When I landed at Kathmandu airport three years ago, not long after the earthquake that killed almost 9000 people, the streets were eerily quiet. Dim street lights shone down on the devastation. Buildings, monuments and houses had been reduced to rubble. Thousands were living in temporary shelters in rough conditions. But the damage to the capital paled in comparison to areas of the country closer to the epicentre of the earthquake, nearly 50 miles west of the city. Two million Nepalis had been made homeless. They had lost everything.
Foreign governments and NGOs quickly promised $4 billion in aid, but the money has been slow to arrive, and the official reconstruction process has languished. The Nepalese government had thought that centralising relief efforts and creating a single autonomous agency to manage the aid would make the reconstruction process more efficient and transparent. But the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has been marred, since its inception, by political infighting, bureaucratic complexity and corruption allegations. The government has signed agreements with international donors that account for 75 per cent of the pledged money, but only 16 per cent of that has been spent. More than 400,000 homes were earmarked for repairs; fewer than 115,000 have been rebuilt.
‘I can confidently say that we are on the right track,’ Yam Lal Bhusal, an NRA spokesperson, told me.
Nepal had been aiming to end open defecation by the beginning of this year, but had to abandon that goal after hundreds of thousands of toilets were destroyed in the earthquake. Fewer than half of the clinics and schools destroyed in the quake have been reconstructed. The earthquake had a grave impact on the country’s economy, and pushed almost a million Nepalis back into poverty. People’s mental health also suffered, an often neglected part of disaster relief.
Tourism is now back to pre-earthquake levels – almost a million people a year. The enormous Boudha Stupa has been renovated, but the piles of rubble in Kathmandu Durbar Square, in front of Nepal’s old royal palace, are still there.
After the earthquake, the words ‘We will rise again’ appeared on billboards, scribbled across pavements, on the front pages of newspapers, on T-shirts. You still see it today. But the people living in tents need more than a slogan.