Kathmandu’s Earthquake Politics

EN. 17.12.2015. Matt Kinsella.

On 25th April 2015, Nepal was struck by a violent earthquake and several strong aftershocks, killing around 9,000 people, injuring 22,000, and destroying or damaging around 800,000 homes.  Visiting some of Kathmandu’s major tourist sites, the damage is obvious: centuries old temples in Kathmandu Durbar Square have been reduced to rubble, other buildings are damaged, cracked and shored with timber props.  In tightly-packed side streets and residential areas of the city, gaps like missing teeth reveal where a building, someone’s home or workplace, has collapsed or been demolished.

Disasters often intertwine with politics in ways that are not immediately obvious, and that seems to have been Nepal’s experience.  When the earthquake struck, Nepal was governed by an ‘interim’ constitution which had been in place since 2007, following a lengthy Civil War.  The proposed permanent constitution had been delayed multiple times due to protracted political arguments, as former military adversaries struggled to reach agreement.  Governance during this period was weak.  Though seismologists had been warning of a major disaster for many years, highlighting the vulnerability of Nepal’s building stock and communities, the political leadership and policy measures needed to respond to such warnings were not forthcoming.  The result was that many of Nepal’s communities, buildings and infrastructure were all the more vulnerable and under-prepared when April 25th arrived.

The earthquake also had immediate political repercussions.  In the months after, the government was criticised for inaction, while the Nepalese military and foreign donors took the initiative in relief efforts.  Frustrations at the political paralysis mounted, prompting a hasty reconciliation between rival factions and in September they finally published the new constitution.  However, any hopes that this would pave the way for a more cooperative kind of governance have yet to be realised.

Some groups within Nepal felt excluded by the new constitution, sparking ongoing civil unrest, largely in the low-lying Terai region bordering India.  The location of the unrest has affected essential border crossings, since Nepal relies on these trade routes into India for many essential supplies.  The only viable alternative for this landlocked state is to transport goods from China, through Tibet and across difficult Himalayan mountain passes.  Nepal’s government accuses India of imposing an unofficial blockade.  India blames the blockade on unrest on the Nepalese side of the border.

Whatever the truth of these allegations, a political solution is desperately needed: severe shortages of fuel, medicines and earthquake relief materials are impacting significantly on people’s lives.  Many affected homes are still in ruins, with large numbers of people living in temporary shelter as winter sets in.  Health workers report that cold-related illnesses are already affecting some of these people, particularly children and the elderly.  UNICEF has warned that more than three million Nepali children under the age of five are at risk this winter due to shortages of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines.

Some commentators fear that another humanitarian crisis may now be unfolding in Nepal.

Photo credit: author’s own, Kathmandu, Nepal, December 2015.

This article was originally published by Renewable World.

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