A month after quake, Nepal struggles to return to normal
Donatella Lorch, KATHMANDU: Schools in Nepal will reopen Sunday, just over a month after this poor Himalayan nation was hit by a devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake.
Most classrooms will be outdoors, sheltered under tarpaulins, in a stark reminder of the earth’s horrific power and the growing effort to bring life back to a semblance of normalcy.
But normalcy may take years to recreate. The April 25 earthquake killed more than 8,500 people and injured 18,000. It destroyed a half-million homes and left more than 3 million homeless. More than 32,000 classrooms were destroyed.
In many of the most devastated areas, schools may not reopen. In the badly hit districts of Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk and Nuwakot, the government estimates that 90% of schools collapsed. In the Kathmandu Valley, more than half the school buildings have been used as emergency shelters.
Another concern is whether teachers who have lost families and homes will return along with students who may have moved away.
For those who show up at school, UNICEF is providing school supplies expected to last three months. For the first few weeks, the students will not learn from books, but will focus on play and discussions aimed at coming to grips with the earthquake’s aftermath, according to the Nepal government.
The government has declared the emergency phase of the disaster over, but relief still has not reached remote villages cut off by landslides. The World Food Program has hired 20,000 unemployed porters to carry food and tarps to these areas.
“We broke three four-wheel drive vehicles just to get to Marpak in Dhading District” five hours from the paved road, said Naryantara Gurung Kakshapati, 33, who is overseeing the Himalayan Disaster Relief Volunteer Group, which delivers food and tarps to Nepal’s hinterlands. He said a team of volunteer mountaineers hiked three days over landslides to assess the needs of several villages.
Aid from the world community is only trickling in: just $9.4 million has been received out of $423 million pledged.
The monsoon rains start in a few weeks, which means farmers should be harvesting their wheat now and preparing to plant other crops for the rainy season. But seed and planting utensils are buried in the rubble, which increases the danger of new landslides on bare mountains. Already 3,000 possible landslide sites have been identified by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. Villages will need to be relocated and new land will have to be identified and allocated.
The government has promised to send public workers and volunteers to every affected village to assess the damage and determine who needs additional assistance. It said it will provide stipends and housing subsidies — aided by the World Bank — to help residents rebuild houses that are more earthquake resilient.
In Kathmandu, tens of thousands still live in tent camps in two big parks, under tarps on the banks of the capital’s fetid rivers and along main roads.
The government has ordered homeowners to demolish houses built in violation of the building code or pay to have the government do it. Authorities are tagging buildings red, yellow or green, depending on whether they pass or fail inspection. The color can depend on the inspector as much as the condition of the building. One hotel first passed its inspection and got a green tag, but was tagged red later by a second inspector.
Red-tagged high-rise apartment buildings and large malls covered in giant jagged cracks remain untouched. Scores of teetering, partially collapsed buildings in tightly-packed neighborhoods pose challenges for demolition experts.
The government has declared that new buildings cannot be higher than three floors and must be built according to earthquake-resilient specifications. But it is unclear how many residents are heeding the instructions. Buildings all over Kathmandu are undergoing visibly shoddy repairs with plaster and bricks rather than concrete.
Despite the planned reopening of schools, Kathmandu is still far from normal. More than 300,000 people, mostly migrant workers from India and Nepal’s Terai area, left after the earthquake, stalling construction and shutting most men’s haircutting shops. Weddings have been postponed, leaving party venues shuttered.
After a magnitude-7.3 aftershock on May 12, few patrons visit restaurants on upper floors. There is no one to repair electronic devices or build new houses. Nepal’s most wanted commodity, corrugated iron sheets used for temporary roofing, is impossible to find, and structural engineers are nearly as scarce.
As it copes with continuing short-term needs, the government already is developing a long-term plan for rebuilding based on the successes of post-earthquake reconstruction in similar rural communities in India’s Gujarat state and in Kashmir, Pakistan.
“The relief phase is over and Nepal needs to (look) at international investments on job creation and entrepreneurship development along with aid,” said Sujeev Shakya, author of Unleashing Nepal: Past Present and Future of the Economy. “The selfless volunteerism should be leveraged … to unleash the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
::This aerial view taken from a Nepal army military helicopter shows a relief camp for earthquake survivors in Kathmandu.
(Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara, AFP/Getty Images) (Source: USA TODAY)