GIRANCHAUR, NEPAL: Giranchaur is the picture perfect village.
Children play on slides and swings in a small park which sits adjacent to rows of neatly built concrete houses with blue corrugated-iron roofs, complete with solar panels.
Elderly residents tend to vegetables in tiny kitchen gardens, watering their plants from the piped clean water supply. Yellow and pink Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the cool breeze outside the community hall-cum-monastery.
But newly constructed Giranchaur village is the exception rather than the rule two years after a massive earthquake struck impoverished Nepal — killing nearly 9,000 people and disrupting the lives of more than eight million people.
As the Himalayan nation – famed as the home of Mount Everest and the birthplace of Lord Buddha – marks the second anniversary of the quake on Tuesday, sluggish recovery has meant that less than a fifth of destroyed homes have been reconstructed.
“Earthquake reconstruction is a multi-year effort and should remain a high priority for many years to come. It can take time to get it right, and significant bottlenecks in reconstruction remain,” said Tristram D. Perry from the US Embassy in Kathmandu, which has provided over $170 million for rebuilding.
“For all those in transitional shelters and who lack safe structures for education and health services, quick progress is important.”
THE DAY THE EARTH SHOOK
Flanked by India on one side and China on the other, Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries.
One in four people live on less than $1.90 a day, one-third of children under five are underweight, and 40 percent of girls are married below 18. Foreign aid makes up around one-third of the country’s national budget.
So when the ground shook around noon on Saturday April 25 2015 – toppling buildings in the capital Kathmandu and flattening mud-and-brick homes in remote villages – the destruction was widespread.
Residential and government buildings, heritage sites, schools and health posts were left in ruins, rural roads bridges, water supply systems were snapped, agricultural land, trekking routes and hydropower plants were devastated.
In some areas, entire settlements, including popular tourist destinations like Langtang Valley, were swept away by landslides and avalanches triggered by the 7.8 magnitude quake.
Two years on, the recovery is limping. Less than 100,000 of the 525,000 required houses have been rebuilt or are under construction, according to the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), tasked with overseeing rebuilding.
But many flouting building codes introduced after the disaster, and exposing residents to fresh risks, says the NRA.
As a result, many of the eight million people hit by the disaster continue to live in temporary shelters in tarpaulin tents or bamboo huts in villages and towns across country.
International donors, who have pledged over $4 billion towards the estimated $9 billion required, blame the slow pace of reconstruction on numerous factors.
Political infighting, bureaucracy, poor management of funds, as well as a lack of building materials such as concrete, wood and steel, and few trained masons, carpenters and engineers have all played a major role, they said.
They also blame a six-month blockade where trucks carrying everything from petrol and medicines to building materials such as cement and steel, were blocked from entering the land-locked nation from India in the aftermath of the disaster.
“The pace could be expedited if more trained engineers and artisans were to be pressed into service,” said Kamran Akbar, Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the World Bank, which has pledged $500 million for reconstruction.
“Delays have also occurred on account of seasonal factors and the time it has taken to restore supply chains following the trade disruption last year.”
A TALE OF TWO QUAKE ZONES
The 350 residents of Giranchaur, 40 km (25 miles) east of Kathmandu, realise they are luckier than most – thanks to a local charity.
“Quick reconstruction became possible because of the Dhurmus Suntali Foundation,” said community leader Ram Bahadur Tamang referring to the charity founded by a popular Nepali television comedian couple.
“If we were to wait for the government we would still be in plastic tents. We are fortunate to get their support,” Tamang added as he sat on the verandah of a newly built house. Comedian Sita Ram Kattel, better known as Dhurmus, and wife Kunjana Ghimire or Suntali, collected more than half a million dollars in individual donations and built 65 separate houses.
Each house is earthquake resilient, has four rooms, a toilet, grain storage, water supply, drainage, solar panels for lights and roof-top television antenna.
The families here also run a “home stay” tourism promotion scheme where tourists stay with families and pay them directly for food, boarding and other services — generating additional income for the villagers who depend on subsistence farming. There are three children’s parks in the village as well as gardens, public toilets and a parking lot, in a model promoted as an example of what is possible in the quake-prone nation.
But not all quake survivors are as lucky.
Many are heavily reliant on government housing grants which are given out in tranches based on the construction of their homes meeting seismically-safe building standards.
In the town of Melamchi, just 20 minutes drive from Giranchaur, Pushkar Dhungana struggles to get the foundation of his new house certified as per the new building codes, so he can get funds from the government to build the next level.
“It is hard to find trained workers. The one I employed earlier went to Qatar for work. Finding a replacement is difficult,” said Dhungana.
Others have no idea of how to apply for government funds.
“I heard government is giving money to rebuild. But no one has come to me with any offer of help,” said Nati Kaji Maharjan sitting in hut by the side of a dusty trail near Melamchi.
While government officials admit initial bottlenecks, they say they are now on target to complete reconstruction by 2020, but say they need another $3 billion in donor aid.
NRA chief Govind Raj Pokharel said with the additional funds, the government wanted to encourage other villages to come together to replicate the Giranchaur model settlement. “We’ll provide roads, drinking water, electricity and financial support to promote integrated approach to rebuild,” said Pokharel.