Off The Tourist Track, Nepal Still Scarred By The Quake

It has been three years since the earthquake that killed 9,000 people. Heritage-listed buildings were felled in an instant and Everest had its deadliest day ever.

Jonas Gratzer/Getty

KATHMANDU, Nepal — The first thought that went through Sanu Maya Gurung’s mind was simple: “I don’t want to die at work.”

It was April 25, 2015, and Ms Gurung, 32, was at her tailoring store in the village of Chautara in Nepal’s Sindhupalchok District. When the earthquake began, a little before midday, she ran outside, where her thoughts turned immediately to her family. “If I’m going to die,” she remembers thinking, “I should die with them.”

Everyone else on the street, it seemed, had been similarly driven by instinct into the open. To remain indoors, in buildings that may soon turn to rubble, was tantamount to suicide.

But being outside was not much better. “The ground began to shift beneath our feet,” Ms Gurung says. “It was the scariest moment of my life.”

It has been three years since the Nepal earthquake that killed 9,000 people and injured some 22,000 more. It remains the greatest natural disaster in the country’s modern history. Heritage-listed buildings were felled in an instant. An avalanche was triggered on Mount Everest, killing 21, rendering it the deadliest day on the mountain in recorded history. According to the Nepalese government, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake did more than $10 billion in damage, or more than half the country’s nominal GDP.

Sindhupalchok District was one of the worst-affected areas. Roughly a third of all fatalities were recorded here and nearly 64,000 homes were destroyed.

One of those belonged to Jit Bahadur Giri, who lives in the village of Irkhu south of Chautara, where he makes sweets out of the native lapsi fruit, also known as Nepali hog plum. His family watches us talking from the porch, one of his granddaughters done up theatrically in make-up. He says the children still have nightmares.

“They ran outside when the earthquake began and then realised they’d left our grandson upstairs,” Mr Giri, 60, says. His wife ran back in, bundled the child in her arms, and returned to the others in time to see the house collapse. Mr Giri was selling his candy in the local market at the time and had much the same thought as Ms Gurung. “I was terrified,” he says. “I was worried about my family.”

He gestures towards their current home, a shack made of logs, planks and corrugated iron. “We have been living here ever since,” he says. “It will be at least five years before we have rebuilt everything we have lost.”

Much of Nepal remains in a state of protracted disrepair. Get off the beaten tourist trail—get out of Thamel, where trekkers compare notes and tell tales of the Himalayas—and the scars are still shockingly visible. In Kathmandu, the Dharahara, the iconic nine-storey tower that buried 60 people when it collapsed, remains in ruins behind a chain link fence, despite the fact that reconstruction was scheduled to begin last year. In Chautara, wire rods line the streets, the rusting bones of wasted buildings. Every second person in the district appears to be engaged in the process of rebuilding.

There are numerous reasons that reconstruction has proceeded at such a glacial pace. Many of these are obvious—the country’s topography, its lack of resources, the remoteness of so many affected areas—but others could never have been foreseen.

First among these was the 7.3-magnitude aftershock that took place on May 12. Kamal Sigdel is a communications manager with the UNDP and was present in Sindhupalchok District when the second earthquake struck.

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“We had come to help the local community knock down buildings that hadn’t been completely destroyed by the first earthquake,” he tells me. We’re bumping up the road that leads to Kodari on the Nepalese-Tibetan border. “We couldn’t start building new homes until these ones had been removed,” he says.

They needn’t have bothered. “The second quake flattened anything that hadn’t been flattened by the first,” Mr Sigdel says. “It was a nightmare. At one point, I looked out across the valley and it was like watching a hundred landslides taking place all at once.”

But other complications and delays had distinctly human contours.

Pemba Tamang is a builder in Sindhupalchok District. When rebuilding started—only ten of the 919 houses in his area remained standing at the time—he was determined to make sure the new homes were less susceptible to earthquakes than the old.

But he says it took two years for the government to approve an earthquake-resistant style of home that uses GI containment wires to reinforce its stone masonry, meaning he and others were forced to build homes in less reliable styles in the meantime.

“Everyone we showed this model to loved it,” Mr Tamang, 35, says. “But when they heard that it hadn’t been approved they were taken aback. We wound up building houses in styles that were already approved, but which aren’t as resistant.”

While the new style of home is now beginning to dot the landscape—imagine a stone hut strung up in a hair net—Mr Tamang says many people have already spent the money they received from the government for the purpose of rebuilding.

“People were in a rush to get those grants because they needed somewhere to live,” he said. “Now the government has approved the new style of house and they’re realizing their mistake. This wouldn’t have happened had the style been approved immediately.”

Many of the problems Nepal faced in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were the result of this sort of political foot-dragging, which were in turn a result of the uniquely sensitive situation the country found itself in at the time.

“The government was in the midst of drafting its new constitution, which was triggered by the decision to move from a unitary system to a federal system, and it was doing so in a post-conflict climate,” says Sophie Kemkhadze, the UNDP’s deputy country director in Nepal. (The country’s decade-long civil war between the government and Maoist rebels ended in 2006.) “Navigating this delicate landscape took care.”

But it also meant interminable delays. It took the government a full nine months to establish the body responsible for reconstruction.

“The National Reconstruction Authority needed to be up and running faster than it was,” Ms Kemkhadze admits, “and we worked closely with the government to quicken this eventuality. [But] since its inception, progress has been made.” She says almost 700,000 families have received funds to rebuild since the body was created.

But the director of Amnesty International in Nepal, Nirajan Thapaliya, says the efforts of the political class still leave a lot to be desired.

“The various governments—we’ve had five since the earthquake—have been inept,” she says. “They have failed to understand the urgency of the people’s right to housing.”

Ms Thapaliya said the country’s successive governments have also failed to protect poor and marginalised survivors, many of whom had long but informal relationships with the land on which they lived. According to a 2017 Amnesty International report:

To receive a government rebuilding grant, an earthquake survivor must provide land ownership documents. Unable to prove they own the land on which they were living when the earthquake struck, or have their landlords formally acknowledge their residence, they have been denied reconstruction support to rebuild their homes.

“These are issues the new government needs to address,” she says. “They need to be proactive or result-oriented.”

After a number of delays, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli was sworn in as Nepal’s prime minister in February this year. UNESCO’s representative in Nepal, Christian Manhart, is among those who hopes this marks an end to the country’s political turbulence. The already difficult process of rebuilding of Nepal’s damaged heritage sites—a process that requires expert knowledge and hard-to-come by materials—was made even harder and more time-consuming by the political instability, he says.

“Frequent changes of officials and to bureaucratic procedures within the government have played a role [in slowing us down]. Unclear and lengthy-decision making procedures are another factor.”

Mr Manhart says the reconstruction period has also highlighted a number of already-existing issues that need to be addressed.

“One of the challenges we’ve discovered is the existing procurement procedure for government departments, which requires them to select the lowest bidder,” he says. “This obviously isn’t appropriate for heritage-listed sites. The workmanship and materials are often of a low quality and this risks destroying the uniqueness of Kathmandu’s cultural heritage.”

As far as some organizations are concerned, the risk in question isn’t in question. For the past three years, the World Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property have recommended that Nepal be put on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list. The recommendations have been rejected—at the Nepalese government’s request—but only because the government keeps promising to do better. (The Nepal Reconstruction Authority and Department of Archaeology recently drafted a new procurement procedure for heritage buildings that is to be voted on this month.)

Other long-standing issues have been similarly revealed or exacerbated by the earthquake and its aftermath, Ms Kemkhadze says.

“Issues such as poverty eradication, disaster risk reduction, climate change and environment conservation, gender equality and social inclusion, transparency and human rights were made all the more important [by the earthquake],” she says. “Even when our attentions were turned to early disaster recovery, [it was important to ensure] our investments in development gains were not being reversed.”

She says the focus must now turn, not only to rebuilding what was lost in the earthquake, but to addressing long-standing systemic problems and vulnerabilities as well.

“The earthquake has allowed the people and the government of Nepal to start anew and correct past mistakes,” she says. “This doesn’t just mean rebuilding houses or buildings. It means rebuilding institutions and systems as well. Before the dust settled, the UNDP was giving support to government agencies at all levels, local businesses and community groups, not only to prevent any loss of life, but also to look at the long term. What do we need to do now that will contribute to rebuilding better?”

The UNDP’s Micro-Enterprise Development Programme (MEDEP), which it runs in partnership with the Nepalese government and Australian Aid, is a large part of this, she says. While the programme has existed since 1998, it has gone into overdrive since the earthquake. “In addition to helping existing entrepreneurs back to their businesses, it has also created new entrepreneurs,” she says, estimating that there are around 35,000 currently in the programme.

Ms. Gurung is among them. Having somehow survived the most harrowing day of her life—as did her immediate family—she has since become a leading producer of clothing in her community and is training a number of young women in the trade.

“The first month after the earthquake was difficult,” she admits. “We were all in shock. We had suffered a tragedy and had to start all over again.”

“That was hard, but we began to recover. We got back to work. Today we’re making and selling more garments than we were before the earthquake and we’re training more women, too.”

The machine-gun clatter of a dozen sewing machines can be heard coming from downstairs. Out in the street, men cart around bricks. Across it, a family are finishing work on their new walls.

“Reconstruction has been very slow,” Ms Gurung says. “But things are definitely beginning to get better. We have a lot of hope.”