The earthquake that shook up a government

Dec 27, 2017
3 Min. Read

In Nepal, disaster has ignited a newfound commitment to resilience among citizens and legislators.

The goats need herding; the maize needs milling. The children might even make it to school.

But in most of Nepal’s newly-drawn rural municipalities, finding fresh water is a village’s first and most pressing priority of the day. A catastrophic earthquake in April 2015 killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000, shaking the Kathmandu Valley and crumbling several of its centuries-old buildings. A rescue effort began immediately.

“The first responders acted swiftly,” said Bruce Pollock, a Senior Consultant at ICF based in Kathmandu. “But the bulk of the recovery effort still lies ahead.”

Every 15 minutes, aftershocks amplified travelers’ fear and confusion as the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu shut down. Evacuated passengers waited outside on the tarmac while the airport swelled to capacity. Its running water and sewage system eventually stopped altogether.

The fallout at the airport foreshadowed what would become a national quagmire for the native Nepalese.

6,000 rivers, scarce drinking water

The poorest country in South Asia is a vision of struggle amidst beauty. Mount Everest’s colossal peaks overshadow the hazy pollution smog in Kathmandu. With 6,000 rivers, Nepal ranks second only to Brazil in abundance of water resources—but only 37 percent of the population maintains access to improved sanitation facilities.

Population growth in the Kathmandu Valley is booming at four percent a year, a rate the current water supply cannot sustain. As the country experiences rapid urbanization, the economic divide has exacerbated access to clean drinking water.

Urban pollution contributes to water that runs an unruly risk of diarrhea and related diseases, but in rural Nepali women trek miles a day just to obtain any water at all. In the countryside, they make multiple half-hour trips to the nearest water source, according to ICF experts. The opportunity cost of dehydration weighs heavily on families in a country that struggles with lifting future generations out of poverty.

In response to the issues cascading down social tiers, officials have taken a long-term systemic approach to infrastructure reform. But is it possible to rebuild something that didn’t exist in the first place?

“Access to water has historically been nonexistent for half the population,” said Pollock. “So there’s a certain balance to achieve between long-term overhaul and short-term fixes in quality.”

Rebounding from a natural and ‘institutional’ earthquake

As international aid began to arrive in response to the earthquake, Nepali leaders’ challenges became a question of aid distribution and organization. Thus reignited a political tectonic shift within the governing bodies, beginning with a brand new Constitution.

“I see it as an institutional earthquake,” said Pollock. “The quake directly changed the function of local government.”

Nepali politics have evolved like a chess game—except the pawns and queens now play slightly different roles. The Constitution mandates the new legislative institutions to begin governing in January 2018, in which 33 percent of the seats are reserved for women. The progressive turn for gender equality in the region will follow democratic direct elections and party nominations.

But as women gain proportional representation in government, most are still preoccupied with keeping their families alive. Affordable access to clean water will test the resilience of the new federal institutions in this post-Communist nation.

In March 2017, citizens voted in local elections for the first time in 20 years. The government has declared new structures designed for more flexible and case-based implementation of post-earthquake recovery plans. With the country’s diverse landscape of rural and urban spaces, the model allows for foreign development partners (including European nations and the United States) to provide services with the Nepali government ultimately at the helm. To this end, foreign development assistance has played a critical role in recovery.

The existential challenge lies in the balance between international intervention and building national sovereignty.

“The way I see it, the newly elected local officials have opportunities to deliver resources to the people,” said Pollock. “And we’ve got a great opportunity to build on that foundation.”

Pollock’s team specializes in assisting the central and subnational governments in sustainable and pro-poor urban development. As political dynamics shift, the local government reorganization has left districts without a mandate to prepare for post-earthquake recovery, leaving ICF to create a uniquely agile management model. The team has served in the region since 1991. Their experience with shifting governments in Nepal has provided a unique perspective on its changing landscape.

For the poorest at-risk areas to reap the benefits of their new constitutional representation, the transition must be precisely executed. ICF has worked on long-term programs that reform Nepal’s public financial management, trickling grants and downward cash flow to villages—in the areas where the water scarcity tests daily survival.

“When the citizens grow their understanding and confidence in the role of government in providing services, that creates downward accountability,” Pollock said. “And that’s a beautiful solution.”

For now, the mood in the Kathmandu Valley and beyond is anticipatory. The newly reconstructed local bodies must tap into the vastness of the natural resources that lie within—with the eyes of the democratic world looking over one of its youngest republics.