“I wish I had not survived the earthquake” a middle-aged woman said when speaking with journalist Om Astha Rai at a local stall in Nepal. The sense of despair is sadly echoed across Nepal. At the onset of winter, a border blockade has exacerbated an already severe humanitarian crisis. Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is a long way from recovering from its 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April and aftershocks. The major quakes killed nearly 9,000 people and caused massive destruction.
But sadly today, on top of this devastation, a blockade is causing the worst economic crisis in Nepal’s modern history. A political dispute which erupted over the constitution turned into an India-Nepal border blockade. In effect since September, the blockade has cut off the flow of cooking gas, petroleum products and other vital goods into the country. What resources remain are too costly for most, and other vital goods have simply run out of stock. The Nepalese people face winter in the grip of a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Food Life under these circumstances has understandably become almost unbearable. With transportation and other vital resources on lock-down, Kathmandu has come to a virtual standstill. In rural villages, people can no longer afford to buy basic supplies. Many essentials need to be flown by air to remote areas, but with the lack of fuel they no longer reach them. A villager:
“to earn enough money for 2kg of rice, we have to do two days’ work, but the rice is not enough for the family for one day. We used to have two meals a day. Now we just have one. We used to be able to afford meat or fish three times a month. Now all we eat is rice, beans and occasionally roti.”
Health and housing As people are running out of cooking gas and other supplies, the dealers are asking Rs10,000 for new gas cylinders - half of what most Nepalese earn per month - a sum which is unaffordable for most. Many people have started eating uncooked food, risking disease. Others have resorted to firewood, which, experts worry, is likely to increase indoor pollution and spikes in cases of pneumonia. Last year over 800,000 children under five suffered from this condition in Nepal and an estimated 5,000 children died. The government’s regional medical stores have run out of vaccines against tuberculosis and stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low. The public health support for those in remote areas of Nepal is virtually non-existent. At the onset of winter, many NGOs are tirelessly working to provide assistance to thousands of Nepalese who are barely coping with current conditions. But their efforts have suffered a serious setback. An officer from a major NGO:
“When faced with tough challenges, like the monsoon season, landslides and difficult terrain, we are proud of how we are able to respond, but…the lack of fuel is significantly affecting distribution of vital goods to those in need. We are worried that we will not be able to reach them because we’ll run out of fuel.”
In addition, thousands of people are still living in temporary housing, many facing winter with shelters made of corrugated iron and tarp. With the lack of supplies and fuel to deliver urgent relief items, weatherproofing is becoming nearly impossible. As a result, UNICEF has warned three million children under the age of five are at risk of hypothermia and malnutrition. In a country ravaged by the earthquake, this shortfall of supplies together with harsh winter weather are likely to bring many more people to the verge of bare survival. A great many Nepalese people are now facing a terrible winter with whatever little supplies they have. These tragic developments - nature’s destruction and the political crisis – in an already impoverished country amount to an unfolding humanitarian crisis which the world cannot ignore. Photo: Guido Dingemans