Thursday, June 2, 2016

Tracking Conditions on the Ground in Post-Earthquake Nepal

The impacts of the devastating earthquakes that struck Nepal in April and May of 2015 are still being felt by thousands of families in affected districts. It has been, and will continue to be, a significant challenge for Nepal to fully recover. In order to plan and implement effective responses, up-to-date and accurate information from the field will be critical to targeting, improving, and adjusting assistance.
To track how conditions are changing on the ground, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the Democracy Resource Center Nepal (DRCN) and Interdisciplinary Analysts, has been implementing a new project, the Independent Impacts and Recovery Monitoring for Accountability in Post-Earthquake Nepal (IRM). Qualitative field research was conducted in 36 wards across six earthquake-affected districts and is combined with a household survey with a sample size of more than 4,000 in 11 affected districts. A first round of research was completed in June 2015 when recovery efforts had just started, followed by a second round of fieldwork completed in March 2016. Download an initial brief of the second round here. The complete data will be released in a report later this month.
Underlying the data collected are hundreds of personal stories told by interviewees who were directly affected by the earthquake. In addition, many of the field researchers have reported that the experience of collecting these stories has affected their own thinking about the earthquake and Nepal’s path forward. Nayan Phokhrel, DRCN’s lead researcher, who led one of six qualitative data collection teams in both the first and second rounds of research, reflects on his time in the field.
During the first phase in June 2015, I was in Makawanpur, immediately after the earthquake, when the main focus was on immediate relief and monsoon shelter. When I visited a community that had resettled along a community forest due to fear of landslides, I realized the needs arising from the earthquakes were complex and manifold. The community’s primary source of livelihood was cash-crop farming, and their relocation to a safer area posed a new complication as it would require them to find alternative means of supporting themselves.
Reconstruction of a house in Nele VDC. Most of the earthquake-affected districts lie in the hilly and mountain regions with very poor to no road networks.
Reconstruction of a house in Nele VDC. Most of the earthquake-affected districts lie in the hilly and mountain regions with very poor to no road networks.
I was in Solukhumbu district during the second round of research. Although the national focus was rightly on the need to rebuild individual houses, there were different layers of complexities in terms of people’s needs. In Nele village development committee (VDC), I spoke with a single woman from the dalit community who was a certified landless person. She had been living in a house built on her relative’s land which had been damaged by the earthquake. As per the existing policy, she would require a proof of land-ownership to qualify for rebuilding assistance, which she does not have. Solukhumbu also has a significant number of tenants living in rented houses: many people have migrated to Kathmandu and other cities, leaving behind their houses and land to the tenants. Like those who are landless, tenants cannot qualify for rebuilding assistance. These cases represent challenges for the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) as it sets the policies to drive forward the reconstruction process.
While the lack of a clear, specific, and comprehensive policy has left more than 500,000 families across the earthquake-affected districts staring at yet another wet monsoon season in temporary tin shelters, the medium- and long-term recovery will provide more complex challenges than just the lack of clear and thorough policies. Most of the affected districts lie in the hilly and mountain regions with very poor to no road networks. In some places in Solukhumbu district, for example, it took weeks to transport the relief aid that arrived in the immediate aftermath of the April 25 earthquake. “We had to spend a lot of our own money in transporting relief materials,” a senior official at the District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC) told me in March, hiring porters and mules at much higher rates. It takes 3-5 days on foot to get from the district center to some of the affected regions in the district. Most of the roads in the high hills are temporary and incomplete and will remain dysfunctional during the monsoon which usually starts in June.
As  monsoon season approaches, families who were displaced and live in temporary shelters like this one in Nele VDC, are increasingly concerned.
As monsoon season approaches, families who were displaced and live in temporary shelters like this one in Nele VDC, are increasingly concerned.
My own observations about the great challenges facing those in communities across the affected districts in many ways remind me of the broader issues facing Nepal. Gaps in the delivery of basic services in rural Nepal have persisted, and one of the main contributing factors over the last decade and half has been the lack of elected local governments. Nepal has not had local elections for almost 15 years due to complex political challenges, leaving only one government bureaucrat to look after many areas. Decisions on local development have been left to unaccountable and non-transparent processes led by government bureaucrats and unelected local political representatives through various formal and informal means. In many ways, the earthquake and the challenges of recovery have exposed the limits of this local governance system. To a large extent, the widespread complaints regarding the assessment of damaged houses and unequal distribution of relief aid that we observed in the field have been consequences of an absent local governance structure. With negotiations on Nepal’s ongoing transition to federalism still ongoing, it is difficult to expect local elections anytime soon, meaning that these challenges will persist in affecting recovery efforts.
If the first year after the earthquake is any indication of the post-earthquake recovery, then we might be looking into some seriously arduous years ahead. The role of international organizations in both working with, and strengthening, the government’s ability to deliver services will be very crucial. There probably will be plenty of money and, eventually sound policies too, but that will not be sufficient unless we have more robust infrastructure and effective governance all around.
IRM is implemented with the support of the governments of the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The project deploys longitudinal mixed methods research to better understand progress with recovery and emerging challenges at every step of the process.
Nayan Pokhrel is lead researcher for Democracy Resource Center Nepal (DCRN). The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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