30 October - 5 November 2015 #781

A race against winter

The Indian blockade has impeded reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to protect earthquake survivors before winter sets in
Om Astha Rai

WFP/James Giambrone
FLYING LIGHT: UN helicopters used to deliver earthquake relief to the inaccessible parts of Nepal are running low on fuel.

The walls of the Ramche Health Post of Rasuwa cracked when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake jolted central Nepal six months ago, but health workers are still working inside the damaged building. They have no other option. Health workers were hopeful that they would have a prefab structure before the Dasain festival, but the fuel crisis caused by India’s blockade against Nepal has dashed hopes.

“Now, I don’t know for how long I will have to work here,” says midwife Maiya Kharel. “It’s very risky. I can see outside through the cracks, and mothers are afraid to deliver babies inside.”

Karuna Foundation, a Dutch-supported charity, signed an agreement with the Ministry of Health to set up prefab structures for all the earthquake-damaged health posts in Rasuwa. The construction of a new Ramche health post building is part of this project.

“Our plan was to complete three health posts, including the one in Ramche, before Dasain,” says Karuna’s Country Director Deepak Raj Sapkota. “But the fuel crisis brought everything to a halt. We are not able to transport construction materials to Rasuwa.”

In Sindhupalchok, Radio Sindhu is still operating from inside a makeshift tent set up after the earthquake. “We wanted to move to our new building before winter,” says station manager Ratna Prasad Shrestha. “But construction of our new building has stopped.”

The fuel crisis has halted transportation of construction materials, delaying whatever work organisations and individuals had started in the quake-ravaged districts. Sindhupalchok’s CDO Balbhadra Giri says: “Full-fledged reconstruction has not started due to confusion over the government’s policies, but whatever work was going on has also now stopped.”

Post-earthquake reconstruction was already in shambles due to the government’s failure to revive the suspended National Reconstruction Authority by passing a bill through parliament. The CEO appointed to head that agency, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, has now resigned also from the National Planning Commission because of turf battles between the NC and the UML over the post.

Amidst confusion over reconstruction policies, some people or institutions had already started rebuilding structures damaged by the earthquake. But now, there is no way to get construction material to the remote villages.

After India imposed a blockade against Nepal last month the flow of petroleum products has dried up. Heavy trucks and containers are off the roads, and the supply chain of construction materials has been disrupted. Jiban Shrestha, who runs a hardware shop in Chautara of Sindhupalchok, says: “Not a single truck with construction material has arrived here after the blockade, our stocks are running low and reconstruction has stopped.”

With reconstruction a hopeless cause, humanitarian agencies are now racing against time to deliver food and emergency shelter to far-flung mountainous villages before they are cut off by snow. But the severe shortage of diesel has prevented even that from being delivered.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing food and cash to earthquake survivors for rebuilding quake-damaged infrastructure like roads and irrigation canals in six of the worst-affected districts. But the UN agency is worried that even this activity may have to stop.

WFP Nepal’s Communication Officer Iolanda Jaquemet says: “The diesel we now have will not last more than 10 days.”

Jaquemet says helicopters used by WFP to deliver relief to the inaccessible parts of Nepal are also running low on fuel. If humanitarian agencies fail to deliver food and emergency shelter to inaccessible villages for three to four months before winter, a serious humanitarian crisis is likely to affect earthquake survivors.

The earthquakes left nearly 9,000 people dead, and destroyed more than 600,000 houses. Humanitarian agencies say they have provided food to nearly two million Nepalis in the six months after the earthquake, but they add that much more needs to be done.

The European Union last week urged India to ensure essential supplies get through to Nepal, saying the blockade only hurts Nepal which is still recovering from the April-May earthquakes. But India has not admitted that it is a blockade, thereby ignoring to lift it. Sapkota of Karuna says: “A prolonged blockade would mean that more Nepalis will be pushed below the poverty line.”

(With input from Kishor Budhathoki in Sindhupalchok)

Read also:

Rasuwa fears, Peregrin Frissell

Reconstruction in ruins, Om Astha Rai and Sahina Shrestha

Better build back, Sonia Awale

Lose-lose, Kunda Dixit

Blockade blues, Bidushi Dhungel

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