Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Road Ahead for Nepal

While I was away in Egypt, the major international story of note was of course the devastating earthquake in Nepal. While this event obviously occurred more than a week and a half ago at this point, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least acknowledge the tragedy and share my thoughts on the subject, something I was unable to do without a solid Internet connection while traveling.

Considering the amount of news coverage that has been dedicated to the earthquake – and its aftermath – over the past week, there is very little that I can actually add to the story that hasn't already been said. The number of fatalities is staggering, with more than 7000 already declared dead, and hundreds of others still missing. Entire villages have been wiped off the map, and incredible historical sites have been reduced to rubble. Kathmandu has seen whole neighborhoods disappear, as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake destroyed houses, markets, and ancient temples indiscriminately. It is wholesale devastation on a level that would leave just about any country reeling, let alone one that had a fragile infrastructure to begin with.

Thankfully, international aid and support began pouring into Nepal almost immediately. Numerous nations rushed to assist in recovering from the natural disaster that has left thousands without homes, food, water, and electricity. By most accounts, there is a stockpile of supplies accumulating in Kathmandu, and aid workers have arrived en masse to help begin the recovery process, which will take months – if not years – to complete. That process is likely to be stymied by the inefficient bureaucracy and corruption that are inherent there.

The tragic earthquake brought an end to another climbing season on Mt. Everest as well. The community of mountaineers that surrounds the tallest mountain on the planet was only just beginning to heal from the events of last year, when an avalanche claimed the lives of 16 porters on a single day. At the time, it was the worst disaster in the history of the mountain, but it was surpassed this year when the earthquake generated another avalanche that swept through Base Camp, killing 19. It was a chilling reminder of just how powerful the mountain truly is, and how dangerous of a place it can be, despite the hundreds of climbers who summit on a typical year.

This season, the China-Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) elected to shut down climbing operations on the North Side of the mountain as well. The move was made to allow Sherpas to return home to their devastated villages, and because of continued after shocks from the initial earthquake. The move was applauded within the mountaineering community as the right decision, and it is difficult to argue with the logic behind closing down the Tibetan side of Everest.

But once again, the Nepali government has shown its level of incompetence by sending mixed messages about climbing on the South Side. Considering the immense loss of life – not to mention the untold property damage – from the disaster, it seems like it would be a no-brainer to close the mountain once again. Officials waffled on that decision however, and even hinted that operations could resume as early as this week. Fortunately, someone at the Ministry of Tourism, which oversees climbing on Everest and other major mountains, eventually came to their senses and pulled the plug on the season once again. It wasn't like they had much choice however, as nearly every commercial team had already abandoned Base Camp and headed for home.

Of course, the major question that is on everyone's mind now is what will happen next? Search teams are still sifting through the rubble in Nepal, discovering more bodies on a daily basis. Those operations aren't likely to cease for weeks, and the start of the rebuilding process is still a long way off. It is going to take years for the country to recover from this disaster, and it is likely to get much more painful for everyone involved as well.

At the moment, there is a sense of urgency in Nepal, as foreign aid workers continue to assist in the recovery process. But down the road many of those workers will begin to head home, leaving the Nepali government to more directly manage the distribution of supplies and the rebuilding of its infrastructure. The problem is, that government has shown that it has a knack for being inept and corrupt beyond measure. It seems highly likely that millions of dollars in funds will end up lining the pockets of politicians, rather than directly helping those it was intended for. If that sounds a bit pessimistic, it is only because that has been the pattern of behavior we've seen from the government in the past, and there is no reason to believe that the earthquake has altered that culture in any way.

Regardless of how the money and resources are managed however, it will be a very long time before Nepal will return to "normal." This is a country that doesn't define the word "normal" in the same way that we in the West do, and while they are use to disruptions in services, the sheer scale of the devastation from this earthquake will make it very difficult to manage the process of rebuilding.

In some sense, this could be a major opportunity for Nepal to modernize and improve its infrastructure, and in the long run it could mean good things for the people that live there. But that light at the end of the tunnel is still painfully far off at this point, and getting there is going to incredibly difficult.

You'll have to forgive me for taking such a dim view on how the country will move forward. The lack of leadership there makes it difficult to see how the will manage the incredibly complex project that will involve recovery and rebuilding. It wouldn't be an easy process under the best of circumstances, but in a place like Nepal it'll be nearly impossible. But perhaps the earthquake will actually provide the country with the true leadership it needs, and someone will rise up to take the country into the 21st century at long last.

Of course, the trekkers and climbers will return at some point, which will help the economy of Nepal. I imagine by fall the country will see many foreign visitors pouring in once again, as they go hiking in the Himalaya and climbing on some of the world's most challenging and beautiful peaks. The spring 2016 Everest season will be a somber one for sure, although hundreds of climbers will no doubt be lined up to attempt to summit the mountain. But the scars of this season will take a long time to heal, and the loss of life will not soon be forgotten.

My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones in Nepal on that tragic Saturday in April. I also tip my  hat to the aid workers who have rushed in to help begin the recovery process. The earthquake will likely show us the best and worst of mankind, as it leaves an undeniable mark on Nepal's history, and charts its course for the future as well.

1 comment:

George Basch said...

Insightful and well said, Kraig, and all too true about the challenges ahead