A year on after Nepal earthquake: Life tries to return to normal

Nepalese school children practice duck and cover drills in preparation for future earthquakes. [DFAT/Flickr]

On 25 April 2015, a large-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, devastating rural communities. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro travelled to the South Asian country to see how the local population has recovered and what impact EU-funded projects are having.

Few inhabitants of Nepal’s Sindhupalchowk district doubt that another earthquake will strike again. Some fear it, some have accepted it with quiet resignation and others await it with optimism, as they put faith in their new homes, which are stronger than those destroyed by the quake that hit one year ago yesterday (25 April).

That massive 7.8 earthquake, which in some places even lowered the height of the Himalayas by a few centimetres, hit a mountainous region that lies some 60 kilometres from the country’s capital, Kathmandu. Even though it was not the epicentre of the first, larger quake, it was the centre of the second, which registered 6.7 in May, and continued to be hit by aftershocks that made it the worst affected part of the country. In total, 3,438 died in the district out of a total 9,000 throughout the whole country and 96% of the area’s housing, some 63,885 homes, were damaged and more than a third of the population affected.

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In mountainous villages, only accessible after hours of hiking, people live in rudimentary housing and often believe that another earthquake will hit sometime soon. 25 April has somewhat become the Nepalese Friday the 13th in that regard. However, they also tend to have faith in their experience of the disaster and their new lodgings.

Shreejana Lama, a 27-year-old in one such village, lives with her family in a house that has been built by a consortium made up of several NGOs and financed by DG ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian aid agency. Their plan is not just to rebuild the houses lost during the earthquake, but to show local builders, carpenters and tradesmen how best to construct their homes, so as to make them as resistant as possible to future earthquakes or adverse weather, such as the monsoon, which will arrive in just a matter of months.

Rural Nepal has changed significantly since last year. The traditional stone housings that dotted the landscape, which stood little chance against seismic activity of the magnitude seen last April, have given way to quasi-shantytowns that nestle in amongst the rice, wheat, maize and potato plantations.

The villagers have heeded the advice of the agencies that have arrived on their doorsteps, reinforcing their doorways with wood, all the while dealing with the strong aftershocks that continue to pound the area every other day.

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The aid consortium hopes to construct at least 1,500 new temporary homes by the end of May, helping 7,000 people in the process. More than 700 of these houses are in Sindhupalchowk. In addition to the EU-funded help, dozens of other programmes are trying to help rebuild the area. However, not all of those who need it are getting the help they need. According to a report by Save the Children, although around a million people have received aid, some 600,000 still remain living in basic shelters, under bridges or in unsafe buildings.

The main problem in Sindhupalchowk, besides the strength of the earthquakes to hit it and the aftershocks, is that the buildings were not constructed in accordance with minimum safety standards. Mostly this was a result of normal, working families building their homes out of stones, bricks and mud, rather than following any sort of official guidelines.

Many villages in which all the houses were constructed in this manner were completely flattened, sometimes within seconds, by the earthquake.

Whether there will be another major earthquake or not, life has returned, as far as it can, to normal in Sindhupalchowk. An EU spokesperson working in the country explained that rebuilding a house in line with minimum safety standards is costing between €5,000 and €6,000. So far, the Nepalese government has only provided €160 in emergency aid to those families affected, but it plans to make €1,654 available to homeless families.

Distributing this money is proving to be laborious and time-consuming though. Supposedly, government technicians have to individually assess whether an applicant has suffered enough damage to qualify for the grant. Firstly, it is proving challenging to determine what constituted a home or house in the first place. Then, it has often been difficult to deal with families that shared a building or lived on different floors and to establish who was eligible for aid.

Due to the slow pace of bureaucracy and the high costs involved in rebuilding their homes (the Nepalese minimum wage is €67 a month), affected families have looked upon their new temporary homes as investments for the future and decided to gradually rebuild their houses over the next four to five years, rather than immediately.

This is also based on the fact that the main activity of the area is subsistence agriculture, in which the farmers only grow enough to get by and the thought of selling their produce rarely becomes a reality. Monetary transactions are rare and banks are non-existent.

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Beyond the obvious physical consequences of the earthquake, it also set back the region socially. Nepal had been successfully dealing with an endemic problem of open defecation, or access to toilets, and had all-but eliminated it in many of its districts. For example, in its larger southern neighbour, India, it is estimated that more than 600 million people still defecate in the open, either due to lack of access to facilities or because of social reasons.  Beyond the obvious health implications, this also has an impact on vulnerable women who can be targeted with abuse or even rape.

Before the earthquake, most homes in Sindhupalchowk had a toilet or shared it with another household. After the destruction of most of these facilities, the practice returned to a large amount of communities. Gradually, the situation is being rectified though.

Another ECHO project, in which €1.1 million has been invested, has seen efforts to re-establish a clean water supply and rebuild much needed toilet facilities.

New pipes and tanks are being built to be earthquake-resistant too, highlighting the fact that aid agencies and the people of Nepal themselves think that this is not the only earthquake they will have to clean up after.

El País - Planeta Futuro

El País - Planeta Futuro

In 2014, the European Union was the world's number one donor of humanitarian and development aid. However, in the face of budgetary restrictions, member states are trying to bring down their annual contributions to the EU, even if this means slashing certain priority programmes like cohesion policy, Erasmus or humanitarian and development aid.

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