By Nigel Fisher
If I hear one more commentator saying 'nothing is happening' on the post-earthquake reconstruction front, I will scream. With the third anniversary upon us, observers and media from near and far, in their infinite wisdom, will be pronouncing that progress is minimal and looking for examples to prove their foregone conclusion.
So, which of the following stories do you prefer?
Either: After three years, the community of SemphrengGopteGyang (Helambu Gaunpalika-6 in Sindhupalchok) and its 65 primary school students still do not know when help will come to rebuild their shattered four-room school.
Or: In the village of BatiBanjyang in Sindhupalchok, at least 10 houses are under construction or completed, following the building code. Community members are helping each other, while masons and workers have come from as far away as the Tarai for the jobs.
Take your pick. Both accurately represents community life three years after the April and May 2015 earthquakes. Many houses, schools, healthcentres, heritage and local government buildings remain to be rebuilt or retrofitted. The most disadvantaged are struggling: to earn a living, to get their children into school, let alone take advantage of government support to acquire land, so that they can actually build a house of their own.
But 'nothing is happening'? Come on.
Here are a few statistics even though your eyes may be starting to glaze over already: as evidence of the 'slow pace' of reconstruction, a recent news report quoted the NRA's data that the reconstruction of 2,371 schools destroyed or damaged by the earthquakes of 2015 has yet to begin.
Of course, in every community where rebuilding has not started, parents worry continuously about the educational future of their children. This is the downside, and they are right to want schools functioning in their communities again as soon as possible.
On the other hand, out of a total of 7,553 destroyed or damaged schools, 3,079 (41%) have been rebuilt and another 2,013 (28%) are under construction. That is striking by any standard.
Compared with progress in many disaster recovery situations around the world, this is not unimpressive, to say the least. Yes, reconstruction of 31% of schools has yet to begin, but 69% are either rebuilt or under construction: is this a slow pace? Is the bottle one-third empty or two-thirds full?
Over the last year especially, progress has accelerated, much of it with government support, but also with many householders and communities raising their own resources.
Look at housing: NRA data shows that in late May 2017, construction had started on 43,500 houses, while almost 27,000 had been completed. Eleven months later, construction has begun on 403,600 houses and 115,000 have been finished. That’s an impressive increase of well over 900% in housing starts and more than 400% in completed houses, in an 11-month period. Health centres, heritage buildings, rural trails and bridges, government buildings – whatever we look at, we are seeing progress.
Yes, many people and communities have not yet started to rebuild their houses and schools, or are struggling to put together the resources. The struggle is particularly acute for the most vulnerable members of the population.
There are problems regarding compliance with building codes, and unresolved differences on how to rebuild heritage structures.
But look at all the rebuilding that is going on now, from the remote communities of Sindhupalchok, Gorkha or Ramechhap to the buzz of reconstruction activity (with those strikingly symmetric scaffoldings) on temples in Patan Durbar Square.
Nowhere in the world has recovery and reconstruction been completed or neared completion after only three years -- it just doesn’t happen. Be it the Great Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake in 1995, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the Haiti earthquake of 2010, it takes close to a decade to rebuild and there is still residual evidence of damage in some places. Christchurch is still struggling to recover seven years after the earthquake that devastated it.
Experience shows that on average, it takes close to a decade to rebuild from such major disasters - and even after that, there is usually still residual evidence of damage in some places.
Japan, the US and New Zealand have well-developed infrastructure, local government networks and urban planning, significant financial resources, traditions of rigorous adherence to building codes and rapid accessibility to affected areas.
Compare these with Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes: devastation over a wide geographical area, rugged, mountainous terrain, horrendous access problems to rural and isolated mountain communities, serious challenges on the planning, building codes adherence and financial fronts, of finding and/or training sufficient masons ... and you expect recovery and reconstruction to be completed after just three years?
Name a reconstruction challenge and Nepal has it. Name an economic, budget or governance constraint and Nepal has it. Recovery is taking place as Nepal struggles to roll out an incredibly complex devolution process. But don’t stop there, and say that nothing is happening.
Look around, go into rural areas beyond the motorable roads and you see women masons and builders working alongside the men.
Reconstruction is underway, with and without government support. Government grants are not enough to rebuild houses, and are not meant to be.
Yes, things could always go faster and better, but don’t fall for the 'nothing is happening' cliche. It’s too easy, and it’s wrong.
(Nigel Fisher has been an adviser to the CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority for the last two years, and has been involved in post-disaster recovery operations around the world.)
Nepali Times -April 20, 2018