World·CBC in Nepal

Nepal still largely in ruins 1 year after earthquake

One year after the devastating earthquake that claimed almost 9,000 lives in Nepal, most of those who lost homes remain in temporary accommodations and millions of dollars in aid money remain unspent, CBC's Saša Petricic reports.

Nepalese blame government corruption for massive delays in reconstruction effort

Saša Petricic returns to Nepal, one year after a devastating earthquake shook that country. Most of the rubble is gone, but rebuilding is slow. 2:15

The old man chooses his rocks carefully from the pile. One is too big, another too flat. But his options are limited as he desperately tries to build a shelter before the monsoons come in a few weeks. He uses nothing more than the chipped remains of his old house, and mud.

"Someone should help me build this, but there is no help from anywhere," Rudra Dhital says. "And no money. If we get another big earthquake, I'm sure this house will not last. It will fall on top of us. But what else can I do?"

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not here in Sindhupalchowk, in the rugged foothills of the Himalayas, where about 3,500 people died in the earthquake on April 25, 2015. Not anywhere in Nepal, where the disaster claimed more than 8,700 lives.

A girl walks through rubble in Sindhupalchowk district a year after her home was destroyed in the April 25, 2015, earthquake. Many parts of Nepal still lie in ruins, with little sign of progress despite the millions of dollars that have flowed into the country. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

A year ago, when the 7.8 magnitude quake knocked down Dhital's home along with 600,000 others across the country, he was told there would be money and materials, hope and help. The humanitarian groups reached his remote village with emergency aid, tarps and sheets of corrugated metal. The world community promised billions of dollars for Nepal.

So far though, promises are all Dhital and most Nepalis have. That, and a year's worth of emergency aid, the temporary materials international organizations rush into disaster zones just to make sure people survive for a while. But it is a bandage, not a cure.

Aid money remains unspent

"Usually at this point, one year on, you are seeing much more of a recovery as opposed to an emergency response," said Mike Bruce, a Canadian working with the relief group Plan International.

He was here in the days after the earthquake, and he's been back regularly since.

Many aid organizations have been active in Nepal, and many foreign governments have sent money. Of the $4.4-billion US pledged globally, about $2.8-billion US has been delivered. 

That includes $51.7 million Cdn, a mix of private donations and matching funds from Ottawa that were set aside in the month after the disaster, according to numbers released today by the Global Affairs department.

'There is no help,' says Rudra Dhital, villager from Sindhupalchowk district who is rebuilding a shelter out of old stones and mud out of desperation. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Very little of that has been spent, and virtually none of it has been spent on rebuilding permanent schools or housing. That's largely because the government of Nepal ​has only now come up with a plan to construct earthquake-resistant houses; ​it's just finishing up ​lists of who is eligible for government subsidies; and ​only today, on the first anniversary of the quake, are ​non-governmental organizations ​being ​given the go-ahead to build anything but temporary housing. 

The government says the delays are unfortunate and blames a constitutional crisis that occurred a few months after the earthquake. It sparked protests, which blocked a key border crossing with India and led to shortages of fuel and supplies in Nepal. Ram Thapaliya, joint secretary of the National Reconstruction Authority, says delay​s were unavoidable and promises widespread reconstruction is now set to begin.

Thousands of Nepalis still live in tents or other temporary housing a year after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,700 people and left more than 600,000 homeless. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"It is very frustrating … to me also," said Thapaliya. "But there is no faster way. Within a very short span of time, we can't build 600,000 houses, not within two, three months. It takes time."

Corruption blamed for delays

But that hasn't quelled the anger. Many believe government corruption is the real cause of delays.

Kashish Shrestha is an environmental activist in Kathmandu.

"'Where's the money?' has been the big question," he said. "And there is no clear answer to that.

After a year, it is time for kids to be able to go to permanent schools. It is time for families to be able to rebuild their house.- Mike Bruce, aid worker, Plan International

"I think what people really care about at this point is just to get the work done. Don't just take the money. Don't just make it out-and-out corruption. People are saying, 'If there's a percentage involved [that goes in bureaucrats' pockets], that's fine, but get the work done!' That's the least we can expect at this point."

Even the NGOs are frustrated.

The capital, Kathmandu, still has a tent city that houses thousands of Nepalis who lost their homes. 'I see no way out of here,' said one frustrated resident whose one-year-old daughter has known no other home. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"You know, we understand that the government wants to get rebuilding right," said Bruce. "And we understand that the government has faced enormous challenges, but at the same time, after a year, it is time for kids to be able to go to permanent schools. It is time for families to be able to rebuild their house."

Indeed, the villages and neighbourhoods I see here look no different than the hard-hit areas I saw in the days right after the earthquake: piles of rubble.

Children in Shikharpur play in newly built houses which replace old homes destroyed in last year’s earthquake. The village is one of the few to have more permanent homes built, with the help of $ 1 million in reconstruction funds from Canada. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

One exception is the small village of Shikharpur, perched on a hillside overlooking the Bagmati River, east of Kathmandu. Its blue, metal roofs glint in the sunshine. Children run around excitedly through the frames of temporary houses that are a huge improvement over the wreckage they replaced. This and a handful of other villages are being helped by $1-million from the Canadian government and another $350,000 donated through Plan International.

Training villagers to build better

A key component of the rebuilding effort has been training villagers to lay brick.

"This is so different from how we used to make houses," said Ram Majdhi, as he spread mortar. "It's much stronger."

Majdhi lost five members of his family in the earthquake.

Some of the Canadian money has gone toward training people to build sturdier homes. 'With these walls, if another earthquake happened, we'd be safe,' said Shikharpur resident Ram Majdhi. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"With these walls, if another earthquake happened, we'd be safe," he said.

But this construction activity is rare in the countryside and only slightly more common in Kathmandu, where those with enough money to rebuild have started. Some are investing in much stronger foundations and reinforced brick and concrete walls, a novelty here.

Even in Kathmandu, though, the tent cities persist.

My dreams are gone, and after this year, I just worry about surviving.- Bagwar Gdadji , 19

Several thousand Nepalis call a dusty lot in the middle of the capital home. Aid organizations occasionally drop by with a load of rice or maybe some medical help, but they have largely moved their operations to the countryside, where the need is considered greater. People here say they can't remember when someone from the Nepali government last visited.

Villagers in Shikharpur are the exception. Most people in Nepal who lost homes in the quake are still living in rubble. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

In tent No. 375, I find 19 year-old Bagwar Gdadji. She is breastfeeding her daughter and worrying that the baby isn't getting enough nutrition. Her baby was born on the day of the earthquake last year, and the family moved into the tent shortly after. The house where they lived was destroyed.

Villagers in Shikharpur are building houses with stronger foundations and reinforced brick and concrete walls in an effort to make them more earthquake resistant. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Gdadji says aid workers have only come to see her once in the past year. There have been no offers of subsidies for housing, which has become much more expensive in Kathmandu since the quake.

"I had dreams for her before she was born," says Gdagji, glancing at her daughter. "Now, I see no way out of here. My dreams are gone, and after this year, I just worry about surviving."

Only a small portion of the $2.8-billion US in aid the country has received has been spent, and Nepal's citizens are losing patience. What 'people really care about at this point is just to get the work done,' said local environmental activist Kashish Shrestha. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic