Beyond the Valley

  • In the aftermath of the quake, there is a need to follow the people, not just the flattened buildings
- John Bevan
Beyond the Valley

May 19, 2015-

The obvious visible impact of a quake is the destruction of buildings. It is not surprising that journalists, donors, and governments alike become hypnotised by broken buildings, but this hides the multitude of other impacts, such as the displacement of people.  

Haiti, lost opportunity

In Haiti, some 600,000 people fled the devastated capital, according to the tracking of mobile phones by some foreign students. Most probably went to their parental homes in villages; others just anywhere other than the hell of Port-au-Prince (PauP). Their departure was a real blessing to PauP, whose infrastructure has been overwhelmed since the introduction of assembly plants in the 1970s. Yet, nothing was done to encourage these people to remain ‘outside’, as they say in Haiti. I suspect that a small amount of money, tiny given the oceans of dollars swishing around PauP, could have provided an incentive to stay in the provinces.Instead ‘cash for work’ (what is work other than for cash? Slavery?)programmes in PauP actually attracted new rural dwellers into the capital--so PauP soon returned to its bloated self and the next opportunity to ‘decentralise’, the stated aim of successive governments, will cost a whole lot more.

Donors and governments tend to want to spend money where the ruins are, and identifying the location of the victims who own those ruins is much more complicated. Someone who lost their house in PauP pretty much lost their chance of compensation or aidby not remaining next to their rubble with an outstretched hand.

Outside Kathmandu

The Nepal quake had much, much less impact on its capital  than its Haitian predecessor. While international media coverage went overboard on the sad sights of beautiful pagoda temples in ruins, distorting the real impact of the quake on poor peasants on a vast arc of the mid-hill areas to the north of Kathmandu, it was accurate to the extent that few new buildings fell while old brick monuments and housing crumbled. It is almost possible to drive across the town and not really spot that there has been a quake--the damage could be construed as redevelopment of old sites for new building. And Sindhupalchowk, a relatively small rural district, ended up having lost many more souls than the Capital.But by the end of week one, it had received barely any aid. And ‘access’ is not an excuse any more than it is in the eight worst-hit districts--Sindhupalchowkis about three hours away from Kathmandu on a good road. Of course, like most hill districts, there are many hamlets that have no road and so,are a long walk from even their own main town.  And even fewer wards are more than a couple of hours walk from a potential helicopter landing zone.

Nonetheless, the media is reporting that hundreds of thousands have left Kathmandu.  This means losing income--part of which would have been sent back to the families and communities upon whom they are now dependent, an extra mouth to feed in places where there is little to spare.

Reviving Rautahat?

I was particularly struck by one newspaper report that 10,000 people had ‘gone back’ to Rautahat district, which the 2014 Human Development Report reveals to be one of the most deprived. Noone calls them Internally Displaced People (IDPs), but that is what they are. If you are forced from your ‘habitual’ residence by disaster, natural or human, you are an IDP wherever you go inside the country, whether you move a few yards to your home village. Rautahat, like one or two other places I have seen to, appears to have little to recommend it; in fact, it appears to have little at all. It was the scene in 2007 of one of the worst incidents of violence, when 27 Maoist cadres were hacked to death by who knows who. It’s the sort of place that makes you realise why working on a chain gang for the 2020 World Cup could look attractive, even for a pittance and condemnation to migrant labour barracks--and plenty of young people in their prime have made that move. And now 10,000 are reported to have voluntarily returned from a Kathmandu that was clearly reviving within a few days of the quake.

This displacement really is an ‘opportunity’, but so far, there is no sign of anyone--donor, NGO, or ministry--giving it a moment’s thought. Ten or twenty thousand dollars could transform Gaur, the district capital, from nothing to something. And potentially reducing the population of overcrowded Kathmandu by say 10 to15 percent would make the Capital lessunmanageable.

Whole picture

But no, let’s get back to the collapsed buildings--that’s where the action is. Odd.

Perhaps this is just another symptom of the psychological impact of a quake on decision makers. The first thing that breaks after the quake is the ability of the governing class to take decisions, for a variety of reasons, from poor communications to trauma.  Participation, planning, and inclusion lie forlorn in a pile but unlike the rubble, they are invisible.

It took a long time for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to be recognised as a real thing--now for the other overlooked consequences of big natural disasters. Let’s look at the whole picture, not exclusively the rubble and dust.

Bevan worked for the UN in Nepal in 2003/4 and 2006/7. He also worked in Haiti both before and after the 2010 earthquake


Published: 20-05-2015 07:45

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