Nepal: Two years on, the government continues to fail marginalised earthquake survivors

Two years today after a large earthquake shook Nepal, destroying more than half a million homes and damaging a quarter million more, the government is failing marginalised earthquake survivors, breaching both the Constitution and international human rights law, Amnesty International said today in a new report.

Lashed by rains through two monsoon seasons, and left shivering in the cold during two winters, delays and the way reconstruction efforts are being rolled out has forced thousands of earthquake survivors to languish in temporary shelters predominantly made of zinc sheets and tarpaulin, the promise of their homes being rebuilt broken.

Tens of thousands of people, whose destroyed houses once stood on land that they do not own, have been locked out of the reconstruction programme. To receive a government rebuilding grant, an earthquake survivor must provide land ownership documents. Unable to prove they own the land on which they were living when the earthquake struck, or have their landlords formally acknowledge their residence, they have been denied reconstruction support to rebuild their homes.

The Nepali government’s reconstruction efforts have failed the earthquake’s most disadvantaged survivors
Aura Freeman, Amnesty International's Campaigner on Nepal

The report, “Building Inequality”: The Failure of the Nepali government to Protect the Marginalised in Post-Earthquake Reconstruction Efforts, is based on more than a year’s research and two extensive field visits to Dolakha district, one of the worst earthquake-affected areas. The team interviewed over 250 earthquake survivors, government officials, donor agencies and NGOs working in earthquake-affected areas.

“The Nepali government’s reconstruction efforts have failed the earthquake’s most disadvantaged survivors. Ignoring the historical informal relationships that these communities have with land in Nepal, the government has reinforced their marginalisation through a reconstruction programme that denies landless people their right to adequate housing,” said Aura Freeman, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Nepal.

Nepal’s 2015 Constitution makes the obligations of the government clear. In Article 27, it says: “(1) Every citizen shall have the right to [an] appropriate housing.” Under International human rights law, which Nepal must abide by, the Nepali government must guarantee the right to adequate housing for all, giving priority consideration to disadvantaged groups. Amnesty International’s report details how the Nepal government is failing on these obligations.

Under the National Reconstruction Authority, which leads the government’s efforts, many of those rendered homeless by the earthquake have yet to receive even the first tranche of a promised NRP 300,000 grant. The late and limited steps that the government has taken, including initiatives to register land for the landless, have yet to alleviate the plight of the most disadvantaged.

Denied adequate housing, earthquake survivors have acquired other problems over the past two years, including high debts. Furthermore, as a local hospital has confirmed, living in informal shelters has put people at risk of grave health consequences, including respiratory illnesses, and injuries from snake bites.

The report tells the story of Maiti Thami, a 36-year-old from one of Nepal’s most marginalised indigenous groups. “Rain comes inside the corrugated sheets, and cold comes from the [mud] floor as it gets wet…” Reduced to living in a temporary shelter, Maiti’s family has been often beset by illness, including coughs and fevers. 

The government’s reconstruction policies have failed to consider the particular circumstances in which marginalised communities affected by the earthquake lived. On top of proving ownership of the land, they are asked to prove they live as separate households, each family with their own house. The fact that many families in Nepal live under a common roof but in multiple separate households with their own kitchen has not been acknowledged, meaning that aid has not been delivered to them.

Further problems flow from the government’s grant distribution and the “representative”/ nominee systems. To collect their grant, people – including the elderly, people with disabilities and women with husbands working as migrants abroad – have to travel long distances to collect their money from bank distribution centres. This is a result of banks being assigned to deliver the grants without taking note of their branches’ location and therefore the distance to the villages have not been taken into account.

What’s more, the nominee system in place, whereby a nominated person can collect the grant money on their behalf, is being poorly implemented, putting the most disadvantaged at the back of the queue.

Nepal’s reconstruction programme inevitably favours the wealthy
Aura Freeman, Amnesty International's Campaigner on Nepal

Amnesty International’s report details how the funds promised have also failed to account for the rising costs of construction in Nepal. Since the earthquake, the price of labour and stones have doubled. Amid a shortage, the price of sand has tripled. Living in remote areas, earthquake survivors also have to bear transportation costs for materials not easily available nearby.

The flawed reconstruction process also made incorrect assumptions about these communities being able to secure loans to help with the reconstruction of their homes.

“Nepal’s reconstruction programme inevitably favours the wealthy. It privileges those who can show they owned their homes, lived as single households, in well-settled areas and with the main income-earners present, have the means to borrow, and can meet the rising costs of construction,” said Aura Freeman.

“This has put a disproportionate burden on those very communities that need the government’s help the most, pushing them to the back of the queue, or abandoning them altogether.”

Amnesty International’s report lays out a series of recommendations it calls on the Nepali government to adopt immediately. 

  • Reconstruction efforts should give due priority to the most disadvantaged groups, including landless people;
  • Anyone who has lost their home should be recognised as eligible for assistance, regardless of their relationship with the land on which their house once stood;
  • Top-up grants should be provided to those communities who have additional costs to bear, including the increased cost of construction and the transportation of materials;
  • Effectively implement policies to ensure landless people and multiple households under one roof who had their homes destroyed receive cash grants once claims are verified by government official and through testimonies of neighbours and people in their communities;
  • Clarify and promptly implement an effective nominee system;
    Branchless banking and special cash grant camps for marginalised populations should be conducted at the local levels
  • Access to easily available interest-free and low-interest loans should also be made available to the most disadvantaged groups to help them bear the costs of reconstruction.

“There are enormous tasks that the country faces, acknowledged in its ‘Building Back Better’ policy. The recommendations we make chart a path away from the misguided policy towards securing a home for all. Nepal’s most disadvantaged earthquake survivors should not have to endure another monsoon season without a roof over their head,” said Aura Freeman.