Nepal is Worse Off Than You Think

Yesterday morning, I checked the news to see that Nepal had been hit by a disastrous earthquake that shook the entire country, both literally and metaphorically. The death toll is at 2,500 and rising; international relief efforts are already underway.

As it turns out, yesterday was also the six-month anniversary of my return home from my trip to Nepal last year— and I feel more connected to the country yesterday than at anytime since I got back. Reading through the articles detailing the devastation in Nepal, I recognize many of the place names and landmarks. And I find myself all too able to visualize what the earthquake may have done to the country’s infrastructure.

Even when I was there, Nepal was an impoverished country with poor infrastructure and a dysfunctional government that was not even close to capable of tackling the enormous problems it faced. Electricity is spotty, even in the major cities, where multi-hour outages multiple times a day are the norm. Cholera epidemics are still a regular threat, and the water in the city mains barely qualifies as drinkable. (To Westerners, it doesn’t.) Pollution and dust in the air in Kathmandu is so bad that most people wear masks if they’re going to spend any amount of time near busy roads or commercial districts. Many people who spend more than a few days in the city without such a mask will find themselves dealing with lung and throat problems.

Once you get outside of the main cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara, the roads are often barely navigable, if at all– even the main “highway” between the country’s two biggest cities is a narrow two-lane road that isn’t always paved. Get off the main highways, and you’re lucky if the roads are navigable at all– landslides are a constant problem, and most of the roads need to be cleared or even have portions rebuilt every year after the monsoon season. When we took a six-hour car trip from the end of the Annapurna Circuit to Pokhara, we burst two tires just thanks to the conditions of the road, and I get the sense our experience was not unusual at all. How the buses and trucks that regularly traverse these roads don’t just rip themselves apart after a month is still something of a mystery to me.

Which is why I worry that the initial death toll and damage from the earthquake is only the beginning. Nepal’s population is spread out; many or even most people live in small towns or hamlets deep in the countryside, in remote valleys or perched on high mountainsides, and the roads and trails connecting them to their neighbors may be completely wiped out. Getting emergency food supplies or medical aid to these remote places may be a nigh-on impossible task– it was hard
enough even before the quake, when many such trails were only passable by motorbikes or donkeys– and the high altitude makes it difficult to operate helicopters in mountainous regions.

I suppose I say all this because, no matter what you read about this quake, the effects are almost certainly worse and further-ranging than you imagine, and the damage will be much longer-lasting and harder to fix than it seems.

I suppose if there will be a bright side to this situation, it’s that some of Nepal’s long-standing infrastructure problems may get fixed, or at least improved upon… but that depends on the country and the aid workers having the money and resources to do things right, rather than just band-aid over the problems enough to get in emergency relief and then leave.

The world’s spotlight is on Nepal, and I hope the people of Nepal– and everyone else who is helping there right now– are able to solve not just the short-term problems of food and medical relief, but maybe make some progress on issues like running water, electricity, and health care, so that the day-to-day lives of the people of Nepal are improved, and so that the country will be better able to cope the next time disaster strikes.

With that said, please consider donating to one of the organizations working in Nepal. It is a beautiful, wonderful country with amazing people and an outstandingly rich cultural heritage, but it’s also one of the least developed countries in the world, with very little infrastructure, and nowhere near enough economic or political resources to deal with a disaster of this magnitude without outside help.

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