Four days after a huge 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, the ordeal is far from over. There have been close to 100 aftershocks. The death toll, at the time of writing, has risen above 5,000. As news arrives of even greater destruction outside Kathmandu, that figure is expected to rise. People are buried beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings, waiting to be rescued. Many thousands have been stranded outside, battling cold and rain, without food, water or medicine.
I wish I could say this tragedy could not have been predicted – that it was something we could not have prepared for. Yet for decades experts have been warning that a major earthquake could devastate Nepal. The country sits in a zone of high seismic activity. Catastrophic earthquakes occur here every 70 to 80 years; the last one was in 1934.
Western media coverage of the quake has focused on how, as a poor country, Nepal lacks the capacity for disaster preparation and relief. While this is undoubtedly true, the reality is that political apathy and criminal unaccountability, cemented by years of political transition, have made a disaster-prone country even more vulnerable. For years, successive governments have largely ignored the need to enforce and institute building codes, promote earthquake safety and plan for disaster relief. This lack of planning has only become more apparent as the government has struggled to co-ordinate relief assistance and mobilise resources after the earthquake. Two rescue teams, one from New Zealand and the other from Finland, were sent home by a government that had no idea how to use them.
Nepali people have long known that they cannot rely on the state. Even when the government has been slow to respond, they have remained calm. At least so far, there has been no anger or unrest as has been widely claimed. But that could easily change as conditions deteriorate.
I look at the ruined cityscape of Kathmandu, the monuments and scenes of my childhood which now survive only in my memory, the archaeological treasures handed down across the centuries and destroyed in a minute. The weight of loss is immense. I look at my house, damaged when a neighbour’s house collapsed on to it, and I wonder: will any of this be rebuilt?
One can’t help but be angry. While our political parties chase an elusive consensus on a new constitution, seeking to resolve ideological differences that look increasingly detached from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, progress on simple matters such as economy and governance has taken a backseat. Local elections have not taken place in Nepal for 18 years – first due to insecurity caused by the decade-long civil war and later as a result of the political parties’ desire to avoid going to the polls. Not having locally elected bodies has made current relief efforts both slow and ineffective.
Political organisations, social institutions and state organs have been rendered defunct by years of corruption and intransigence. Today, it is only the army and the security forces that are maintaining any kind of governance.
Our immediate focus should be on rescue and relief. This is where a lot of humanitarian assistance has been directed successfully. Soon, however, we will need to start thinking about rebuilding and beginning afresh. This will mean nothing less than a complete political and economic overhaul. But we have become a country that cannot see beyond the next few years (or electoral terms).
A disaster such as this one presents an opportunity to reorient our national priorities. For a country that has had problems forging political consensus, perhaps the need to rebuild and prevent future disasters could be a uniting factor – leading us to co-operate and form the basis of a social contract. Over the coming years, sustainable development and disaster preparation should guide our politics. Public participation, government accountability and responsive governance can all flow from there.
People have been saying that one of the reasons we were so ill-prepared for the disaster was our fatalism. But what causes fatalism? It is the belief that individual actions cannot change anything. It is because people lack access to those who govern. This is the heart of our problem. Poverty and heightened vulnerability are only one aspect. This is what we need to work to change during the difficult days ahead.
The people of Nepal have overcome many upheavals in their history and they will rise from this, too. But perhaps it is time we stopped taking pride in being survivors and worked to build our resilience, collectively, to every kind of disaster and adversity.