From the Rubble in Nepal: The Inequity of Earthquake Aid

This past Saturday, we watched as
Nepal was struck by a relentless series of large-magnitude earthquakes. With
more than 200 ensuing aftershocks, it has been incredibly difficult for us to
even get a decent night’s sleep. We worry that every tremble in the ground
could send the teetering remains of buildings crashing down around us or that
every rumble in the distance could be another rockslide heading straight in our
direction. Lying paralyzed in the darkness under a makeshift shelter on an
unstable mountainside reminds you that you’re at the
complete mercy of the earth’s unpredictable temper.

The week before we were staying with families in Simigaun, a small Sherpa-Tamang village to the northeast, a community with which Pitzer College has fostered an incredibly
tight-knit relationship. Not too long ago, Simigaun was a four-day walk from
the nearest road on the valley floor, but development associated with a recent
hydropower project has reduced the walk to just an hour and a half. Regardless, the hills are so steep that once
in the village, a sense of distance is developed vertically rather than
horizontally. 

Every family living there is unimaginably hard-working, and their
lives are very much self-made. They lug
human-sized loads on their backs in order to transport anything throughout the
village. Every meal they cook with firewood that has been cut and collected
from the surrounding forest, and every house is hand-built from 50-pound
rocks retrieved around the hill.

Immediately prior to the first quake, we were spread out with our families—some chatting after finishing up the
morning’s daalbhaat or working in the
fields, others attending the inauguration ceremony for the new primary school
perched on top of the village. 

I realized we were experiencing Nepal’s long overdue next
‘big one.’ I could barely look straight with my head shaking so much, and I
legitimately feared being thrown off the top of the mountain. When the madness
finally subsided, mothers dropped to their knees screaming in despair for their
children. We ran past bloody men covered in dust and jumped over fissures in
the road. The village coalesced in an open area up top, where anyone with basic
first aid training began treating the injured. There was a tense half-hour or so when we
weren’t sure which Pitzer students had made it out, but luckily, everyone was
safe.

Aftershocks
through the night elicited screams of “Pheri
ayo, pheri ayo!
(It’s come again)” from students and villagers camped
outside in small temporary shelters called ghats. Although things had settled down the next morning, another large quake struck
around 1:00 p.m., simultaneously breaking the resolve of everyone who thought the
ordeal was over and the last of the standing homes. We
turned around to see a gargantuan cloud of dust billowing over the ridge of one
of the nearby mountains—the entire mountain side was being sloughed off. 

Although our original intent was to stay and help with the clean-up and recovery
process, the second quake significantly escalated the severity of the
situation, and we were forced to evacuate with the Nepali army. The villagers
of Simigaun were exceptionally positive and resilient in the wake of losing
almost everything; they cooked every
meal for us, built our shelters and even helped us retrieve all our belongings
from the ruins of their houses, all while keeping smiles on their faces. 

Perhaps they did not really need our help or we would have just gotten in the
way, but as we were whisked off by a helicopter and the village fell out of
sight, we vowed to contribute to the recovery of this village and others like
it in whatever way we could.              

Our efforts aside, how does aid get
to a village like Simigaun? Unsurprisingly, the global media has been providing
significant coverage of the disaster to all corners of the world, and major relief
efforts have already been mobilized. But where is the focus? 

Immediately after
our evacuation, we were confronted by a curious journalist from the Telegraph
prowling at the exit to the Kathmandu airport. However, once he realized that
we were students rescued from the hills rather than high-altitude
trekkers—actually lamenting, “Only 6,500 feet? That’s not very high”—he wandered off in search of stories that fit his
agenda. 

Having just left a village in awful condition, we had hoped to capitalize on the media attention to
raise awareness for a community we significantly cared about. But our story was less marketable, so it was
stifled. 

This reflects the alarming phenomenon that disaster coverage,
especially in the case of developing countries, tends to be sensationalized and
horrendously clustered to what a few journalists deem to be the ‘hardest hit’ areas and the stories people want to hear. Who is not receiving the aid or
whose story is not disseminated to the world? 

Simigaun is an example of a place
that really suffers from being overlooked by media coverage. Without adequate
attention, hope of receiving any significant help in a rural area
dwindles. Even though villagers are
usually able to meet their day-to-day needs, objectively they take in very
little money. As such, anything that requires them to participate extensively
in the formal economy, like rebuilding from a disaster, is especially
difficult. To make things worse, because most forms of house or life insurance
is out of reach in the country, all expenses not covered by aid dollars must be
taken out of pocket. 

In the saddest example of this, a father in Simigaun had
just finished building a new house for which he took out a $15,000 loan. The
house hadn’t even been lived in for a single day before the earthquake wiped it
out. Before he can even think of rebuilding, he has to figure out some way to
repay the entire loan. 

There are lots of stories similar to his. Accessibility
also poses a major problem. Pre-natural disaster, it took a nine-hour bus
ride in addition to a one-and-a-half-hour hike up to reach Simigaun from
Kathmandu, but after several high-magnitude earthquakes and countless
rockslides, any hope of delivering aid to inhabitants will be delayed for weeks.  

This means that until raw materials for rebuilding homes manage to reach the
villagers, they will be forced to live out the ensuing monsoon season in flimsy
tarp and bamboo shelters. Luckily no one suffered any life-threatening
injuries, as it took one-and-a-half days post-quake for Nepali police to arrive,
and two days before we saw any medical helicopters performing evacuations.

The problems faced by the people on
the ground persist far longer than the front page headlines ever will.
Kathmandu and high-traffic trekking areas have been severely
affected, but comparatively they are extremely visible and easily accessible by
government and aid-giving agencies. According to the latest census figures, 43
percent of the population live in the hill regions of Nepal.  

Naturally, there is a large dissonance
between the proportion of the rural hill population and the coverage they are
receiving in the media. This overlook affects the amount of first-response
and long-term help they receive. 

Major news agencies have done a thorough job
of showing you all one part of the current situation on the ground in Nepal,
but as you ride the momentum of the immediate aftermath and contribute to
relief efforts, we hope you keep in mind that many places outside the covered
areas could really use the help.

Vinay Srinivasan PO ’16 and Hugo Ho PO ’16 were studying abroad in Nepal, where they participated in Pitzer’s semester-long program there.

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