The hurt of distance

  • Reconstruction that employs locals and uses local materials will surely provide opportunities for work
- Jagannath Adhikari
The hurt of distance

May 11, 2015-

Nepal’s diaspora experienced a moral dilemma after learning about the devastation caused by the Great Earthquake and the suffering of their kinfolk. Many felt ashamed that they were not there to help family members in these distressing times. Some who lost their family members quickly returned home, feeling guilty that had they been at home, their family members might have survived. It may be because of this feeling of ‘responsibility’ that the Nepali diaspora, this time around, was eager to help and donate money and materials.

Away from home

But the Nepali diaspora is not a single group. Many in countries like Malaysia and the Gulf faced this moral dilemma in silence. Some, who lost their near-relatives or even family members, were not able to return home because of the semi-bondage nature of their contract work. Some returned late, after the death rituals were over. And the inability to attend the final rites of relatives, particularly of parents, morally injures many migrant workers, including those who are working as professionals in developed countries. In a way, this is a generic problem of the diaspora, especially the first generation migrants.

Back in Nepal, we felt the marked absence of young males in the villages in the aftermath of the quake. Had these people been here, rescue work at the household and community levels would have surely been quicker. The elderly, sick, and disabled would have been rescued fast. Once we have information about victims, we will be able to clearly ascertain the differential impacts of this disaster. But existing theories of disasters clearly state that the social and economic position of an individual and household, including age, physical condition (eg health, disability), and gender determine who is most exposed to a disaster.

Studies show that migration has both positive and negative consequences when it comes to coping with disasters. In huge disasters like the one we just experienced, the migration of youths makes the household more vulnerable, as they are desperately required in such situations. However, in other conditions, like droughts, remittances can help families cope. In fact, remittances in Nepal have been helping to offset household food deficiency, even though, in some cases, it is also leading to less local food production. Undoubtedly, there are concerns about the sustainability of remittance-induced food security.

Remittances can help

The districts that have suffered the brunt of this disaster have heavy out-migration of able-bodied males. There is both internal migration (to Kathmandu) as well as long-distance migration to foreign countries. It is likely that many households have adult male members of the family working outside their homes, and almost half of them have one or more members in foreign countries. The impact of high out-migration was seen in various videos from the media in which mostly women and the elderly were shown to be digging through the remains of their homes with homemade tools to rescue the buried and excavate food and other valuables. The description of the affected districts, as posted on social media by many early rescuers, reveals the distressing situation regarding the presence of very few people involved in performing the final rites of their dead family members.

As we are past the rescue phase, in which the absence of migrants was greatly felt, we now need to see how far migrants’ money will be helpful in relief and reconstruction. In all likelihood, a substantial inflow of remittance will help. But we know that many Nepali migrants do not earn much and it is doubtful whether their income solely will be enough for relief, as it was barely enough even in normal times. We cannot expect remittances to be of much help in the reconstruction phase because it requires heavy investments at a time.

The migration of young people definitely has social and emotional costs especially in the event of such a disaster. This is especially true in our context where out-migration has become as a compulsion for many, rather than a matter of choice. These young migrants will surely be missed when the reconstruction phase begins.

Local for reconstruction

The way reconstruction is implemented will determine whether there will be more or less migration. If reconstruction is carried out in a way that employs local people and uses local materials, it will surely provide more opportunities for the young to work in their villages and districts. If this is carried out using imported materials (pre-fabricated materials) requiring specialised skills then this will lead to another economic and social disaster.

Such reconstruction will also not help in restoring the livelihoods of disaster-affected people. In this case, there could be heavy out migration—both internal and external. Internal migration will surely help increase the number of slums and ghettos in urban areas—further increasing disaster risks. I hope both the Nepali government and development partners pay attention to this fact. We have seen that reconstruction with the aim of employing local people has been practiced in developed countries during periods of economic recession. Therefore, development partners should have no problem with this approach to reconstruction.

Nepal’s villages do have local materials for the reconstruction of shelters. They have natural resources like stone quarries, soil/mud, and timber in their vicinity. Some of these materials could also be salvaged from dismantled houses. Studies have shown that enough timber can be obtained from community forests, but only if the government allows commercial harvesting of timber on a sustained-yield basis. Local people do have house-building skills, which may need to be augmented to make new houses that are earthquake-resistant. These resources and skills need to be fully used in the reconstruction phase. This could help restore livelihoods and possibly lessen the compulsion for young people to migrate.

Adhikari is a social scientist researching various aspects of development

Published: 12-05-2015 09:34

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