My mother was near the village school she runs about 100 miles south of the Nepal border in India when she noticed a strong tremor. She immediately had the building evacuated. When a second tremor came a bit later, she shut the school down.
Even though residents of the area were shaken up (and schools were closed till Tuesday), they were lucky to escape injury. Citizens of the country to their north were not so fortunate. The devastation in Nepal has cost 5,000 lives so far, and that number is climbing.
“My wife and I had gone up to visit a farm-school at the edge of the Kathmandu valley,” Stephen Mikesell, a good friend of mine, tells me. “We had just made our greetings and were walking past the school buildings toward the fields when the ground started shaking.”
Mikesell, an anthropologist who has lived and worked extensively in Nepal, describes the destruction.
“A cloud of brick dust was rolling over and enshrouding the buildings in the valley,” he says. “The upper stories of a dormitory next to us was under construction and there was a large gaping crack in it. The first aftershock then sent a torrent of bricks out from the upper stories, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. Walking above the cow pen, I saw an old mud-mortared farm house had collapsed. Later, as we went back to the main road, every such house was similarly in ruins.”
The impact of the earthquake was all around Mikesell.
“When we drove back down into the valley, we passed a hospital where patients were on stretchers filling its courtyard and street,” he says. “Walls and old buildings collapsed everywhere. Many old temples had gone completely, while others had their spires toppled. A new cement building was on its side. People had gathered around a crane that was attempting to lift heavy cement floors piled on top of each other where another building had stood.”
Multiply Mikesell’s account by ten (or one hundred) thousand, and you have an idea of the earthquake’s impact.
The damage was magnified by the growth model that Nepal has followed in its recent history.
“Due to the destruction of viable ways of living throughout the hill and mountain areas, there has been a lot of migration to urban areas and especially the capital area, in search of wage labor,” says Mary DesChene, a Nepal expert and a research associate at Washington University in St. Louis. “Slums and mansions have both been increasing like mushrooms in the Kathmandu valley,” where a lot of the fatalities and damage have occurred.
The absence of any enforced building codes added to the tragedy.
“Nepal’s only set of building standards, formulated twenty years ago, took two years to compile and included information designed to prevent buildings crumbling in Nepal,” reports Bloomberg News. “Authorities didn’t systematically implement its rules and guidelines, from basic building design to electrical wiring specifications.”
Instead, the capital Kathmandu has grown in ways that further endangered its residents when the quake came.
“In recent years, Kathmandu’s urban sprawl has expanded to an old lake bed south of the city, where the earth is especially unstable and susceptible to liquefaction,” Bloomberg reports. “Rapid, unplanned urban expansion in the Kathmandu valley led to crowding and congestion that meant there were no open expanses of land where people could seek refuge following the magnitude 7.8 earthquake and aftershocks.”
The country’s government has been astonishingly callous in the aftermath of the calamity.
“The Nepali government has provided no leadership,” says Mikesell. “The leaders are lodged in five-star hotels. The people are very angry.”
And even though aid is coming in from countries such as India, China and the United States, Mikesell has mixed feelings about the impact.
“Aid leads to a loss of autonomy for the recipient country,” he says. “Look at what happened to Haiti after the earthquake.”
DesChene is advocating for immediate and massive debt relief as a way to help Nepal.
“Among the first acts of all the major aid agencies ought to be debt cancellation, freeing up government funds for rebuilding,” she told the Institute for Public Accuracy. “The IMF has a new program under which Nepal should qualify for cancellation of its $54 million debt due to the scale of the disaster. A strong call for all major lenders to follow suit is important right now.”
Amid all the horror, DesChene finds some cause for hope.
“There is opportunity for reversing the outflow of workers from rural areas, and from the country, at least to some extent,” she tells me. “Well organized, and Nepali-led, the rebuilding could provide good employment and join the best of traditional Nepali building skills and those of sustainable housing and green design work from around the world. The push for industrial agriculture, could be replaced by institutional support for the organic and agro-ecological farming movements. Those are very big ‘ifs.’ But it is what must be struggled for.”
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive.
Image credit: Above, Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images; slider, Omar Havana/Getty images