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Why didn’t Nepal prepare for an inevitable earthquake?

April 29, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Why wasn’t Nepal better prepared for an earthquake that everyone expected? Judy Woodruff talks to Jonah Blank of RAND Corporation about the political and economic challenges in Nepal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have more now on Nepal.

Earlier today, the NewsHour acquired this video shot by a film crew using an aerial drone showing the devastation above the ancient city of Bhaktapur, not far from the capital, Kathmandu. The city of 300,000 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s been known for having the best preserved palace courtyards and old city center in Nepal.

Reports are that some 200 people were killed there during Saturday’s earthquake. Apart from Nepal’s rich mountaineering and cultural history, most Americans know little about the tiny nation.

To help fill us in on the country’s politics, economy and infrastructure, I’m joined by Jonah Blank, an anthropologist and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

Jonah Blank, welcome.

And before I ask you about this other — I understand your wife’s family, Nepalese — or Nepalis — they were in Kathmandu when the earthquake struck, but they’re doing all right?

JONAH BLANK, RAND Corporation: Yes. Thank you, Judy.

They’re all safe, but they are trying to get enough water and fuel and wondering what happens next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it gives you another connection to this terrible disaster.

So, this is a country that has — for most of its existence was ruled by a monarchy, but there has been a lot of political upheaval there in recent years.

JONAH BLANK: Nepal was, until recently, the world’s only Hindu monarchy.

In 2006, a 10-year civil war ended, and the Maoists, who were the rebels in that fight, came into the government. In 2008, the monarchy was abolished. Since then, it has been a constitutional democracy without a real constitution. The Maoists won the first election. Other parties won the subsequent one, and there’s been a little bit of jockeying ever since.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what has that meant for the stability of country? And a lot of has been raised recently about corruption in the Nepalese government?

JONAH BLANK: Well, the stability has been a pretty good picture up until Saturday.

In fact, Nepal had been doing better economically and by most other measures since 2006, when the year the civil war ended, than it had been before. Corruption is a major issue. Nepal ranks about 150th out of about 175 on Transparency International’s ranking, so this is really going to hinder long-term reconstruction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And which has raised the question for people sending — organizations sending in aid money, can they be confident that money is going to be spent the way it’s supposed to be spent?

JONAH BLANK: I feel they can, because the relief phase is the phase when international organizations are going to be spending the money and running their own projects.

So, if people are sending money to a reputable charity, there’s a very good chance, a very — an almost certainty that the money is going to be spent the way that they intend it. The longer-term project is when the government tries to rebuild.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were telling me earlier — we were talking about the economy of Nepal, and you were saying, to such a large extent, it depends on money sent back by people who are Nepalese who live around the world, the Nepalese diaspora.

JONAH BLANK: That’s right.

Twenty-nine percent of GDP comes from remittances sent back from Nepalis working particularly in the Gulf and also in India. So, they face a devil’s choice here. Do the labor force — does the labor force go back to Nepal to rebuild its own country and thereby give up almost a third of the GDP, or do they keep sending the checks back, but have no one who has the hands and the backs to rebuild the country?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any indication at this point what they’re doing?

JONAH BLANK: Well, a lot of them are flocking back because they want to to tend their own families.

But a longer-term question is what happens in the weeks and months to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing, Jonah Blank.

And that is, with all the warnings that came from the geological experts about the fact that a big earthquake was coming here, why wasn’t more done to make sure that buildings were safer than they were?

JONAH BLANK: Because Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s really by far one of the poorest countries in Asia. It’s almost on par with countries like the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo.

And it costs a lot of money to prepare for earthquake — buildings that are going to withstand these tremors. That is why Japan, a country that is racked by earthquakes, but very few fatalities, manages to do all right, but Nepal, a country that everyone knew was due for a terrible earthquake, has lost 5,000 so far, and we fear maybe 10,000 before this is all done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which calls to mind Haiti, another very, very poor country, of course, had its own catastrophe with the earthquake there.

Jonah Blank with the RAND Corporation, we thank you.

JONAH BLANK: Thank you, Judy.