Monday, November 9, 2015

Nepal earthquake: Six months on, survivors face prospect of winter without shelter amid political upheaval, fuel shortage

PHOTO: Buildings destroyed by this year's earthquake are yet to be rebuilt. (ABC: James Bennett)

By South Asia correspondent James Bennett:

Thousands of earthquake-affected communities in Nepal's mountains are facing up to the grim prospect of a Himalayan winter under a tarpaulin.

As if the challenge of rebuilding lives and homes was not enough, their country has been enduring a political upheaval which has compounded their difficulties, delaying aid and denying them essential supplies.

Earthquake and landslide-damaged roads have meant the village of Bigu, north-east of the capital Kathmandu, has not seen a vehicle since April.

Elder Nima Chuiri Sherpa reflected the fears of roughly 600 people who call the locality home.

"It has already started getting cold, and it might even snow in the next couple of days," he said as he glanced to snow-capped peaks above the village.

Few have accommodation suitable for such conditions.

"All the roads are broken, so we can't get any supplies," Mr Sherpa said.

"We're not getting any relief material from the government, so we're all in a very desperate situation."

Survivors face winter without shelter

Basic food, like rice and lentils, provided by the World Food Program, has been hauled up on foot by the villagers themselves.

It is a 12-hour journey down to a depot then back up the steep tracks, shouldering a 30-kilogram load.

The porters are paid around $US10 ($14) for their labour, under the WFP's remote access operation.

That money is typically spent on basic essentials like food and clothing, but with snow already on the surrounding hills, shelter was on the everyone's minds.

"I don't have a house yet, we're still trying to build it," porter Amrita Pandi explained.

"I need to make a house before winter but I don't have the money.

"I'm really worried for my children, I don't know what to do.

"I am living in a cow shelter right now."

PHOTO: Children are among those facing a winter without shelter in Nepal. (ABC: James Bennett)

Another mother, 25-year-old Binita Thami, lost everything, food and clothing included, when the quake ruined her home.

"I am very worried because I don't have warm clothes and it gets really cold here during the winter," she said.

"It is going to be very difficult to survive this season."

New government delays reconstruction taskforce

The quake aftermath generated a rush of political activity in Nepal, with the country passing a new constitution in September that required the government to be dissolved and a replacement formed.

That has come at a cost for quake victims awaiting assistance, as the new administration is yet to re-establish a reconstruction taskforce with the authority to distribute money promised to help pay for new homes.

More than $4 billion was donated in the aftermath.

Each affected household was promised approximately $US2,000 (about $2,800), but in Bigu, residents have only received about $US150 ($210).

"We're still waiting for government to help us and give us directions," elder Nima Chuiri Sherpa said.

"Right now, we don't have the money and are all living in a temporary shelter."
PHOTO: Villagers have been living in flimsy temporary shelters while they wait for reconstruction to begin. (ABC: James Bennett)

Despite the impending cold, people said they were also unwilling to build structures that might not conform to new standards, for fear they could be knocked down.

Those guidelines were to have been drafted by now, but bickering amongst Nepal's politicians over who would head the authority has been blamed for the delay.

The country's new prime minister KP Sharma Oli agreed the process was taking too long.

"Until now, I'm not that much happy with the progress," he said, adding that he hoped legislation to re-establish the reconstruction authority would pass parliament within a fortnight.

Responding to earlier concerns from international donors and aid agencies, Mr Oli also promised rigorous oversight of the spending.

"The reconstruction work ... it will be done in a transparent way, and with a very clear accounts system," he said.

Fuel shortage adds to woes

Nepal's new constitution has also proved divisive, prompting minorities in the country's south to blockade a key supply route from India, starving Nepal of fuel and other essentials.

Ethnic Madeshi and Tharu people from the Terai plains bordering India believe some provisions in the new charter are designed to weaken them politically.
Key amongst their grievances, the constitution set provincial boundaries different to those previously foreshadowed, ultimately denying the Madeshis a home state.

Despite clashes between police and protesters claiming more than 40 lives so far, they have vowed to maintain their blockade until they win concessions.

Not only have the ensuing shortages had a severe effect on Nepal's economy, inability to procure fuel also temporarily halted aid agencies' work.

"The fuel crisis has had a severe effect," Oxfam country director Cecilia Keizer said.

"We still have to deliver more than 5,000 shelters in the higher areas," she said.

PHOTO: Bigu community leader Nima Chuiri Sherpa believes his people will band together to survive the winter. (ABC: James Bennett)

"I think this is the case for most aid organisations."

Save the Children said it was also worried about impact on nearly a quarter of a million children in temporary schooling facilities.

"Winterisation is imperative to ensure children remain in school and are protected from the weather," the organisation's Nepal director Delailah Borja said.

Ms Borja said more money was needed to improve facilities.

In Bigu, despite the seriousness of the situation he and his fellow villagers face over the colder months ahead, Nima Chuiri Sherpa said community spirit would see them prevail.

"We don't have any place to go, so we're going to stay here, burn firewood and try to fight the cold," he said.

"We all try to help each other to make ends meet."

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