4 Things to Know About Post-Earthquake Aid and Recovery in Nepal
October 5, 2016
A year and a half after a series of major earthquakes struck Nepal, causing widespread devastation and killing nearly 9,000 people, the pace of reconstruction remains painfully slow. One month ago, the prime minister announced an additional $1,000 in relief per household, which would raise the total resources available to each affected household to $3,000. However, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), which plans to distribute the money in three installments, has so far been unable to complete the distribution of even the first installment of $500 to affected households. Many people who lost their homes have now spent two monsoon seasons and one winter in self-constructed temporary shelters, and several people died last winter from the cold and diseases. With winter imminent, thousands are still at risk.
To gather systematic evidence on the longer-term impact of the earthquake, the effectiveness of the aid response, and patterns of recovery, The Asia Foundation has developed the Independent Impacts and Recovery Monitoring (IRM) project which includes a large-scale household survey and in-depth field monitoring. The project tracks reconstruction efforts over time through multiple research rounds: the first was conducted in June 2015, the second in February and March 2016, and the third is ongoing.
Key messages from the second wave of research are:
There is an urgent need for a strategy to provide more sturdy shelters and for programs to mitigate the consequences of staying in temporary shelters.
As of March 2016, almost 80 percent of people in the most severely affected districts were still living in temporary shelters. Most were able to make repairs to their shelters to get them through the winter, but 21 percent of respondents said repairs were not sufficient for the cold, and 5 percent were unable to make repairs at all. People staying in temporary shelters have endured health problems and extreme physical discomfort. Those displaced from their land faced the additional burden of uncertainty about their longer-term settlement and, in some places, tensions with local communities. New or improved shelters thus need to be developed together with resettlement plans to mitigate the impact of the slow pace of reconstruction and precarious living situations of those still staying in temporary shelters or dangerously damaged houses.
People need access to cash grants and affordable credit to rebuild their homes.
Over two-thirds of total respondents—and over 85 percent in the most severely hit districts— identified cash as a priority immediate need across affected districts; a significant increase compared to the first round of research in June 2015. Yet, cash grant distribution has been slow and is done in installments of relatively small amounts. So far, people whose houses were badly damaged or fully destroyed have received just $500, the first installment of the government’s reconstruction cash grant, to begin rebuilding their homes. Some affected households, such as those who do not own land or whose houses were only partially damaged but inhabitable, have not received any cash assistance from the government due to their exclusion from beneficiary lists drawn on the basis of highly contested damage assessments.
In addition, costs for construction materials and laborers are comparatively high, and farming, the most common income source in affected districts, is slower to recover than other livelihoods due to landslides, drying up of water sources, damages to irrigation channels, and the loss of seeds, fertilizers, and livestock. This has adversely affected incomes and food security in some places.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, borrowing has increased in both the number of people taking loans and the size of loans. More than twice as many people have borrowed and average loan sizes have increased 240 percent. In severely hit districts, 42 percent of people reported borrowing since the 2015 monsoon and many more had plans to borrow in the near future. While there has been a move toward more formal sources, which charge lower rates of interest, the number of people borrowing from moneylenders has increased and they continue to lend the largest amounts per borrower.
Marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable and at risk of debt traps.
The poorest, lower castes, women, and the disabled are more likely to face credit constraints and to borrow at high interest rates from informal sources despite being most in need of credit. People in more remote and poorer rural areas are also more likely to borrow from moneylenders charging high interest rates than those in urban areas. The likelihood is high that these poorer households will sell off whatever assets remain to repay high-interest loans. Thus, debt traps are a real risk for marginalized groups. More accessible and affordable credit and cash grants are particularly important to counter rising vulnerability and inequality—especially so because those who are most vulnerable are less likely to make their voices and concerns heard.
Distribution of aid is uneven and some poorer and remote areas are missing out.
Government assistance, although limited, has generally reached earthquake-affected households. Ninety percent of people in the most affected districts had received the limited assistance that was provided in the form of small cash transfers to assist the construction of shelters and to cope with the winter. Yet, some areas have received significantly more assistance from non-governmental and individual donors than others, with recovery in the latter being particularly difficult. Solukhumbu, a comparatively well-off district benefitting from tourism and climbing in the Everest region, on the other hand, has received a larger volume of non-governmental assistance and is recovering faster. In Okhaldhunga, a poor district, over 60 percent of homes were damaged, farming has been strongly affected by landslides and lack of access to water sources, and food insecurity is comparatively common. Yet, only two percent have received food assistance and only 5 percent have received any type of aid since the 2015 monsoon.
The IRM research indicates that while people have so far managed to somehow get by, conditions remain extremely difficult for those affected, and there are real risks of poverty traps, rising food insecurity, and disease. Labor migration and the sale of assets to repay high-interest loans may become more common. Further, discontent of those left behind may lead to tensions and existing inequalities may be reinforced as already marginalized and vulnerable groups are recovering more slowly. Faster and better-coordinated assistance are therefore urgently needed. The reports identify areas that need particular attention and include recommendations on how the speed and quality of recovery may be improved.
Lena Michaels is a program coordinator for The Asia Foundation’s Independent Impacts and Recovery Monitoring (IRM) project in Nepal. 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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