Nearly six months after the devastating Gorkha Earthquake in Nepal, thousands of survivors are bracing for winter without adequate shelter or supplies, thanks in large part to a fuel crisis that has hobbled aid agencies and severely limited travel throughout the country.
More than 8 million people affected by the April 25 quake are in need of relief, but those in the High Mountains have been especially impacted. There, the fuel shortage—coupled with extreme damage to roads and infrastructure—has left relief organizations unable to reach remote communities where many remain exposed to the elements. An estimated 81,000 people are still in dire need of basic relief items and time is running out to supply them, according to those working in the area.
“The fuel crisis is narrowing the window we have to reach communities before the cold winter sets in,” John Augsburger, Oxfam International’s Humanitarian Director in Nepal, said in a statement last week. “Temperatures frequently drop below zero in mountainous Nepal and this is going to take its toll on earthquake survivors—particularly the elderly, pregnant women, and children.”
While geographical and infrastructure issues play a large part in hindering aid, politics and bureaucracy have also frustrated efforts to assist survivors. The latest round of political posturing to thwart relief efforts comes in the wake of Nepal’s controversial new constitution, which was ratified in September.
Not only has haggling over the constitution delayed the creation of a National Reconstruction Authority (which will eventually distribute $4 billion in donor funds earmarked for rebuilding), but opposition to the new charter has also significantly contributed to the fuel shortage.
The crisis developed shortly after leaders approved the new constitution, which critics say marginalizes ethnic minorities such as the Madhesi and Tharu. The deep divide has led to a months-long strike that has shut down businesses and transport routes, as well as protests that blocked a key route for imports such as oil and food.
The situation has been worsened still by what Nepali officials say amounts to an economic blockade by India, which has publically criticized the constitution and provides all of Nepal’s fuel. India, however, has denied those accusations, saying that the shortages are the result of the violent protests.
“Our freight forwarders and transporters ... [have] voiced complaints about the difficulties they are facing in movement within Nepal and their security fears, due to the prevailing unrest,” according to a New Delhi statement quoted in The Guardian. “Nepalese leadership needs to address the causes underlying the present state of confrontation credibly and effectively. Issues of differences should be resolved.”
Government officials on both sides are working to break the impasse, said Minendra Rijal, Nepal’s Minister of Information and Communications.
“We have been engaging in diplomatic dialogue with India regarding the blockade,” he told The Guardian. “The prime minister has also promised to address [the Madhesi] demands. We believe that the situation will return to normal soon.”
It’s unclear if China’s fuel deliveries will be sufficient to ease the problems caused by the shortage, though, which is unfortunate for those left vulnerable by the quake. In addition to restricting the travel of aid workers and the distribution of relief goods, it has also pushed up prices of construction materials. Health facilities are struggling to keep generators running and have reported shortages of medicine and other medical supplies.
What is certain is that if no answer is found for the current crisis the progress made in Nepal’s disaster recovery will come undone, said Disasters Emergency Committee Chief Executive Saleh Saeed.
“The relief efforts made great gains in the first few months of the response [after the earthquake], helping hundreds of thousands of people meet their immediate needs, despite the difficult mountainous terrain and huge logistical challenges,” Saeed said in a statement. “If something is not done to resolve the current crisis, these crucial steps towards recovery would start to reverse.”