Opinion & Analysis

Two years on, Nepal is still picking up the pieces

Manawatu Standard emergency services and defence reporter Kirsty Lawrence and photographer Warwick Smith travelled to Nepal in March to find out how the country has fared two years after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck. Lawrence reflects on her two-week experience.

OPINION: I was in Christchurch when the February 2011 earthquake struck.

Since then, earthquakes have always affected me. Even though I no longer live in Christchurch, I’ve continued to keep a close eye on the rebuild.

When Nepal experienced a deadly quake in April 2015, I became curious about how a developing nation would recover from such a tragedy.

The devastation from the 2015 quake was on a much larger scale: The lives of more than 8 million people were turned upside down. The recovery and rebuild also posed a bigger challenge, with a reticent government and isolation issues.

I headed to Nepal with photographer Warwick Smith for two weeks in March to see how these issues were tackled and how the country was faring two years on.

The road to Uhyia

Damaged buildings in Gorkha, Nepal

Damaged buildings in Khorla Besi, Gorkha, Nepal. (Photo: Warwick Smith)

Our goal for the first five days was to visit the remote village of Uhyia, located in the Gorkha region where the earthquake was centred.  

The journey to Uhyia was not easy.

A community of about 350 households, Uhyia is situated in a location 2200 metres above sea level. The main trail up to the village had been destroyed in the earthquake, leaving the residents cut off from the world. Access in and out of the village had only recently been restored, three months shy of the quake's two-year anniversary.

Getting there from the city centre of Kathmandu required two days of travel: A bumpy seven-hour drive and an eight-hour walk on the first day, as well as a four-hour uphill hike the following day.

Along the way, we stopped by many small villages that litter the once-populated trail.

Everyone had a story.

Many villages had not had power since the earthquake struck, and residents had been saving up to get it back on. They were not expecting any help from the government.

The lack of power was not the only issue. Tourism numbers in the area were still down, so guesthouses lay empty and money was tight.

Most people who owned guesthouses down this section of the trail told us visitor numbers were effectively half of what they had been pre-quake.

Active landslides were also still a threat in the area. A week prior to us arriving, four men died.

Trekkers were preferring to stick to the more popular trails, which were deemed to be safer, said the owners.

Interrupted travel plans

Even the best laid plan can go awry. We found ourselves meeting with bad luck, as rain and a driver’s strike interrupted our travel plans. 

We had initially planned to leave on a Monday and get back to Kathmandu on a Friday. But the weather packed in, which was unexpected, and the strike lasted two days.

This meant we were stuck on the trail for an additional day, and we were unable to return to Kathmandu until Sunday.

We had to adjust our itinerary for the second week due to these unforeseen circumstances.

Instead of visiting some temporary shelters which were mostly located outside Kathmandu Valley, we headed to hospitals around Kathmandu to talk to some people who were injured while living in temporary shelters.

Grim sights at hospitals 

Injured baby at Kanti Children's Hospital

An injured baby at Kanti Children's Hospital, Nepal. (Photo: Warwick Smith)

Burns Violence Survivors (BVS) is a charity that helps burns victims in Nepal.

They say there's been an increase in the number of children sustaining burns post-quake, mostly due to hot pots of water or oil being left out on the ground at temporary quake shelters – accidents that haven't stopped.

As healthcare is not free in Nepal, families already rendered homeless by the quakes have been further burdened with expensive medical bills, as they wait for their children to recover in hospital.

Mothers at the Kanti Children’s Hospital in Kathmandu spoke emotionally about the toll that the burns were taking on their children.

Nurses and doctors opened up to us about the lack of staff and funding at the hospital.

At the Bir Hospital 6km away, we interviewed a doctor about the damage to the building. The burns ward had been destroyed and was moved – a move which was looking to be permanent, said a BVS volunteer.

We also met and interviewed the editor of the Nepali Times, Kunda Dixit. He gave us a perspective of how he felt the Nepalese government handled the earthquake right after it struck, the state of the affected regions two years on, and how the local elections in May would affect the country.

A wealth of stories

Our time in Nepal was hugely insightful and productive.

We spoke to many people, and hundreds of photos were taken. The hardest part wasn’t getting the material, but working out what to do with it all.

I feel like we achieved a lot with our trip and the series of content, published on Stuff, reflects that.

Even though we encountered some issues that changed our plans, I think we dealt with the adjustments well, and managed to get valuable stories and different perspectives from voices in Nepal.

Kirsty Lawrence and Warwick Smith's trip to Nepal was made possible with the help of an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant. They were able to visit remote villages in Gorkha with the assistance of the World Food Programme.

– Asia Media Centre