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How politics got in the way of needed Nepal earthquake relief

April 25, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
One year ago, the first of two massive earthquakes ripped through Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people. Some $4 billion of assistance was pledged to the rebuilding effort, but political gridlock and corruption have left the displaced survivors to largely fend for themselves. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, one year ago today, a massive earthquake shook Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people. Some $4 billion dollars of assistance was pledged, but the rebuilding has been hampered by rugged conditions, poverty, and politics.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro explores the reconstruction efforts as part of our partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kathmandu still bears scars from the quakes, but many people in Nepal’s bustling capital have pushed the rubble aside and started rebuilding their homes and lives.

That’s not possible in the quake’s worst-hit regions, villages high up in the rugged Himalayan landscape, places that were hard to reach even before the disasters struck. Most people here were displaced into makeshift camps miles away in valleys miles away.

On April 25, 2015, the village of Mailung literally slid out of existence; 38 people died instantly as boulders rained down from the mountainside. Five bodies have never been recovered from under them.

Parma Singh Tamang ran a grocery store and tailoring business in this abandoned community once home to 400 people. The remnants from his shops peek out from under tons of granite. Two daughters-in-law and two grandchildren perished here. Others in the large extended family that lived here barely escaped.

PARMA SINGH TAMANG, Displaced Resident (through interpreter): When they heard the loud rumbling, they were very confused and ran down by the river.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Down the street is the spot where Selnam Tamang lived. She wasn’t home on that fateful day. She was visiting her mother, leaving her four children with her in-laws and eldest child, Asmita.

SELNAM TAMANG, Displace Resident (through interpreter): Her grandfather was cooking fish, and all the family was gathered in the main floor area, but Asmita didn’t like fish, so she climbed to the second floor of the house.

Then, suddenly, the earthquake came, and the whole house fell, and she was thrown some distance away. But the whole family, they were crushed.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Including two younger daughters and infant son. She did manage to rescue their pictures.

I’m really sorry.

Their current situation stokes the despair. Most people in the camp say they have no money and have received little assistance to rebuild. Selnam Tamang scrapes by on about $3 a day as a daily laborer, working about 10 days each month. And conditions in the metal-roofed shacks are not healthy, says 12-year-old Asmita, who is learning English.

ASMITA TAMANG, Displaced Resident: When sun is rising, then very hot.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It gets very hot when the sun rises. Are there many people who are sick in this camp?

ASMITA TAMANG: Yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What kind of sickness do they have?

ASMITA TAMANG: Diarrhea, and winter season, people have pneumonia.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For Nepal’s inadequate health care system, the quake has added demands. Shanti Uprety, a public health nurse, says many of the displaced have migrated closer to population centers, like the one she serves, in pursuit of work.

SHANTI UPRETY, Public Health Nurse (through interpreter): They can’t farm their land, and have no sources of food, and conditions in the temporary shelters are hazardous. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable now.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: We followed along as she coached Anu Biswakarma, a new mother, on breast-feeding. Her 19-day-old son wasn’t thriving.

Days earlier, she’d urged that the child be taken to regional hospital, but this family could not afford the bus fare. Uprety has seen many preventable illnesses end in tragedy, and recalled another recent pregnant patient.

SHANTI UPRETY (through interpreter): I knew that the mother was anemic and told them to take her to hospital to deliver, but they couldn’t afford it, so they both died. That case happened three months back. I have experienced a few cases like this since the earthquake.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The health system she works for can’t do much to help, having only begun to rebuild facilities. Some social enterprises did try to help.

One Heart World-Wide has worked for years in Nepal on maternal and child health.

ARLENE SAMEN, One Heart World-Wide: We had met a company in Utah that made these tents that are 12-by-12, and they’re big enough to set up as literally a birthing room. And so we distributed those and set them up immediately after the earthquake. So, in less than a year, we have delivered over 1,000, with no maternal or newborn deaths in any of those situations in our tents.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But One Heart’s founder, Arlene Samen, says much of the international relief efforts were uncoordinated and have met only a tiny fraction of the need.

ARLENE SAMEN: There’s millions of dollars that were raised that still have not been deployed and could be and should be given to people, so they could rebuild.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She says many non-government aid groups were reluctant to deploy in Nepal, blaming the political dysfunction in a country that’s endured years of instability.

For five months last winter, an internal dispute over a new constitution and regional politics led to an unofficial blockade of the main trade routes into landlocked Nepal from India, for which the two neighbors blame each other.

Even today, people spend hours in line for cooking fuel and gasoline.

So, the country is essentially paralyzed by political gridlock?

SUJEEV SHAKYA, Nepal Economic Forum: Yes. It has been.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As a result, economist Sujeev Shakya says some four billion dollars in earthquake aid pledged by several nations have remained largely unspent, as rival factions fight over who should control how it is dispensed.

SUJEEV SHAKYA: For folks in the politics, this is like $4 billion dollars coming in, so how much can we make out of this? This is how they think. And they need the right…

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: How much can they line their pockets, you mean?

SUJEEV SHAKYA: Yes, line their pockets. And that’s the whole question.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, the newly formed National Reconstruction Authority says it now has support from all political factions and will soon shift into high gear.

Families will be entitled to grants of about $2,000 to rebuild homes. Communities will receive aid for schools and health facilities.

RAM PRASAD THAPALIYA, National Reconstruction Authority, Nepal (through interpreter): Within this four years we will make a new Nepal. This Nepal will not be made by government, but by the people. The process of making the new Nepal will be created by the government for the people.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Spokesman Ram Prasad Thapaliya said the slow start has two main causes, the daunting task of surveying extensive damage over forbidding terrain and setting up a transparent accountability system.

RAM PRASAD THAPALIYA (through interpreter): To spend this amount of money that is coming in, the authority has to spend that money with partners. The donors and the people are going to be watching to see if there is any corruption.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And there’s growing public access to information to hold the government accountable. Civic groups, using technology and media, have set up Web sites to track aid dollars. There’s even a TV show called “Integrity Idol” to single out government officials, a group widely viewed as corrupt.

BLAIR GLENCORSE, Accountability Lab: In the beginning, everyone said you won’t find anyone in Nepal. And, actually, we had hundreds of nominations, and the five finalists were incredible people at the local level.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Blair Glencorse and Narayan Adhikari with the Washington-based nonprofit company Accountability Lab, which produces the show.

NARAYAN ADHIKARI, Accountability Lab: Seeing all this energy coming from young people and also especially technology front as well gives me a hope.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But back at the displaced people’s camp, Parma Singh Tamang and his wife, Jyomo, say they’re not holding their breath for the promised government assistance.

JYOMO TAMANG, Displaced Resident (through interpreter): I have no hope that we will ever get back the life we used to have.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A few doors down, Selnam Tamang is spending a lot of her meager income on school fees, investing her hopes in Asmita’s aspiration.

ASMITA TAMANG: Doctor.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: You want to be a doctor?

It will be an uncertain, at times even desperate journey for many years for her and so many Nepalis.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Nuwakot, Nepal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Explore more of Nepal a year after the earthquake on our Web site. We have a 360-degree video of several locations from our reporting trip revealing material that shows you a complete perspective. Find it on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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