As the death toll from the recent earthquake in Nepal passed 8,400, public frustration with the Nepalese government’s inadequate disaster response is growing.
Survivors of the 7.8 magnitude Gorkha quake, which destroyed more than 300,000 homes and injured 16,000, have complained that help is arriving too slowly or not at all. Residents of isolated villages northeast of Kathmandu—where the impact of the earthquake was the greatest—have been especially impacted by the slowdown.
"We will die if there is no help from the government or other organizations," Dhan Bahadur Shresta, a resident of Deupur Sipaghat Kavre, a village close to the Tibetan border, told the BBC. “We will starve to death and could get diseases like cholera and dysentery and there could be an epidemic.”
District officials blame the country’s geographical and infrastructural issues for the lack of aid. In many cases, tough road conditions, landslides, and rubble from buildings destroyed by the earthquake make it nearly impossible to reach the already isolated mountain villages.
While those issues have impeded disaster relief efforts, the Nepalese government also played a part in hindering the distribution of emergency relief supplies, especially in the critical three days following the quake. Authorities obstructed the international disaster response efforts by insisting on following a long list of rules and regulations, including custom inspections and import taxes, according to the New York Times and other reports. As a result of all the red tape, supplies for the survivors were piling up the airport and other border crossings.
“They should not be using peacetime customs methodology,” United Nations Resident Representative Jamie McGoldrick told Reuters. “All relief material should get a blanket exemption from checks on arrival.”
Nepalese officials denied that the government was responsible for the hold up. After several days, however, the government loosened custom requirements somewhat and lifted import taxes on items such as tarpaulin and tents. But the damage had been done and the aid backlog at the airport didn’t clear until May 7.
Bureaucracy wasn’t the only thing bottlenecking relief, though. A severe shortage of supply trucks and drivers also delayed the ability to get assistance to the farthest reaches of the country.
“Our granaries are full and we have ample food stock, but we are not able to transport supplies at a faster pace,” said Shrimani Raj Khanal, a manager at Nepal Food Corporation told The Guardian.
It’s clear that the Nepal’s fragmented government has been overwhelmed by the devastation from the earthquake and is unable to manage the relief operation efficiently.
“The disaster has been so huge and unprecedented that we have not been in a position to meet the expectations of the needy people,” Nepal Communications Minister Minendra Rijal was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera. “But we are ready to accept our weakness, learn and move ahead in the best way possible.”
Some might wonder why a country in such a seismically vulnerable area wasn’t better prepared to deal with the aftermath of the devastating quake. Politics is the likely answer, according to David Gellner, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford.
Gellner posits that Nepal’s ability to coordinate relief efforts were hampered by unresolved government issues and a lack of strong leadership. Seemingly unrelated political strife—for instance, Nepal has not had a constitution since its ten-year civil war ended in 2006—are magnified during disaster.
“It might be tempting to think that delays over writing Nepal’s long-awaited constitution don’t matter, that life can go on as normal without political resolution,” Gellner wrote in The Conversation. “But the earthquake shows just how vital it is to have political institutions that work, both at the center and, even more importantly, at the local level.”
Local elections in Nepal have been continually postponed since 2002 as residents await the finalization of the constitution.
“As a consequence, in most of the country, there are no political leaders with sufficient legitimacy to lead and coordinate relief efforts at the village and district levels,” Gellner wrote. “And it is in the mountain villages north of Kathmandu where most affected victims of the earthquake are, in many cases, still awaiting help.”