It was always going to happen – Nepal has been expecting and preparing for an earthquake for at least a decade, raising public awareness, adopting building codes and reinforcing buildings, training up disaster rescue services. But no one imagined this order of magnitude, 7.9 on the Richter scale, and no one anticipated so many, additionally devastating aftershocks.
As of day 4, more than 4300 persons have perished, over 8000 are injured. The number of homeless has not been registered yet. As always in such disasters, the youngest, the poorest, and those living in remote areas, are the worst affected: children who were running about in narrow alleyways, poor people who were living in the musty, low-ceilinged brick housing of ancient towns, people in far-away mountain villages – some of which now completely obliterated. Of the 3 million children under 5, at least 1 million are directly affected - hurt, displaced, traumatised.
For foreigners who spent a period of their life living in Kathmandu, the horror is very close. It is close emotionally, because one anxiously awaits news of friends and colleagues. It is close at the very egotistical level, because one thinks ‘it could have happened while I lived there’ – there were monthly earthquake preparedness practices, obligatory stocks of drinking water and food staples kept at home, designated gathering points in town which one would be able to find even if one had to make one’s way through mountains of debris. No one ever mentioned corpses when we did those exercises. Now, body bags are on the list of items requested most urgently by the Nepal crisis centre.
The horror is also close intellectually: one is aware how poor Nepal is. It is one of the least developed countries in the world, and the poorest in terms of per capita income in all of Asia. More than half the population struggle to survive on less than $2 per day, which is why every year one quarter of the young men migrate to exploitative jobs in India or the Gulf States. Forty per cent of children under 5 are chronically undernourished, and women in rural villages, in the informal economy, or with have ethnic or religious minority backgrounds remain illiterate. Social exclusion and gender discrimination are intrinsic to the social fabric, based on a racist caste system. Governance is weak. 18 000 people died in a civil war not so long ago.
But Nepal is also a country which despite its fate of recurrent tragedies works hard to create a “new Nepal” with an inclusive society, a democratic secular polity, vocal media and civil society, and bold innovative social policies. A country that is polyglot, religiously tolerant, and welcomes all who come to visit or stay.
The personal, subjective horror of the outside observer, the sadness over yet another tremendous setback to this proud and beautiful and determined nation, is nothing compared to the trauma and pain and shock of our friends in Nepal. For the moment, we outside can cry. Those in the country cannot as they must cope and start rebuilding their lives.
Gabriele Köhler, Munich
Lived and worked with UNICEF in Nepal from 2005-2009