(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 2018 in Review: Returns and rebuilding

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    While it’s the death and destruction of wars and natural disasters that tend to grab headlines, civilians continue to suffer long after the television crews have packed up their cameras.


    Whether the cause is violence or an earthquake, civilians often return from a crisis to find their homes destroyed and the infrastructure – think water, healthcare, and schools – they once relied on decimated.


    The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes is growing: the UN says it rose from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017. IRIN has stayed on the story as these people, as well as refugees and migrants, go back home and try to rebuild their lives and communities.


    Here are some of the ways we covered rebuilding and returns in 2018:


    No way home

    In Iraq, families linked to so-called Islamic State suffer for their relatives’ sins

    Among the nearly two million Iraqis still displaced by the fight against IS are those with real or perceived ties to the militant group. Their communities don’t want them, their country doesn’t know what to do with them, and many are stuck in Iraq’s camps for the foreseeable future.

    closeup of a woman's hands with small markings as she sits on the floor


    Returning to nothing

    Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced


    A December 2017 peace agreement sent some of the 108,000 people who fled fighting in the previous two years back home to Congo-Brazzaville, but our reporters found many homes had been burned to the ground, there was not enough food for returnees, and schools had been shuttered.

    A group of people in Republic of Congo sit outside their temporary shelter in various positions some smiling


    Slow and steady

    In Nepal, rushed earthquake rebuild leads to a mountain of debt

    Faster reconstruction isn’t always better. More than three years after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks in Nepal killed 9,000 people and turned parts of the country into rubble, a rush to meet deadlines for government help means people are taking on extra loans they can’t afford, and building new homes that are unlikely to withstand future earthquakes.

    A Nepalese man in a red coat repairs a roof with mountains in the background


    Turning the tide

    Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset

    Among the thousands of Gambians who tried to make it to Europe only to be flown back from Libya’s squalid migrant detention centres is a group of young people now taking to the airwaves, streets, and social media to discourage others from making the same journey.

    A group of young men in a radio studio at mics


    A city destroyed

    First person: In Raqqa, you can’t go home again

    Raqqa is the former "capital" of so-called Islamic State, but for Syrian citizen journalist Mazen Hassoun it will always be his hometown. Now living in Europe, Hassoun describes what it’s like to hear from his friends and family about the destruction of the streets he once played in, as they try to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble.

    people working in rubble
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Returns and rebuilding
  • In Nepal, a rushed earthquake rebuild leads to a mountain of debt

    Parang Tamang’s new home is slowly rising among the patchwork of half-finished buildings and piles of rubble in Gatlang, a mountain village in Nepal’s north. But so is his financial debt.


    Parang’s home was flattened during the powerful earthquakes that struck Nepal in April and May 2015, killing 9,000 people across the country. More than three years later, government reconstruction subsidies haven’t been enough to cover the cost of rebuilding, so Parang turned instead to local lenders.


    “The money I borrowed to rebuild my home is expensive,” Parang told IRIN. “The interest is 36 percent per year. The bank won’t pay me, so people in the village lent me the money.”


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    Parang Tamang is nearing completion of a two-room home for his family in Gatlang village. He says he’s grateful to have received nearly $3,000 in rebuilding subsidies. But he still had to get a 36-percent loan to cover his full costs.

    Parang isn’t alone. In July 2017, the government set a series of shifting deadlines to encourage people to access reconstruction subsidies. Over the last year, a rush to to meet these deadlines has triggered unintended side effects: people are taking on risky high-interest loans; some are building tiny, uninhabited homes they can’t afford to finish.


    Advocates for earthquake-hit communities fear this large-scale borrowing could lead to a “debt crisis” that would cripple Nepal’s economic recovery.


    A survey by aid organisations tracking reconstruction progress found a “drastic increase” in people resorting to loans to supplement government rebuilding funds since the start of 2017. Two thirds of respondents polled in December 2017 reported taking out loans to rebuild; 12 months earlier, it was only 1 percent.

    “People weren’t rebuilding, so we had to do something,” said Manohar Ghimire, deputy spokesman for Nepal’s National Reconstruction Authority, which was set up shortly after the earthquake to manage the rebuild on a five-year timeline.


    The latest deadline came and went in mid-July, though Ghimire says this is likely to be extended again.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    The high cost of labour and building materials has also held back construction in rural Nepal. Government subsidies cover less than half of the typical cost of rebuilding. Here, a mason works on a home in Gatlang village.

    Ghimire calls the deadline pressure a success, as construction rates have risen over the last year. Today, more than 800,000 households qualify for government subsidies, which are distributed in three separate payments totalling $3,000, depending on the stage of construction. More than 440,000 have received the second of these payments – a year ago, only 55,000 people had.


    The problem with a quick build


    Villages like Gatlang and surrounding Rasuwa District were among the hardest hit by the 2015 earthquakes – more than 70 percent of buildings here completely collapsed; more than 95 percent needed major repair or outright reconstruction, according to government statistics. But money alone hasn’t been enough to counter rising construction costs that exceed the government subsidy, confusion about the deadlines, or a lack of building skills.


    Rijan Garjurel is the district coordinator in Rasuwa for the Housing Recovery and Reconstruction Platform – a coordination body that supports all government departments, NGOs, and donors working on reconstruction. He says the deadlines saw many people rush to collect the grant, even if they lacked the resources or skills to build safer, earthquake-resistant homes as the government intended.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    Families in Gatlang village build a house using locally sourced stone. Stone is cheap but time-consuming to prepare. Many in Gatlang have taken on risky loans to source more expensive building materials, which drives up their costs and their debt.

    Instead, they’re erecting fragile one-room structures beside their still-damaged homes – the reconstruction grants can only be used for new construction, rather than retrofitting old homes.


    “They are just building for formality to receive the grant,” Garjurel said. “I often hear, ‘this is my government house, and this is our house.’”


    He says the deadline has pushed people to forego using local building materials like stone, which is inexpensive but time-consuming to prepare. Instead, many here use imported brick and concrete blocks, which are quicker to build with but more expensive.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    In Gatlang, earthquake survivors rushed to access government reconstruction subsidies before a July deadline. But with a shortage of funds, many are building tiny, one-room structures in which they don’t intend to live.

    Recent surveys estimate that the typical cost of rebuilding is at least $6,500 – more than double the government subsidies.


    “Transportation is expensive and so the money is not enough to get materials here,” said Dawa Gumbu Tamang, the elected head of Gatlang. “Many people start and then can’t carry on as they run out of money so houses are half built.”


    Patience is a virtue


    Reconstruction experts warn it is unrealistic to speed up such a large-scale reconstruction process in Nepal, where building costs are high and many lack the skills to rebuild entirely on their own.


    “Deadlines are not going to speed these people up,” said Maggie Stephenson, a consultant who has advised NGOs and donors on recovery efforts. She added, “Who is in a bigger hurry than households themselves to rebuild their homes?”


    Stephenson, who has also worked on earthquake reconstruction in Pakistan and Haiti, says recovery in other disasters has shown that a successful rebuild takes time.


    After the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, she says, it took at least five years to rebuild rural homes; urban homes there are still being constructed, 13 years later.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    Women repair a fallen stupa in Syapru Besi in northern Nepal’s Rasuwa District. More than 70 percent of homes in the district collapsed during the April and May 2015 earthquakes.

    Stephenson says Nepal’s commitment to extending reconstruction grants to more than 800,000 homes is “remarkable”. But it also requires more support beyond funding, as well as a degree of patience – a situation that isn’t helped by frequent international media stories suggesting the rebuild pace has been “slow”.


    “The point of an owner-driven housing programme with a grant as a subsidy means that you're reliant on people mobilising their own resources as well,” Stephenson said, “and that’s going to take a much longer time.”


    She says international donors and NGOs must do more to help rebuilding households overcome other roadblocks that have stalled construction, including boosting skills training so that more people know how to build and access the right materials. They also need to provide clearer information on the complex grant approval process, and do more to help typically marginalised groups like rural women and the elderly. Stephenson says this kind of essential technical support has only reached a quarter of the earthquake-affected communities who need it.


    Chewang Gyalmo Ghale received training under such a programme. Practical Action, the UK-based development organisation, helped fund and train her to cut stones, which she sells to people rebuilding their homes in her village in Rasuwa District.


    Vivien Cumming/IRIN
    Chewang Gyalmo Ghale was trained to operate a stone-cutting machine, a skill she uses to prepare building materials for her neighbours. Most of her neighbours, she says, have taken out loans in order to pay her.

    The money she earns is helping to finance her own rebuild. But she’s still living under a tarp – she says she hasn’t been approved for a government grant to finish her house, though she’s not sure why.


    The grant money wouldn’t be enough to cover her rebuild anyway. It’s not enough for most of her neighbours, either.


    “Many people here have had to take out loans to pay me to cut stones,” she said.




    The government wants to accelerate reconstruction, but there are unintended consequences: risky loans and half-finished homes
    In Nepal, a rushed earthquake rebuild leads to a mountain of debt
  • Women, elderly left behind in Nepal’s post-earthquake rebuilding efforts

    Three years after earthquakes levelled parts of Nepal’s remote Dolakha District, Sun Maya Tamang is left on her own in a bamboo shack perched high above the nearest village while her neighbours below rebuild their homes.


    The 25 April 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks killed 9,000 people nationwide and left an estimated 3.5 million homeless. Reconstruction has generally been slow everywhere in Nepal, but advocates for survivors like 70-year-old Tamang say the homes of widowed and elderly women have largely been overlooked in the rebuilding process.


    Renu Rajbhandari, chairperson of the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, an NGO that works on women’s rights, said authorities haven’t accounted for how disasters impact women and men differently. “Those responsible are not showing enough will to address the issues and prioritise the most vulnerable populations,” she said.


    Authorities acknowledge that people like Tamang have suffered, with reconstruction efforts more focused on helping households finish building rather than on ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people can move forward with their lives.


    “We have to work step by step to ensure that no one is left out in the rebuilding process,” said Netra Prasad Subedi, an official with Nepal’s National Reconstruction Authority, the government agency responsible for overseeing the rebuild.


    Deadlines, but not enough help


    In an attempt to speed up reconstruction, the government has set a July deadline for Nepalis to apply for additional funding to rebuild their destroyed homes.


    But setting a deadline likely won’t help women in rural areas who have limited support to navigate the process of applying for funds. They often lack the skills needed to rebuild on their own in areas where construction labour is scarce. Rights advocates add that pervasive discrimination makes it even harder for women to recover.

    “At a time when the male-headed households are unable to rebuild houses on time, the situation of single women, who have very limited or no support at all in rebuilding, is even worse.”

    “Life is challenging every day inside this hut,” Tamang said recently as the April rains spattered on the corrugated zinc roof overhead. After her husband’s death last year, she now lives alone in what was intended to be a temporary structure next to their destroyed home. At night, a chilling wind passes through the thatched bamboo walls, which are blackened by the wood fire she uses for cooking and heating. With a heavy rain, streams of water flow inside.


    This month, authorities asked donors and aid agencies to help fast-track reconstruction for some 18,000 of the most vulnerable people – the elderly, people with disabilities, and widowed or single women older than 65.


    But advocates say much more needs to be done. And with Nepal’s annual monsoon coming in June, Tamang and others like her will endure a fourth rainy season without a proper roof over their heads.


    The damage from the earthquake and its powerful aftershocks was most acute in remote areas like the mountainous Dolakha District, the epicentre of a major aftershock that rattled Nepal again on 12 May 2015, weeks after the initial earthquake, and destroyed Tamang’s former home.


    “At a time when the male-headed households are unable to rebuild houses on time, the situation of single women, who have very limited or no support at all in rebuilding, is even worse,” said Sumeera Shrestha, executive director at Women for Human Rights, a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisation that advocates for the rights of women after the earthquake.

    Roughly 26 percent of homes destroyed or damaged by the earthquake are headed by women, according to government data. UN-led surveys of earthquake-hit communities in Nepal found women were less likely than men to have started or completed reconstruction, less likely to be equipped with the skills to rebuild, and less likely to say they understand the complicated funding process, which requires government-approved housing designs and inspections before additional funding can be released.


    Pragati Shahi/IRIN
    Sun Maya Tamang, 70, cooks a meal in her thatched bamboo hut in Nepal’s Dolakha District. Tamang says she has received about $500 in government aid, but it’s not enough to start rebuilding.

    “I can’t build, myself”


    Signs of rebuilding are everywhere in Dolakha: masons piece together half-finished homes with bricks and mortar, concrete foundations are replacing piles of rubble, and iron rods are rising as new structures take shape.


    Homes like Tamang’s are also a common sight, though. They are ramshackle shelters patched together from relief supplies distributed after the earthquake. Tamang said the government gave her the first of three rebuilding installments, 50,000 rupees – less than $500. But she doesn’t have the skills to do the work herself, and there is no one to help her.


    “I can’t build, myself,” she said.


    Rebuilding after Nepal’s costly earthquake has been beset by long delays and criticism. As of late March, only 15 percent of some 767,000 households eligible for government reconstruction funds have been completely rebuilt, according to data from the National Reconstruction Authority.


    To begin, much less complete, a rebuilding project, some homeowners need training and other support, while many rural women need help just navigating the bureaucracy of accessing funds, rights groups and aid agencies say.


    "For women, to run errands at the government offices to submit their grievances and access information about grants is challenging," said Cecilia Keizer, the country director for Oxfam in Nepal.


    Basic issues like land ownership and a lack of vital documents such as citizenship and marriage certificates still cause roadblocks: In Nepal, female ownership of land or property stood at 20 percent as of the last census in 2011, and many women have struggled to access official funding without these vital documents.


    Mohna Ansari, a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, said the government fails to grasp why vulnerable women and other groups haven’t been able to rebuild their homes.


    “The concerned authorities never tried to know why, even after receiving the first installment, they are unable to rebuild their houses,” Ansari said, adding that local governments must do more to identify and help people who have missed out on reconstruction aid.


    Sagar Acharya, who leads the National Reconstruction Authority in Dolakha District, said authorities have concentrated on finishing houses already under construction – the government has set a target of 450,000 homes to be rebuilt by the end of July. This, he said, has left some of the most vulnerable people behind.


    “Their voices remain unheard,” he said.


    For now, Tamang is waiting out the approaching rainy season in her makeshift hut, a steep 10-minute climb above her neighbours’ new houses.


    Her own fragile home was meant to be temporary.


    “Soon, the monsoon will arrive,” she said. “I fear that heavy rains this time could wash this hut away, leaving me homeless once again.”



    Three years after the quake, government programmes to speed up new construction often still overlook the needs of female-headed households
    Women, elderly left behind in Nepal’s post-earthquake rebuilding efforts
  • In flood-prone South Asia, early warning systems buy precious time

    Early warning can save lives. Knowing something horrible is about to happen gives you a chance to prepare or get away — a painful lesson that is slowly being learnt across flood-prone South Asia.

    Three years ago, the Karnali and Babai rivers in mid-western Nepal overflowed, sending floodwaters rushing through downstream flatlands, killing dozens. There were 31 deaths in the single district of Bardiya alone.

    In August this year, monsoon rains again caused the waters to swell — part of massive regional floods that surged across Nepal’s southern plains. This time, though, only four people in Bardiya died.

    One key reason for the difference was that eight to 12 hours before the floods swept in, people received text messages warning of the impending danger, says Nepal’s chief flood forecaster, Rajendra Sharma.

    "We know the flood is coming, but where to go?"

    The messages were part of an SMS alert system put in place just last year. Paired with real-time river and precipitation sensors and education programmes in vulnerable communities at the start of this year’s monsoon season, the SMS alerts gave residents precious hours to try and secure their possessions and flee to higher ground.

    The damage has still been extensive, but advance warning saved lives. “It was very valuable in the rivers where we have this system,” Sharma told IRIN. 

    Large parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and northeast India have been debilitated by floods since mid-August. Triggered by monsoon rains, the floods have affected an estimated 40 million people and killed more than 1,200 in the three countries.

    In recent days, floods have also inundated the Indian city of Mumbai, and Karachi, the sprawling capital of Pakistan’s Sindh Province.

    What happened in Nepal, where automated flood forecasting tools and early warning systems are relatively recent, is an example of how the region has tried to better prepare for the yearly monsoon season.

    But it’s also a sign of the vast gaps that remain in one of the world’s most densely populated flood-prone regions.

    ‘We weren’t prepared’

    Sharma says even in areas where the new SMS alert system was employed, some residents still struggled to use the lifesaving information. In some cases there was a crucial missing link: a clear plan and a safe evacuation centre on higher ground.

    “We issued the forecast, we sent out the mass SMS,” Sharma said, “but then people told us, ‘Okay, we know the flood is coming, but where to go?’” 

    In each affected country, the magnitude of the floods has sparked questions about why authorities were seemingly caught unprepared.

    In India, op-ed writers called for a “radical rethinking” of flood preparedness. “The floods that kill hundreds of people across South Asia year after year… can be forecast, prepared for, engineered and insured against and managed, but are not,” an editorial in The Economic Times stated.

    “We weren’t prepared for this,” lamented Bangladesh’s Dhaka Tribune in a series of editorials. “Bangladesh is not new to the problem of floods, but year after year, we find ourselves woefully unprepared.”

    Shared water, shared problems

    That the severe August flooding inundated parts of three countries in quick succession was no coincidence: river systems in Nepal, Bangladesh and large parts of India are intertwined over a vast basin known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra.

    When the Karnali River swells, its waters don’t stop at Nepal’s border; it splits and flows into India’s Uttar Pradesh State as the Ghaghara River — itself a tributary of the Ganges. Likewise, the Brahmaputra River rushes into Bangladesh only after curving through India’s Assam State. Most of Bangladesh’s land mass is a river delta for the basin.

    All three countries are among the most flood-exposed nations in the world. More people in India and Bangladesh are affected by river floods than in any other country, according to the World Resources Institute.

    In socio-economic terms, inhabitants of this river basin are also among the world’s most vulnerable — more of the world’s poor live here than in any other regional river basin, according to a United Nations University publication.  

    That means people here are more likely to live in exposed areas, and less likely to be equipped with the means to rebuild their livelihoods after the floods have retreated. 

    And this population is growing rapidly. A World Resources Institute analysis estimates upwards of 9.9 million people in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin are exposed to river floods each year.

    This number could double or triple by 2030 to between 22.5 and 31.4 million people each year, factoring in projections based on climate change and economic and urban development predictions.

    A heavy burden

    This underscores a problem that South Asia and other flood-prone regions have grappled with for generations. Regular, small-scale floods are a vital aspect of the ecosystem in lowland river areas: they can replenish nutrients in the soil and are essential for certain crops.

    But as populations swell and urbanise, life amid the floods becomes increasingly difficult.

    “It’s a blessing and a burden,” said Azmat Ulla, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies country head in Bangladesh. “It’s not just Bangladesh, it’s a large part of Asia: South Asia, Southeast Asia. How to live with floods?”

    Disaster risk reduction is a key part of that balance. Risk reduction represents a sweeping set of priorities — from smarter land use and urban planning that takes environmental realities into account, to helping populations become better prepared for hazards, to enabling more effective response and recovery efforts.

    But on the ground, there are very human reasons why even well-designed early warning systems can fail.

    For some, leaving is a luxury

    When researcher Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, a project manager with the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, interviewed survivors of 2007’s Cyclone Sidr in coastal Bangladesh, one thing became abundantly clear: some people did not evacuate, even though early warning systems had been activated.

    For some, cyclone shelters were too far away, or they feared they might be full and chose to try and protect their possessions instead. Others told her they received SMS warnings — but couldn’t read them.

    One man said he didn’t evacuate because he couldn’t leave behind his cows. To him, losing his only income source seemed a greater risk than the looming storm.

    “I think more effort is required to understand why people don’t move,” said Ayeb-Karlsson, who researches human responses to climate change and disasters.

    “Most of the time, it doesn’t have too much to do with not getting warning signals, or not knowing the flood is coming,” she said.

    “It’s a question about not being able to move, or maybe feeling that there’s a risk for them to move. There are a million different reasons.”

    These reasons have important implications for policy. As a result, Bangladesh is exploring ways of making evacuation shelters more accommodating — built with space to keep cattle on a bottom floor, for example, said Ayeb-Karlsson.

    Smaller, closer shelters could draw more evacuees than larger structures kilometres away. And automated phone calls, rather than text messages, could reach people who are illiterate.

    For many people, time simply ran out: they couldn’t secure their possessions before the cyclone hit. “It’s all a question of time,” said Ayeb-Karlsson.

    (TOP PHOTO: An aerial photograph shows the extent of August 2017 flooding across Bangladesh. Raqibul Alam/IFRC)


    In South Asia, early warning buys precious time before disaster
  • Hurricane versus Monsoon

    US media last week mentioned Hurricane Harvey at least 100 times more than India. Outside the United States, media produced three times more about Texan flooding than Asia's in recent days. Monsoon floods on the other side of the world are worse than Harvey, but aid agencies say America's crisis is sucking up all the attention. Using open data, IRIN has quantified the relative online news coverage and found yawning gaps. 

    It is important to note that headlines and news coverage are only part of the picture. Fundraisers know that some things will always resonate more with the public and studies show that donors are motivated by far more than just media. Academics differ on how much influence the "CNN effect" really has on international aid funding.

    However, based on previous experience, Harvey will generate a huge outpouring of public donations at home, while faraway crises have to fight harder for attention and money. 

    Alison Carlman of GlobalGiving, an agency that fundraises for many often smaller non-profits and mostly in the United States, put it like this: "We're raising money for both floods. South Asian flood orgs have raised just over $12K. Our Harvey Fund is at $1.69M now. The Sierra Leone mudslides have raised $55K."

    This month, the South Asian floods have hit India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, which are facing exceptional weather and massive humanitarian impacts. Floods across the three countries have affected some 41 million people (That's about 10 times the total population of Metro Houston), according to the UN.

    In Asia, some 1,200 deaths are reported. In the United States, the death toll is slowly rising and currently stands at 38. 


    GDELT, a huge database of online news from around the world, automatically tags articles with their topics and geographic focus. Of about 30 million stories it scanned, some 200,000 covered natural disasters so far this month. 

    The GDELT data can help answer the question: How much attention have the Asian and American floods got at home and abroad?

    First we compared coverage of India, Bangladesh, and Nepal with coverage of the state of Texas. Not surprisingly, US media shows an explosion of coverage since Harvey emerged. The level of coverage of the Asian disasters is so much smaller it is almost insignificant by comparison. 

    According to this data, at its peak, Texas coverage in the US is about 160 times that of the Asian flooding.


    Another database, MediaCloud, counts the number of words in articles produced by a range of US media. We searched the last week of news in US media for the word "flooding" and looked at the word counts. The graphic below represents how many times the top 500 words appear.

    The word "Houston" appears 100 times more than "India".

    The Rest of the World

    Did the rest of the world's media do a little better at keeping an eye on Asia? 


    So far, the GDELT data suggests that non-American media have kept up some coverage of the Asian flooding, despite throwing resources at the Harvey story.  

    The gap here is smaller – when Harvey was drenching Texas, it got three or four times as much coverage as the Asian disaster. 

    There's no pretty way to say it: loss, pain, and drama make for compelling news. Especially when it's from home. 

    Update: How did India's media cover Harvey?


    If the US media is not paying attention to floods in Asia, what about the other way around?

    How much coverage did Indian publications give to Harvey? The answer is: some, about a third, of the coverage of natural disasters at home.




    (TOP PHOTO: Floods in India. Credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)


    Using data to check media bias
    Forgotten floods
  • Preying on disaster: How human trafficking has spiked in quake-shattered Nepal

    The year following two earthquakes that devastated Nepal saw a spike in desperate people falling into the clutches of human traffickers. Two years later, with the country’s infrastructure and economy still in ruins, NGOs say human trafficking is still on the rise.
    Nepal has long been a source of economic migrants, and the money they’ve sent home from Gulf countries and neighbouring India has helped to feed families and build homes. Almost a million of those houses were destroyed or damaged in the quakes of 25 April and 12 May 2015, which encouraged more people to migrate, some of whom have been trafficked into unpaid labour or sex slavery.
    Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission reported a 15 percent increase in the number interceptions of people “vulnerable” to human traffickers during the three months following the quakes.
    That trend shows no sign of slowing, according to the anti-trafficking NGO Maiti Nepal, as well as Indian border security officials. “We continue to see a rise in trafficking cases and in interceptions at the border,” said Shivani Chemjong of Maiti.
    The NGO stations people at border crossings with India and intervenes if women and children are suspected of being trafficked. Last year, Chemjong said, Maiti “intercepted” more than 5,700 “vulnerable girls”; in 2014 – the year before the quake – the figure was 2,900.
    The Sahastra Seema Bal, the Indian force guarding the 1,751-kilometre border, also reported an increase. In a statement last month, the SSB said officers intervened in the cases of 33 victims of human trafficking in 2014, compared to 336 in 2015 and 501 in 2016. And the SSB has found 180 cases of human trafficking in just the first three months of this year. 


    In a small workshop in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, about a dozen women between the ages of 14 and 20 sat at tables, diligently threading beads into jewellery. Each was recently rescued after being trafficked, and was now receiving support, including skills training, from a local NGO, Shakti Samuha, which was established and is run by survivors of trafficking.
    Shakti Samuha also provides trafficking victims with housing and psychological support, as well as tracking down their families and counselling them. Families often do not welcome trafficking victims home, especially if they have worked in the sex industry. For protection reasons, the NGO declined to reveal their identities or details of their experiences.
    The young women preferred instead to focus on the future.
    "I'd like to learn computer skills, and teach other girls after learning them myself,” said one.


    A young girl rests on a beam in her house in Sindhupalchok, Nepal, which is being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake
    Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN
    A young girl rests on a beam in her house in Sindhupalchok, which is being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake
    More programmes like this are needed, according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2016 report. It notes that, in the aftermath of the 2015 quakes, NGOs and the government increased “services and access to vulnerable populations”, but “referral efforts remained ad hoc and inadequate”.

    Thwarted efforts

    The Nepalese government has taken measures to curb human trafficking as well, but they are limited in effect.
    Agencies that recruit overseas workers must be registered and based in Kathmandu. They may employ agents based in district capitals who are prohibited from charging recruits for their services. 
    In practice, though, there is little oversight. Advocates for trafficking victims say agents sometimes falsely promise women legitimate domestic work and men construction jobs overseas, mainly in India and Gulf states. 
    Once they are there, some women find themselves sold into sex slavery, and many are told they must work until they pay off unforeseen fees.
    “In many cases, the imposition of high fees facilitates forced labor, and recruitment agencies engage in fraudulent recruitment,” the US State Department report says.
    Nepali embassies in six Gulf nations provide emergency shelters for vulnerable women, including trafficking victims, but the report says they are “inadequate to support the high demand for assistance”. 


    A Nepal Police officer looks out from an anti-trafficking check post in Sundhupalchok
    Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN
    A Nepal Police officer looks out from an anti-trafficking check post in Sundhupalchok
    One way to try to curb trafficking is to restrict air travel out of the country. Nepal's Department of Foreign Employment mandates that all migrants undergo pre-departure training before receiving a stamp of approval from the Labour Ministry, without which they can be prevented from boarding flights.
    However, traffickers often avoid such restrictions by bringing people over the porous land border into India.
    An ornamented gateway marks the busy Nepalgunj-Rupaidiha border point, where 4,000 people from Nepal cross into India each day on foot, battery rickshaws, or horse-drawn carts, according to SSB officials.
    “If there is no proof of wrongdoing, we cannot detain vulnerable women travellers as it can look like harassment,” said one senior SSB officer who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to media.
    Once in India, they may be sold into slavery or put on flights to countries beyond.
    Nilambar Badal of Asian Forum, an NGO that works with returned migrants, explained how the traffickers are always one step ahead.
    “The [Nepalese] government has asked India to hold special screenings at the airports. So instead of flying out of Delhi or Mumbai, the girls fly from small airports like Lucknow or Amritsar,” he said. “From there, they can pretend to be on a trip to Sri Lanka, Singapore or Bangladesh, and onward to the Gulf.”
    Nimisha Jaiswal reported on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project
    (TOP PHOTO: Guransh Gurung of the NGO Shakti Samuha, which fights human trafficking, in the office in Chautara, Nepal CREDIT: Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN)
    Preying on disaster: How human trafficking has spiked in quake-shattered Nepal
  • In pictures: Two years on, quake-hit Nepalis still rebuilding on their own

    It should have started right away, but two whole years after a pair of massive earthquakes devastated Nepal, survivors are still waiting for the promised reconstruction boom to begin. 


    Donors were quick to pledge $4 billion after the quakes struck on 25 April and 12 May 2015, killing more than 9,000 people and destroying or damaging almost a million houses. But political infighting stalled the formation, then the functioning, of the National Reconstruction Agency – the body that was supposed to access donor funding and oversee rebuilding.


    SEE: A year after Nepal quake, billions unspent and little rebuilt


    Not until this past January was the NRA even able to publish guidelines for the construction of quake-resistant homes. The NRA provides about $1,885 for people to rebuild following those guidelines, and the money is to be delivered in three tranches. But the process has been marred by confusion and poor communication.


    Many people are unaware, for example, that they need to construct the foundation of their new home before receiving the second tranche. As a result, while 97 percent of those in the districts most affected by the quakes have received the first tranche, very few homes have even begun to be built.


    “Out of those eligible for assistance, only about nine to 10 percent have been able to start the construction, and just about 2.5 percent of the house owners have become eligible for second tranche,” said Vivek Rawal, the housing reconstruction advisor for the UN Development Programme.


    Frustrated by the slow pace of progress, many Nepalis have chosen to rebuild on their own, the best they can.


    “We cannot pay workers as we don’t have money, so my wife and I work all day to clear the debris,” said Radeshian Rajapati, 63, as he and his wife filled sacks with sand. “We are trying to buy construction material to build our home, but with no money we can’t do much.” 


    Photographer Omar Havana was in the capital, Kathmandu, when the quakes hit and he spent the next few months documenting the disaster. Two years later, he returned to see for himself the state of reconstruction. 


    Havana found that many Nepalis had survived two winters and two monsoon seasons without adequate shelter. As the third monsoon season approaches, they continue to rebuild with the scant resources available. Many are working on private construction sites in order to save the necessary money to build their own houses.


    Below is a selection of images from his recent trip.

    Kie Sari collects bricks that she salvaged from her destroyed home in Harisiddhi. Kie, 74, is a widow and has no one to help her, and she has not received help from the government. She spends her days collecting bricks that she cleans and piles up to be re-used for her new home, but so far she has not yet started building. 

    Workers are seen through the window of a building in construction in a square in Bhaktapur. 

    A woman passes in front of a painting representing the destruction of the Dharahara tower in Kathmandu. One of Kathmandu's most famous landmarks, Dharahara tower was built in 1832 after being commissioned by the Queen. Standing at 70 meters tall, its collapse during the quake resulted in the deaths of 132 people, the highest recorded casualty figure at a single site.​

    Labourers clear debris from a collapsed home in Bhaktapur. Most reconstruction work is being undertaken by daily laborers who make around 800 rupees per day [$8.00], as well as neighbors and house owners. In most cases, the work, mostly done by hand, is not being supervised by engineers. The government has deployed 178 technicians to assist in the construction of earthquake-resistant houses. However, residents say the technicians rarely visit affected areas to assess the reconstruction.​ Hira Devi, 50, stands outside the temporary shelter in Harisiddhi where she has been living with five family members since the earthquake. Almost two million people are still living in temporary accommodation.​ A construction worker takes care of his young daughter while two women load his basket with sand in Bhaktapur.​ oh/jf/ag (TOP PHOTO: A statue of a smiling Buddha stands surrounded by debris and a house destroyed by the earthquake in Bhaktapur. Nepal's Department of Archaeology estimates that 743 historic landmarks were damaged by the quake. According to the department, 70 people are working towards the restoration of Bhaktapur, an ancient city that has been designated as a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. CREDIT: Omar Havana/IRIN)
    What little difference two years makes
  • Post-quake Nepal: No country for old women

    Laxmi Devishretha hasn’t spoken for a week. Silent but for the rhythmic in-and-out of the oxygen tank pumping through her nostrils, the 83-year-old lies in a hospital bed, tucked up to her chin in a red fleece blanket. At this point, she’s largely given up trying to make herself heard.
    “It’s the cold,” explained her daughter, also called Laxmi. “It’s hard to keep warm at night, so her asthma has got worse.”
    The air in her home doesn’t help either, according to Binot Dangal, medical director of Charikot Hospital in Dolakha, one of the districts hardest hit by the April 2015 earthquake that killed about 9,000 people and displaced another 3.5 million.
    Dangal said there has been a spike in respiratory illnesses among elderly women since the quake. He blamed poor ventilation combined with open cooking fires inside the makeshift huts where they are now forced to live.
    That’s just one hardship that women – and especially older women – are facing during the post-quake reconstruction phase. 
    Survey results included in the UN’s Interagency Common Feedback Project report showed that perceptions of progress jumped from 22 percent six months ago to 49 percent last month. But while the overall results indicate that Nepalis are more satisfied with rebuilding efforts, there is a glaring gap between men and women.
    “Women report having seen less progress, having received less support, they have less information about how to get support, less knowledge about safer building practices and they are less likely to have consulted an engineer,” said the report.
    As the second anniversary of the devastating quake approaches, Devishretha is one of an estimated two million people still living in temporary accommodation. Reconstruction has been painfully slow, but in the meantime, tents are gradually being replaced across the 14 affected districts by semi-permanent corrugated iron shacks. 


    Corinne Redfern/IRIN
    Laxmi Devishrethra, 83, suffers from respiratory illness partly due to living in a poorly ventilated shack after Nepal's 2015 earthquake

    Gender gap

    What the UN report refers to as the “gender information gap” is evident across all age groups, but the discrimination faced by elderly women following the earthquake is chasmic. 
    According to the government’s Nepal Living Standards Survey, women are nearly 30 percent more likely to be illiterate than their male counterparts. Literacy decreases with age, according to local NGO Ageing Nepal, which reports that 95 percent of elderly women are unable to read.
    Illiteracy poses a major problem for elderly women who need to access the three installments of governmental post-earthquake support. Doing so requires a bank account, which requires extensive paperwork. Widows whose husbands – deemed by default as “heads of households” – opened a bank account on their family’s behalf have also found their access to the grants rescinded, according to the UN report as well as individuals who spoke to IRIN.
    Health issues post-earthquake are ostracising Devishretha’s peer group even further.
    Research conducted by Suman Thapaliya for his Masters thesis at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University last year reveals that 51 percent of elderly women with “significant” physical problems developed them since April 2015, while only a quarter of men aged 60 or older have noticed a decline in their physical health during the same timeframe. Elderly women are also 7.2 percent more likely to have experienced depression or neglect since the earthquake. 
    Yet so far, no specific government programmes are in place to improve their access to medical facilities, target their mental health, or improve their literacy levels. 
    “We have a generation of widows who have spent their lives facing discrimination from a deeply patriarchal society, and who have now lost everything,” said Krishna Gautam, Ageing Nepal’s founder. “And they’re still not receiving the assistance they need to recover – physically or emotionally.”

    Suddenly vulnerable

    Mira Serchan, who heads the Senior Citizen’s Unit at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, is keen to clarify that financial assistance of 2,000 rupees (about $18) a week is available “for all men and women over 60”. The government is also collaborating with local NGOs in 10 districts to teach the elderly crafts such as candle making.
    “The focus is very much upon giving [older women] the tools to live independently,” said Serchan.
    That may be the case, but learning to make candles won’t solve the issues faced by people like Mau Khakda. The 65-year-old lived independently in Dolakha long before the earthquake struck, but she has now been forced to move in with her grandson in Kathmandu. Her main challenge is illiteracy.
    “It wasn’t a problem two years ago. I worked in the fields and I had a routine,” she said. “But my house was totally destroyed in the earthquake, and everything is new now. Even when information is distributed by word of mouth, I can’t check anything.”


    The Basic Literacy School For Senior Citizens
    Corinne Redfern/IRIN
    The Basic Literacy School For Senior Citizens
    There aren’t any figures to show exactly how many senior citizens fled to Kathmandu following the disaster, but Gautam of Ageing Nepal says he’s certain it’s in the thousands. Aware that they were struggling to assimilate in a new city – a lettered labyrinth mapped out with street signs and numbered bus routes – he embarked on a bid to find funding to launch a literacy programme for elderly women. 
    After approaching the government, he eventually succeeded in securing a $3,000 grant from the NGO Committee on Ageing at the UN. The “Basic Literacy School For Senior Citizens” launched in July last year, with 25 eager-eyed women aged 60 to 83 clutching new notebooks and sharpened pencils.
    Ageing Nepal plans to open a second school in Kathmandu later next month, this time with funds from members of the local community.
    (TOP PHOTO: Maiti Thapi, 61, in Deurali. CREDIT: Corinne Redfern/IRIN)
    Post-quake Nepal: No country for old women
  • Global warming turns up the heat on glacial lake risk in the Himalayas

    The roof of the world is melting.

    As the Earth’s temperature rises, many glaciers atop the Himalayas are in retreat. That can cause disaster for mountain communities, as melting ice feeds glacial lakes that overflow and wash out everything in their path – a phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs for short).
    As awareness has grown, so have local fears, and governments in the region have been taking increasing measures to prevent such disasters. But there are major challenges to working at such high altitudes.
    Nepal recently managed to lower the level of the Imja glacial lake by 3.4 metres. The results of the project are shown in the photos below.
    “It’s extremely cold there and it’s a high-altitude area,” said Rishi Ram Sharma, director general at Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. “Even for healthy people, just to reach Imja Lake is a great challenge.” 
    The lake sits at 5,100 metres above sea level and there’s no road access, so materials had to be flown in by helicopter. Work on Imja Lake finally wrapped up at the end of November, but only after it had taken six months for the army and about 100 volunteers from nearby communities to dig a channel to divert some of the water in order avoid the risk of a GLOF.
    It was Nepal’s second such project. In 2000, the government lowered the level of the Tsho Rolpa glacial lake. It had increased from 0.23 square kilometres to 1.53 square kilometres over the course of five decades. 
    Sharma said Nepal plans to lower the water level of at least five more lakes, but stressed that his department is working with old data so researchers may find more areas at risk of GLOF.
    “Now our next plan is to identify the risks posed by glacial lakes by investigating geophysical conditions of the lakes in Nepal,” he said. “If we find that the lake poses a threat to the people living downstream, then the lake-lowering will be done.”
    Of course it’s not just Nepal at risk. Glaciers throughout the Himalayan region are melting. This means the volume of water in glacial lakes increases, but it also means that the natural barrier walls of the lake may crumble. Many barriers are formed from rocks and sediment fused to an internal core of ice, which is itself melting in some cases.
    The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, based in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, has documented 35 GLOF events in Nepal, Bhutan, and the Chinese autonomous region of Tibet over the past few decades. In Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, there were five GLOF events in the first half of 2008 alone, according to ICIMOD.
    In one of the most deadly GLOF events in the Himalayan region, Bhutan’s Lugge Tsho Lake burst in 1994. At least 20 people were killed, along with livestock critical to the economic survival of the people who live in the mountainous region. The flood also damaged more than a dozen houses and other infrastructure. 
    Most GLOF events in the Himalayas take place in remote areas where there are few if any people, and they may even go unnoticed. But with global warming, the threat has increased greatly. Imja Lake did not even exist a few decades ago, but it started to grow rapidly in recent years and was deemed a serious threat by Nepali authorities.
    Part of that risk was its location. Imja Lake is in the Everest region, an area popular with trekkers, as well as a home to villagers who survive partly on the tourism dollars they bring. 
    The government has installed an early warning system in six highly vulnerable settlements on the Everest trekking trails. An automated sensor has been installed in the lake itself, which can transmit any mass water movement to the warning system. 
    Karma Sherpa, who lives below Imja Lake in the village of Dangboche, said he and his family fled their homes twice last summer when small floods occurred, because they were afraid a GLOF might follow. He said the government’s initiative to drain the lake and set up a warning system has brought peace of mind.
    “Now I am assured to some level that I do not have to run in emergency, leaving my home,” he said. “It has also secured my investments in a hotel, for the timebeing."


    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    A young woman looks down to the town of Namche Bazaar, which is a gateway to the Everest region



    The controlled exit channel built to lower the level of Imja Lake
    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    The controlled exit channel built to lower the level of Imja Lake



    The controlled exit channel built in 2000 to lower the level of the Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake
    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    The controlled exit channel built in 2000 to lower the level of the Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake



    Sherpa women in traditional attire take part in a ceremony to celebrate the completion of a project to lower the water level in Imja Lake
    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    Sherpa women in traditional attire take part in a ceremony to celebrate the completion of a project to lower the water level in Imja Lake



    Imja Lake has become one of the biggest glacial lakes due to glacial melt over the past few decades. It's now 1.28  square kilometres with a depth of 150 metres.
    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    Imja Lake has become one of the biggest glacial lakes due to glacial melt over the past few decades. It's now 1.28 square kilometres with a depth of 150 metres.



    An early warning system installed in Phungithanka Village, which will receive an automated warning if there is a risk that the Imja Lake will overflow
    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    An early warning system installed in Phungithanka Village, which will receive an automated warning if there is a risk that the Imja Lake will overflow



    Tourists trek through Solukhumbu District in the Everest region
    Nabin Baral/IRIN
    Tourists trek through Solukhumbu District in the Everest region



    (TOP PHOTO: Buddhist monks perform a ceremony after a successful project to lower the level of the Imja Glacier Lake. CREDIT: Nabin Baral/IRIN)

    Nepal recently lowered the level of a lake that was in danger of bursting its banks
    Global warming turns up the heat on glacial lake risk in the Himalayas
  • Ban Ki-moon's UN legacy clouded by cholera

    Nearly a month after UN officials announced the idea of a special $400 million package to deal with cholera in Haiti, almost no donors have agreed to fund assistance for its victims. UN peacekeepers imported the disease from Nepal to the Caribbean nation in October 2010. Cholera has since killed 9,100 Haitians and the UN has only recently started to acknowledge its responsibility.

    The idea of a package of "material assistance" for victims and survivors was floated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the publication of a searing report on the crisis by a human rights advisor. Philip Alston, a professor of Law at New York University and the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, called the organisation’s years of denials that it brought cholera to Haiti "a disgrace”.

    However the aid package itself is not off to a promising start: "It is really hard to advance this plan for material assistance without having some certainty that there will be money," said Ban’s Haiti cholera point man David Nabarro. "At the same time it is hard to have certainty that there will be money without clarity on what the actual material assistance might look like."

    After Alston’s report was leaked to The New York Times in August, Ban’s office for the first time conceded that the UN had a "moral responsibility" to provide "material assistance" in response to the cholera outbreak, but stopped short of admitting responsibility or apologising.

    Citing existing mechanisms for the UN to settle claims of negligence while maintaining its immunity, Alston said the "new policy remains critically incomplete" without a formal confession and apology. Ban is losing time to make amends before he leaves the job at the end of the year.

    A tarnished legacy

    "Ban's failings in Haiti are one of the worst stains on his legacy, and the clock is running down on his chance to make it right," said Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney at IJDH, a legal group that has filed claims on behalf of cholera victims. "Ban must issue a public apology to the people of Haiti, and follow through on his promise of a ‘new response’ with real action."

    Alston wrote in his report, "the lamentably self-serving legal contortions devised to escape any form of legal responsibility still remain in place… Unless the new process also involves a reconsideration in this regard, the [UN’s] ability to salvage its moral, let alone its legal, credibility and authority will be gravely undermined."

    The office of the secretary-general did not respond when asked if Ban would apologise and take legal responsibility in a speech to the General Assembly on 1 December.

    Nabarro, appointed to oversee cholera relief operations in Haiti, says the terms and breakdown of funding of the “material assistance” plan are still being determined. Nabarro, who headed the UN’s Ebola response in West Africa, has met extensively with member states, but says the overall response to multiple Haiti appeals is lacklustre. Hurricane Matthew, which struck on 4 October, has increased humanitarian needs and sparked a rise in cholera cases.

    As of late October, UN member states have pledged to contribute just 18 percent of a $2.1 billion national plan to eliminate cholera up until 2022; the more general 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Haiti is only 33 percent funded; and a $119.9 million flash appeal in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which Nabarro says is currently the most pressing need, is also less than half funded.

    A two-track plan

    The new package is expected to be split into two $200 million "tracks" – one aimed at eradicating cholera and funding sanitation improvements, and another to provide what has been termed "material assistance" for victims or communities, though the specifics are still hazy (Nabarro said he did not want to raise expectations in Haiti by offering hypothetical details).

    UN officials have taken pains to avoid characterising this tranche of funding as compensation – something critics and lawyers for victims say only adds another layer to the UN’s convoluted handling of its legal position on the crisis.

    Nabarro said that just one member state had agreed to earmark donations towards material assistance specifically. Other donors are more willing to fund the overall cholera response, or track one, but appear to be steering clear of the more politicised second tranche.

    "There’s quite a lot of pressure on us officials to have a concept for the material support package... with sufficient clarity for us to engage with member states so that they can decide how they want to deal with it," Nabarro said in an interview with IRIN.

    One scenario, Nabarro surmised, could be to fund the material assistance through assessed contributions (UN member states’ obligatory dues). But some countries have balked at that, concerned they could be on the hook for other serious negligence attributed to the UN. Critics, including Alston, say that fear is either misguided or, should such claims exist, is something the UN needs to bring out into the open.

    "This is the moment of truth for the UN's leadership, but it's also a moment of truth for the UN's member states," said Lindstrom of IJDH, which filed claims with the UN on behalf of 5,000  cholera victims, as well as a class action lawsuit against the UN in the US federal court. "If they're not ultimately willing to step forward and invest in a just response, then the promise of a more accountable UN rings hollow."

    In August, a US federal appeals court upheld that the UN was not subject to lawsuits in the US. Lindstrom said that this week an extension had been granted allowing the plaintiffs in the case until 17 January to file with the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, she said they would continue pressuring the UN to act on its own.

    (TOP PHOTO: Aid workers on a cholera response mission, Haiti, 2013. Nancy Palus/IRIN)




    Ban Ki-moon's UN legacy clouded by cholera

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