money to rebuild and they can carry on farming as they now live on the land they can farm on. They live without electricity, and risk their homes getting blown away in the upcoming monsoon season, one which they have already endured last year.
Bureaucracy as Usual
Even when there is a dire need for aid and support in many areas, to the government, it was bureaucracy as usual. Many smaller organizations were slapped with taxes or have their aid confiscated as they did not pay taxes for the things they brought in and were considered to have smuggled.
Organizations can still distribute imported goods without paying taxes but they have to get permission from seven different ministries and register with the National Emergency Operational Centre (NEOC). This is a lengthy process which could take months, delaying the progress of recovery.
There is also poor communication within the government, and permits are needed to carry out relief work. Those organizations that are building homes in the villages need to get their plans through various agencies which eventually loop them back to the original agency.
There is much confusion on how projects would be implemented. As there are funds available for reconstruction, disbursement is slow and full of red tape. If a school wants to pay for its own reconstruction, no one knows where they can apply permits from.
Even social projects needs to be passed by the social welfare council. And it is a lengthy process and takes a long time for anything to be approved. The bureaucracy seemed to focus to hinder and discourage reconstruction efforts. Even the survivors were told not to rebuild their homes.
Amateur Volunteer Groups and Charities
Many people see the suffering of the survivors and decided to proceed with some construction without getting permits. Some local schools have paid contractors to build the buildings; however, due to the low and limited budgets, and lack of permit, these low cost contractors build unsustainable structures which are barely earthquake proof. To make things worse, many foreign groups are also funding and joining the building. These buildings are built by unskilled workers without any knowledge of engineering or science.
Without proper foundations and support, these buildings are hazardous, and a large waste of funds, once again showing that good intentions are not enough. Without knowing the whole story, more volunteers join in the building, some rebuilding over unstable building build less than 6 months ago, creating another building without proper support and generating more waste.
Volunteers go to destroyed villages, but without much coordination and communication, some of these areas see too many volunteers working on the same survivors, while in some other more remote villages, they have to travel days to reach any medical support, of which some may not have enough medicine.
For example, only after 10 months after the earthquake, the first medical team reached Sindhupalchowk where many survivors did not have any medical assistance since the earthquake, and they are one of the more devastated areas.
Volunteers from various schools from Singapore joined in the reconstruction efforts. Some even joined in rebuilding schools. An effort with good intentions most commendable, however, unlike what they learn from the books, there is some skills involved in mixing concrete and constructing buildings. Simply adding concrete to cinder blocks, and stacking them up does not make a stable structure. While the students congratulate themselves for a job well done as a school was built without permits or engineers, the structure collapsed later, injuring kids, prompting more bureaucracy and permits now for reconstruction of even a single floor building, thanks to the collapse. However, they still did not learn that building school is not like playing Legos. More students will return this June to try to “do good” and hopefully no one gets hurt while they are in Nepal.
Unskilled labor and poor materials plague reconstruction of Heritage sites.
Nepal is home to various UNESCO world heritage sites. Across Nepal, more than 500 temples and historical buildings were damaged or destroyed. But compared to the plight of human suffering, this restoration may feel less urgent.
In Nepal, the building architecture is very unique, and sadly, not widely studied. There are Buddhist and Hindu traditions side by side and in many temples, a touch of Tibetan influence. And every day, these damaged buildings are exposed to the weather, it further risks more damaged caused by rain and erosion.
Even with billions of dollars set aside for reconstruction of the heritage sites, the permits, planning and management of the reconstruction is slow. 1 year after the earthquake, the reconstruction has just begun.
In Patan, the Durbar Square is a good example of properly restoration effort, however, in the past, some of these UNESCO sites like the Kathmandu Durbar Square were repaired with the lowest tender, and many details of the buildings were destroyed, and the rebuilding was not done properly done with many temples collapsing from the earthquake.
Local communities to the rescue
With a lot of confused small volunteer groups and inactive large international NGOs, there are also communities in Nepal who know exactly what the needs of their relatives are in the destroyed villages. Some of the more fortunate survivors living in Kathmandu experienced less magnitude of destruction and are able to return to work as usual.
These businessmen, artists, workers are able earn money and set aside some funds to send back to the villages to help their relatives. Many local fundraising projects are done to support the survivors of Sindhupalchowk and the other heavily damaged areas where volunteers and international NGO fail to reach.
As the government just declared the disbursements of funds for reconstruction, a few local groups are helping the survivors navigate through the bureaucracy to get their first US$500, and eventually US$2,000. Which is not really enough to build a home, but it is a start.
As the tents and temporary housing as slowly deteriorating, many local groups buy new canvas or tarpaulin to patch the leaking tents and roof and make them more weather proof.
The impacts from the local groups are generally large, but their funding negligible compared to the billions donated by the international community.
An American organization called Conscious Impact is hiring locals to build bricks in Sindhupalchowk for rebuilding schools and later homes. They are one of the few foreign organizations doing good work and seem to create lasting impact on the ground.
Moving Forward, how should the international community help?
It is hard to change the government and the way things are going to be played out in Nepal. Clearly, with more than US$4 billion donated, more donations to these large international NGOs is not going to be much different.
A good start would be visiting Nepal, which could uplift the economy of the country by tourism. The businesses can hire more employees. Another way would be buying Nepal Spices and Handicrafts. These would help small scale farmer earn more.
I’m starting a Solar Forward Project, a “pay it forward model” to introduce solar kits consisting of a solar panel, LED light bulbs and a phone charger, to allow people in the rural community to increase productivity by working at night. When they earn enough money, they would buy another kit for someone else in the village. Working with a newly formed group called Rural Development Initiative and the Nepal Innovation Lab in Nepal funded by World Vision, the impact can be studied and project pivoted, and the reports and models that are successful can be shared.
Working with several local artists in Nepal, I’m also starting “Art Impact – Nepal” with them. “Art Impact – Nepal” is an event run by Lumbini World Peace Forum and Civil Innovation Lab, where a few Nepali artists will travel to a city and do an art exhibition in a public space or a gallery. The artist will share and educate the rich culture and art from Nepal, and talk about Thangkas, Mithilas and other traditional art from Nepal.
Partnering the Academy of Fine Arts in Nepal, “Art Impact – Nepal” will be at AS220 Gallery in Providence from 21st – 26th May and at Rosarito Art Festival on 28th and 29th May 2016. “Art Impact – Nepal” will also be going over to Singapore in August 2016 and is working to look for suitable venues for the event.
“Art Impact – Nepal” is not just an art show. As part of “Art Impact – Nepal”, the artists will share life experience on how the earthquake affected them and their work, and the progress of the reconstruction projects they see in Nepal (first hand). There will also be handicrafts available for sale, and “Conscious Consumerism”, a new mindset will be shared.
Instead of complaining about the lack of progress on recovery, I have decided to take action and hopefully leverage on art for disaster recovery. With Conscious Consumerism, I would like to change the current model of disaster recovery from a “Donor – Recipient” model to a “Conscious Buyer – Generator of Wealth”. The recipients have to create quality sustainable products for the buyers to buy because of its value. This way, I hope that the beneficiary of the model will get one thing which he can never get from the traditional model – dignity.
So what can you offer to support Nepal and stand with them in solidarity?
CIVIL INNOVATION LAB is the overarching organization of a series of initiatives dedicated to transform inefficiencies, bridge gaps, address value creation and connect stakeholders.