Two Years on, Reflections on the Nepal Earthquake and the Humanitarian Response

07 Jun 2017

The American Club is a large open space in the heart of Kathmandu where expatriates enjoy social and sports activities. This is where I was a little over two years ago with my kids on Saturday 25 April 2015, a date I will never forget.

I was coaching a dozen kids playing soccer , when just before noon we were all violently thrown to the ground by a huge wave. The green field became for seconds -- which felt like never-ending minutes -- a stormy ocean, forcing us to crawl towards each other to hold and reassure ourselves. 

The earth was rumbling, kids were screaming, buildings outside the perimeter of the club crumbling in clouds of dust, the club’s water reservoir erupting like a geyser. It felt like the end of the world. 

A 7.8 earthquake had hit Kathmandu. It would take the lives of close to 9,000 people and destroy and damage more than half a million houses. It was expected, but now it had thrown the lives of hundreds of thousands in chaos and it would change my role as Director of UNDP in Nepal for months to come. 

More than two years have passed since that day, but Nepal’s story will be in focus as world leaders and experts meet for the World Reconstruction Conference (WRC) in Brussels, this week. The aim of the conference is to explore how communities can recover faster from natural disasters and how they can build back better, so they are more resilient to such disasters. 

These are questions for Nepal. Looking back at the earthquake the challenging issue of assessing the response to it comes from all sides. Is the Government up to it? Has the UN risen to the challenge? Are NGOs doing enough? 

As much as I understand the importance of questioning the work, especially since a large majority of the funds spent to help victims comes from taxpayer money from all over the world, how does one respond to these seemingly simple questions? 

If humanitarian assistance is a race against time to save as many lives as possible after a disaster, reconstruction work is more a race for transforming victims into actors of their own recovery. 

Our goal at UNDP is to ensure lessons are learnt and homes rebuilt safer, especially in a country as vulnerable as Nepal.  The WRC could provide insight from across the world.  

Two years after the quake, tens of thousands of Nepali people continue to live in makeshift homes, getting ready for their third monsoon, having survived two winters in the foothills of the Himalayas.  

At this point we should be much further along, this should not be the case, it is unacceptable. Families are suffering, children are cold and hungry. On the other hand, after much political turmoil during the second half of 2015, the Government assisted by its development partners is working hard to assist in the reconstruction of new and safer homes. 

It is providing funding and technical assistance, reaching out to the most vulnerable in remote villages, while ensuring that resilience to natural hazards is strengthened. 

Whatever we do, however hard we work, the reality is reconstruction takes time, and people bear the burden.  

As development workers, we struggle with this dilemma, how to make things better for the needy, and do it faster. We are at it every day.