A large tin trunk filled with bottled water, canned food, blankets and a flashlight sat in our Kathmandu garden for the four years we lived there. It was a daily reminder that tectonic plates were moving and a huge earthquake was overdue. I was privy to confidential reports that predicted what might happen when the earthquake hit. In a worst-case scenario, Kathmandu Valley – an ancient dried-up lake bed – would “liquefy,” turning to mush. Thousands of flimsy brick buildings would collapse, and several hundred thousand people would be crushed to death.
The devastation from the April 25 earthquake and its many aftershocks is horrible. But it is not the worst-case scenario. Just a few years ago, international aid donors and Nepal government officials attended frequent seminars on how to respond to an earthquake. We had training sessions involving Nepali and American soldiers. The mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand, had us drumming our fingers for an entire minute just to get us to understand that this is an eternity if the ground is shaking underneath you and structures are falling. So we started to understand – and silently we sat in despair.
Nothing reveals the true capacity of a government like a natural disaster. And we all knew that capacity was low.
In 1934, after the last great earthquake leveled the valley’s structures and killed 10,000 people, the government decreed that no building could be higher than two stories. But those royal edicts were ignored and unenforced. Until 1951, Nepal was closed to the world. No elections, little infrastructure, few schools and a rigid social structure kept people in their place.
This was also a people whose temples and statues for the last 1,000 years were a testament to magnificent artistry and grace. We drew some comfort from experts who said confidently that the unique architecture invented in Nepal would enable the temples to remain standing, as they had through previous earthquakes. Though some have survived, it is heartbreaking that many more are now rubble.
Nepal’s history helps to explain why there is so much damage from the earthquake. Dating to the 18th century, the united Nepali state was rooted in a system of feudal patronage. Until recently, the idea that those who ruled owed their power to their constituents remained a very foreign notion. The monarch was revered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
It was not until the early 1990s that a democratic movement succeeded in installing a parliament and started to chisel away some power from the Hindu monarchy. But it wasn’t enough. Autocratic rule by the king waxed and waned, and state services were always rudimentary.
A guerrilla Maoist movement that started in the mid-1990s and turned into a civil war gathered greater steam in 2001 when Nepal’s crown prince killed nine members of the royal family, including his father, the king. The new king and his son were regarded as corrupt and banal. Calls for their ouster became a rallying cry for protests against the government. The state became even less effective in many rural areas. Massacres were perpetrated by both sides, and those who just wanted to be left alone were forced to declare their loyalties.
Not surprisingly, larger towns, particularly those in the Kathmandu Valley, were seen as relative havens. Hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants moved to the valley, buildings rose and open land vanished. Farmland in the valley was rapidly replaced with concrete and unsteady brick houses and apartment buildings whose height was unimaginable a few years earlier.
Elections in 2008 installed an assembly to write a Constitution and end the monarchy. A modern state was beginning to be built. And the idea that the state should serve its entire population – particularly those less fortunate – was beginning to take hold. But the old feudal system, based on petty and not so petty corruption, was resilient. Civil service salaries remained so low that many sought additional sources of income, either from charging extra for services, or in exchange for jobs.
But jobs are scarce – then and now. Years of war, government instability, personal insecurity and poor basic infrastructure have hobbled the private sector. Typically, electrical power in Kathmandu Valley is nonexistent 18 hours a day during the long winter months. While neighboring Bangladesh has created a huge garment industry, Nepal exports its talented workers abroad by the millions. About 30 percent of Nepal’s GDP is from remittances from abroad, one of the highest percentages in the world.
Maybe this natural tragedy can result in a turnaround and do away with practices that don’t serve the best interests of most Nepalis. Maybe the international donations that will come can be used to entice Nepalis back from overseas to help rebuild their country. Maybe the country’s artisans can turn their talents to rebuilding the temples. Maybe three decades of squabbling over electricity generation – scarce despite Nepal’s abundant hydropower potential – will finally stop and a few thousand megawatts be added. And maybe the Constituent Assembly will finally pass a constitution that has been pending for six years and refocus on delivering key infrastructure, better health and education services and creating an environment for good jobs.
But a high-functioning government able to attract capable civil servants will be needed to make these schemes a reality.
Before leaving Nepal in 2011, I went to inspect my earthquake trunk, which had been guaranteed to last for years. It was flooded with water and filled with crawling bugs, rusty cans and a moldy blanket. As I emptied it out, I thought of the popular Nepali saying, “Ke garne?” – What can you do? And the typical resigned response, “You can’t do anything.” Not true. Nepalis must demand better answers.
Susan Goldmark lived in Nepal as a college student and later returned as country director for the World Bank from 2007 to 2011.