by Donatella Lorch
KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepali citizens frustrated and angered by their government’s chaotic and bureaucratic response to aiding earthquake victims are doing it themselves. They’ve hired their own trucks and stuffed vehicles with plastic sheets for shelter and bags of rice and lentils for food.
Yet as each day passes since the magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit April 25, this self-help effort is becoming more complicated. Youth belonging to various political parties are putting up impromptu checkpoints on the road to the hardest hit areas or just chasing down vehicles with their motorbikes on narrow, isolated mountain roads and demanding the aid be handed over to them for distribution.
Such political maneuvering is not uncommon, but it is angering many Nepalis.
“I have nothing left. One daughter is buried under my house. my other daughter was sent to a hospital,” said Bhampagiri, 72, who lives in the hamlet of Pawachok, a two-hour drive from this capital city. “I have no food. Nothing. My house has collapsed so I sit here by the road and wait hoping someone will pass and help me,” said Bhampagiri, who goes by one name.
In the past week, the Nepali government has delayed customs clearance of international aid at Nepal’s only international airport in Kathmandu and has been levying duty on truckloads of tarps being bused in from India by Nepali Good Samaritans. At the same time, the Nepali government has asked international donors to help with an additional 400,000 tents and tarpaulins, as well as blankets.
The death toll is above 7,000 and is expected to rise significantly when hard hit but remote areas are reached. This week, the airport in Kathmandu received some much needed help from about 150 U.S. Marines.
Commanded by Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, the Marines are helping to ease the piled up backup of aid material. They have brought in a UH-17 helicopter and four MV-22 Ospreys capable of short landing and takeoffs with a maximum load of 20,000 pounds of cargo so they can access remote rural areas.
The Ospreys should help break the logistics bottleneck. They will be used to deliver food and plastic sheets to drop off points in the mountains, where relief teams will distribute them.
“Nepal is the worse case scenario,” said Kennedy, who has worked on natural disasters and knows Nepal well. “It’s landlocked, it’s high altitude, it is going to tax even our military assets.”
Access to food and shelter is critical in the coming days for hundreds of thousands of Nepalis in the mountains. The epicenter of the earthquake is an area with just a few narrow and unstable dirt roads carved out of sheer mountain sides, making access exceedingly difficult. Mud and brick houses are perched on tiny terraced fields with meandering goat trails leading to them.
The earthquake not only flattened villages, hamlets and towns but it also cut them off from the rest of the country with massive landslides. Many now can only be accessed on foot or by helicopter.
Before the arrival of the U.S. aircraft, Nepal had been using for relief operations 27 helicopters — seven belonging to the Nepal army, six from private companies and 14 from the Indian government. There is also a critical need for more trucks that can carry relief goods as far as the roads go into the mountains.
This is just the beginning of what disaster experts call “the sexy phase,” the first response period when the world is focused on the disaster and donations pour in. It is very important to get this phase right so that reconstruction can take off, said Bill Berger the head of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team .
“There is not enough capacity in the world to get everything to all the people of Nepal right now,” Berger said. “It has to move out based on need. We also have to plan the long-term.”
Nearly all the Nepalis in the mountains are farmers. Every village has lost most of its young men to the Middle East and Malaysia, where they go for years to work as menial migrant workers, leaving behind parents, wives and sisters who now must fend with the overwhelming recovery challenges ahead.
Sindhupalchok, Nepal’s hardest hit district, is a scene of total devastation. Some houses are just mounds of bricks, others are missing walls and roofs, and concrete buildings have fallen on their sides. While some aid has reached the devastation in the district’s capital, Chautara, no one has stopped to help the villages and hamlets along the way.