Building back Better Nepal after the Earthquake

It is always a great pleasure for me to meet and speak with friends and colleagues at the Japan Committee for UNICEF. My admiration for the good work of JCU goes back several decades.

I recall fondly many occasions when I attended JCU meetings with your former leader and my good friend Togo-san, the current Executive Director Ken Hayami, and your wonderful Goodwill Ambassadors Agnes Chan and Tetsuko Kuryonagi.

When I was at UNICEF, we were always very proud of JCU and celebrated its achievements as the most successful of all National Committees in OECD countries in mobilizing significant funding support for the world’s children, and making UNICEF a well-recognized household name in Japan.

Dear friends, today I join you not to celebrate a happy occasion, but to share with you a very sad moment of a catastrophic calamity that has recently hit my home country of Nepal.

I am also here to thank you, the JCU staff, volunteers and donors for motivating so many Japanese citizens to generously contribute to the earthquake disaster relief in Nepal. I thank you sincerely, as a citizen of Nepal, as a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, and as a long-standing friend of Japan and JCU. The generosity of the Japanese people expressed through various organizations, including JCU, will help save many lives and protect the health and well-being of Nepal’s children at this time of great distress.

I am happy to note that the Government of Japan has committed to provide an initial one billion Yen in response to the earthquake disaster. JCU has already mobilized about 180 million Yens. Japanese corporate giant Honda has committed 20 million Yen, Toyota 10 million Yen, and many other Japanese NGOs such as the Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam, Rotary, etc have also mobilized generous support.

The Japanese and the international media have provided quite extensive coverage of the mega earthquake that first hit Nepal on April 25th and once again on May 12th 2015.

We know that Japan experiences many and frequent earthquakes, but you are well prepared to cope with them because your building construction meets high standards of earthquake resistance. Unfortunately, we Nepalis are hopelessly unprepared. Hence the impact of an equivalent earthquake is much greater in Nepal than in Japan.

I am aware that you have all seen many heart-wrenching pictures of the devastation caused by the recent earthquake in Nepal – people crushed under the rubble of collapsed buildings; and sometimes the miracle of how a little baby, an elderly man, a young woman were rescued many days after they had remained trapped under the rubble.

On 25 April, the 7.8 richter scale magnitude tremor lasting for what felt like an interminable 65 seconds was so powerful that it caused huge avalanche at Mount Everest 200 kilometers from the quake’s epicenter, killing two dozen mountain climbers and their Sherpa guides.

The ferocity of the quake and many aftershocks for several weeks completely flattened many picturesque villages in remote mountains. And many historic monuments and sacred temples in Kathmandu valley tumbled like houses of cards.

On the internet you can find some links to live CCTV footage of many landmark buildings in Kathmandu swaying violently before they tumbled, and roads and highways splitting in the middle like in some horror movies. Watching the scenes of Nepal’s great national heritage and icons of our ancient civilization and culture reduced to rubble is painfully shocking.

Working for UNICEF, I have been personally involved in quite a few major disaster relief operations, and I have witnessed first-hand the heart-wrenching scenes of many natural disasters and cruel man-made atrocities.

There have been several other big disasters that have killed many more people than Nepal’s recent earthquake. In the past decade, we have seen the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed over 200,000 people; the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 that killed 75,000 people; the Asian Tsunami in 2004 that caused a staggering 200,000 to 300,000 thousand deaths across a dozen countries in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

And we cannot forget Japan’s own huge earthquake triggered tsunami, followed by a nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, that led to the death of nearly 16,000 people, and shocked the whole world.

By comparison, the death toll of about 10,000 people killed in Nepal’s 2015 earthquake might not seem so extra-ordinary. But we Nepalis are deeply saddened not just by the human loss and the damage to the infrastructure of public schools, health posts, official buildings, private homes and businesses, but also the irreparable damage and destruction of many iconic symbols at the very heart and soul of our ancient religious and cultural heritage.

Kathmandu Valley has seven UNESCO classified world heritage sites. Four of these, including the great tourist attractions of the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have been ruined, as have many ancient temples in the picturesque hilltop Buddhist stupa of Swayambhu Nath complex towering over the valley, dating back to the 5th century before Christ. Outside Kathmandu, the historic Gorkha durbar, the hilltop palace complex of the Shah dynasty – the founders of modern Nepal – has perished irreparably.

These monuments were not just Nepal’s cherished treasures, but the whole world’s heritage sites, and thus they belonged to the whole of humanity. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, dear friends, these world heritage sites belonged to you too, and not just to us the Nepalis.

Among these ruins was the 16th century magnificent temple of Kasthamandap, from which the name of our capital city Kathmandu was derived. This iconic temple was believed to have been constructed from the wood of a single tree. Many people had gatherd there on that fateful morning for a blood donation program. All of them perished when the temple came crashing down.

Another iconic monument that tumbled down was the 19th century 62 meters high Dharahara tower in the heart of Kathmandu. For us Nepalis, that was the equivalent of the crashing down of the World Trade Center in New York City or the Tokyo Tower here in Japan.

According to UNESCO – the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – no other natural disaster in recent history has caused more harm to a country’s cultural heritage as Nepal’s 2015 earthquake. Three-quarters of Kathmandu valley’s cultural monuments have been badly damaged, and some of them are considered irreparable.

The greatest human casualties and damage to the infrastructure, however, happened outside Kathmandu in remote rural areas beyond the easy reach of rescue and relief workers, and Kathmandu’s and international news media. Some of these areas have not been reached even to this day, two weeks after the initial earthquake.

Let me now share with you some information about the immediate national action and international support for the rescue and rehabilitation of the victims of this epic earthquake disaster.

The news of the big earthquake spread across the globe very quickly through national and international news agencies, and through facebook, twitter and other social media.

Nepal’s immediate neighbours, India and China were among the first to spring to action. It is said that within 45 minutes of the earthquake, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out a message by twitter alerting about the huge earthquake in Nepal and pledging India’s immediate support. Apparently Nepal’s own Prime Minister, Sushil Koirala, who was traveling abroad, first learned about the earthquake through the Indian Prime Minister’s twitter message.

True to his commitment, the Indian Prime Minister convened an emergency Cabinet meeting within 2 hours of the earthquake. And within 4 hours of the first quake, a specialized rescue and relief team was dispatched to Nepal with humanitarian supplies and equipment. Many more medical teams, relief materials, and helicopters to help ferry rescue and relief missions followed in subsequent days.

By contrast, Nepal’s own government was quite slow and disorganized in responding to the crisis. Debilitated by a decade-long internal armed conflict, and prolonged political strife during the post-conflict transition, most government institutions of Nepal are weak and remain ill-prepared to mount rapid response in emergency footing.

While the government machinery was revving up slowly and in a rather haphazard manner, luckily many national and international organizations sprang to action. Among the first international responders were UNICEF and the larger UN system as well as some of Nepal’s key bilateral donors, including Japan and many INGOs.

True to its mandate and tradition to help children in need and at risk, UNICEF Nepal, headed by its very experienced and competent Japanese head of office, Mr Tomoo Hozumi, promptly provided tents and tarpaulins for shelter; blankets, nutritional supplements for children, medicines, drinking water and hygiene kits initially in Kathmandu and quickly afterwards in several seriously affected outlying districts.

As many existing hospitals were damaged and overcrowded, UNICEF helped set up several temporary hospitals in tents where people could be treated and medical supplies safely stored to

protect from the rains and the elements. In cooperation with the Government and the World Health Organization, UNICEF helped organize vaccination of half-a-million children against measles fearing possible outbreak of this disease in crowded tents.

As all schools were closed, and many destroyed and severely damaged, UNICEF helped set up safe spaces for children to play, learn and recover in a child-friendly setting.

The strength and beauty of UNICEF in countries like Nepal is that it is there before an emergency occurs; it springs into rapid action at the onset of an emergency; and remains there to help with relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction after the acute emergency phase is over. Thus, UNICEF is considered a dependable partner and a friend in need by the government and local communities.

UNICEF also has a well-honed system of tried and tested rapid transport and distribution to replenish its initial stock of life-saving commodities. Thus, in Nepal, within days of the earthquake, UNICEF was able to arrange, with the help of the European Commission, to airlift 80 metric tons of additional relief supplies on two special cargo flights, and deliver them quickly to affected areas.

Dear friends, there are many other organizations with goodwill and good intentions trying to help the needy in humanitarian crisis situation. Many of them do a good job, and deserve our help. But some are inexperienced and inefficient.

UNICEF remains strong and solid as an experienced and reliable organization and, therefore, your support through UNICEF is guaranteed to reach the needy people, especially children, with the right kind of quick interventions.

I want to thank the contributors to the Japan Committee for UNICEF. You have already mobilized over $1.5 million dollars as part of UNICEF’s global appeal for $50 million for the initial life-saving interventions for the women and children of Nepal. But much more support will be needed in the coming days and weeks for longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction of Nepal. And I ask you to continue your campaign to mobilize more support for the children of Nepal.

As you know, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in terms of its per capita income of around $700 per year. But as a good friend of mine, journalist Kanak Dixit says memorably, today Nepal is perhaps the richest country in the world in terms of enjoying the highest per capita goodwill of the international community. The outpouring of support and solidarity for the people of Nepal in the face of the earthquake disaster is very touching and heart-warming.

Kathmandu’s small international airport is clogged with dozens of international flights that have landed from all corners of the world bringing relief supplies, rescue teams, doctors, nurses, engineers, and volunteers of all kinds who want to help.

Besides friendly governments, international organizations and humanitarian NGOs and charities, many individuals from all walks of life are tripping over each other to help mobilize funds for Nepal. We have many famous Hollywood and Bollywood stars, great European football clubs, artists and singers raising money for Nepal.

In Britain, for example, 87,000 people led by actress Joanna Lumley raised $55 million for Nepal in two weeks. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, personally donated $30 million and matched $17 million contributions made by 750,000 facebook users around the world.

To help Nepalis contact their loved ones, Skype, Viber, Facebook, Google, etc provided their services free of charge to and from Nepal, as did Nepal’s own major telephone and telecommunications companies.

Many Nepalis, especially those who live and work abroad – including here in Japan, and in the Gulf countries, Malaysia, Korea, Australia, UK, USA, etc have raised millions of dollars in small and big individual contributions and sent them to help their relatives, neighbours as well as ordinary fellow citizens in the most seriously affected communities in the country.

Cumulatively, the total amount of support pledged for earthquake relief in Nepal from all sources is probably already around $1 billion. The outpouring of generosity, solidarity and support is truly breath-taking and heart-warming. But we will need much more for longer term relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Every country is unique in how it handles such humanitarian crisis. A unique feature of the Nepali society today is that because of a violent insurgency, political instability and economic stagnation, in the past two decades, many young people, especially young men, have left their villages and migrated to urban areas and foreign countries in search of employment.

Thus, when the earthquake struck, there were no able bodied young men to help the women, children and the elderly folks in the community. Hence the casualties and consequences of the earthquake have been more severe than would otherwise be the case.

But adversity also has a surprising power to heal and to unite a divided society. After the earthquake we are seeing some welcome signs of Nepalis showing greater unity, eschewing their sometimes exaggerated political and societal differences. When adversity befalls everybody, people of different caste, class and tribes tend to forget their petty differences and help each other, share whatever little resources they have in their temporary tents and surroundings.

We have seen the Nepal Army, Police and Armed Police Force rise to the occasion and lead rescue and relief efforts with extra-ordinary dedication and personal sacrifice. We have seen political parties cooling down their divisive rhetoric and calling for more concerted effort for relief operations, and reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure.

We have seen the people of Terai-Madhesh in the southern plains of Nepal that was not very seriously affected by the earthquake, mobilizing support to help their compatriots in the earthquake-stricken hills and mountains.

We are even hearing a call for a government of national unity that would focus in the coming years on reconstruction and development rather than the usual rhetoric that we need to complete a “political revolution” of a certain brand before we can focus on an economic revolution.

If indeed Nepalis can unite behind such common purpose for economic revival and social progress, the earthquake could partially turn into a blessing in disguise.

Beyond the immediate relief, there is much to do in terms of long-term reconstruction and development. There has not been a complete assessment of the damage and destruction yet and all figures quoted currently are subject to change. The best current estimate is that over 8,000 people have been killed; and twice that many are severely injured. About 8 million people or nearly one-

fourth of the country’s population have been affected by the earthquake; half of them or 4 million, seriously impacted, including 1.7 million children.

About 25,000 classrooms have been destroyed or seriously damaged. When the schools open next week after three-weeks of closure since the earthquake, about one million children will have no classrooms to go to. Preliminary estimates indicate over 300 health post and about two dozen hospitals and health centres in rural areas have been seriously damaged and need to be rebuilt.

It is estimated that 35% of Kathmandu’s buildings, private as well as public are unsafe and uninhabitable. That includes the President’s palace, the Prime Minister’s office, and many government buildings. In the worst affected rural areas, it is estimated that nearly 200,000 houses have been completely destroyed, and 600,000 partially damaged.

It turns out that many modern and expensive high-rise apartment buildings in Kathmandu advertised and sold as “earthquake resistant” have been seriously damaged and are uninhabitable. Rebuilding such buildings will be a major undertaking.

We need to learn from Japan’s experience and expertise in coping with earthquakes and “build back better” – perhaps utilizing some pre-fabricated buildings for the short to medium term, and more robust buildings over the long haul.

The old truism that earthquakes don’t kill people, it is the poorly built buildings that kill – has been generally proven right again in Nepal. The principal reason for the high casualties and poor rescue and relief response after the earthquake in Nepal was not the shortage of funds or lack of goodwill, but the endemic poor governance, weak rule of law, disregard of building codes and norms of basic urban planning

This led to haphazard construction of public as well as private buildings that did not meet minimum standards of safety and security, much less withstanding the impact of a major earthquake.

Throwing more money at the problems, will not solve them. We will need better governance, stronger rule of law, stricter adherence to building codes when we launch a major reconstruction and development effort.

A more accountable government, not just at the national and federal level but democratically elected local governments directly accountable to their local voters will be a sine qua non to faithfully implement a massive reconstruction and development effort.

Nepal will need strong international cooperation – a Marshall Plan essentially – for developing and implementing such an ambitious but essential reconstruction plan.

It is estimated that the total financial loss and damage inflicted by the earthquake might add up to $10 billion dollars – a huge amount for a country with total annual GNI of only $19 billion. To “build back better” the damaged infrastructure and the restoration of the damaged historical monuments, Nepal will probably need to invest something in the order of $20 billion dollars or more over the next half a decade. Perhaps half of that can come from Nepal’s own national resources, and half would need to come from international support.

We will need the combined support and solidarity of the United Nations, the multilateral banks, and bilateral donors, and private investors, among others, to develop and finance such a “Marshall Plan”.

In the coming months, we expect the Government of Japan to play a leading role – perhaps even as a convener – of a major international donors’ conference for long-term reconstruction and development of Nepal.

UNICEF can play a vital, modest but meaningful role to support such massive reconstruction and development plan. It can help secure the rights and well-being of children, so that children of Nepal, like children here in Japan and everywhere else, may live a long and healthy life, with opportunity for learning and earning, and growing up to their full human potential. That would certainly be the noblest of all goals that UNICEF and all of us can pursue and support.

Once again, I wish to call upon the staff, volunteers, friends, supporters and well wishers of the Japan Committee for UNICEF to redouble our efforts to mobilize more support for the children of Nepal – as part of our effort to build a better future for all the world’s children.

Thank you.

(Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam at the Japan Committee for UNICEF, Tokyo, 14 May 2015)