Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • No way home: time runs out for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal

    The monsoon is in its last throes here on Nepal’s eastern frontier. As another deluge begins, Karna Rai takes shelter in a makeshift teashop in the Beldangi refugee camp where he has lived for the past 24 years after being driven out of Bhutan.
     
    “I live here and have raised my children here, but I have no options, no rights,” Rai said. “I am a person with no home.”
     
    He is one of more than 100,000 people who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s when the government cracked down violently on the ethnic Nepali minority. Members of the community had demonstrated against discriminatory policies, which were part of a “Bhutanisation” campaign to enforce a narrowly conceived national identity that did not include them. About a sixth of the ethnic Nepali minority were stripped of their citizenship, and the army rounded up many and forced them over the border in what Human Rights Watch has called "ethnic cleansing".
     
    After failed attempts to convince Bhutan to let the refugees return, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, started helping them resettle in third countries. 
     
    Begun in 2007, it has been one of the agency’s most successful resettlement programmes, and UNHCR said recently that it had found a home for its 100,000th refugee. But that still leaves about 12,000 people in three remaining camps – and their options are running out as the programme winds down by the end of this year.
     

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    Manny Maung/IRIN
     
    Kevin Allen, UNHCR’s representative in Nepal, said refugees interested in pursuing resettlement were given numerous opportunities to declare their interest, and the large-scale resettlement programme was initially supposed to conclude in December 2015.
     
    “The programme was exceptionally extended into 2016 to ensure the maximum possible use of resettlement for qualifying cases,” he said in an interview in the capital, Kathmandu. 
     
    Rai, 61, said his five children – two of whom were born in the camp – all now live in the United States. He survives his wife, who died in Beldangi in 2008. Despite his children being successfully resettled into a third country, Rai insists he wants to go back to Bhutan.
     
    “There is nothing like the motherland,” he said. “I dream about going home.”
     

    What next?

     
    The fate of the remaining refugees is unclear.
     
    “Of course, UNHCR is willing to work closely with both governments, but it is really for the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to come to alternative solutions,” said Allen.
     
    Alternative solutions seem unlikely, given that the stances of both governments have not changed over the past two decades.
     
    “The Nepal government does not have any intention to issue citizenship to the Bhutanese refugees,” home ministry spokesman Balkrishana Panthi told IRIN over the phone. “The Nepal government is focused on repatriation."
     

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    Manny Maung/IRIN
     
    For its part, Bhutan has repeatedly said it won’t consider letting the refugees return. Recent remarks to that effect were reported by the Kathmandu Post, which quoted a letter from Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay to a US senator who had written to him about the plight of the refugees. Tobgay reportedly said they were “non-nationals and illegal immigrants”, and that the camps had been infiltrated by Maoist militants intent on overthrowing Bhutan’s monarchy. 
     

    Social problems

     
    Years of living in limbo have taken a heavy toll on those in the camps, according to the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal, a local NGO.
     
    TPO counsellor Govinda Raj Kattel said rates of drug and alcohol abuse are alarmingly high in the camps, especially among young people.
     
    “There is a lack of security for their future, a lack of identity, a lack of opportunity for younger people,” he said. “They cannot reach their full capacity here.”
     
    Kattel added that while the remaining refugees live relatively well, as money is sent from family members abroad, they still experience mental health issues such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
     
    “Remittances are sent back and you see a spike in sales in alcohol around the shops outside the camp, or a spike in patients who need more psychosocial services,” he said. 
     
    One doctor, who asked not to be named,  said he had seen increased rates of self-harm and that at least a quarter of those abusing substances were under the age of 18.
     
    “They are frustrated, and sometimes this manifests in impulsive or destructive behaviour,” he said. “And many are worried about their futures, of course.”
     

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    Manny Maung/IRIN
     
    While many turn to drugs or alcohol for escape, 21-year-old Aita Sing Rai (no relation to Karna Rai) is going to try for a last-minute resettlement.
     
    He was born in the camp, and his brothers have now all gone to the United States. As the youngest child, he stayed behind to care for his aging parents, who want to return to Bhutan.
     
    “Every time someone leaves, I feel a knot in my stomach,” said Rai. “My parents talk about Bhutan and dream about Bhutan. But I have my own dreams. I am fed up of being a refugee. I want my own identity.”
     
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    (TOP PHOTO: Bhutanese refugees in Nepal practice the Hindu ritual of Chinta to bid farewell a deceased family member in October 2016. The Guru who performs the ritual is said to be able to speak to the souls of the dead. CREDIT: Manny Maung)
    No way home: time runs out for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
  • Nepal quake victims made to play reconstruction “lottery"

    Kalu Kanwar walked three hours under a scorching sun to collect compensation to rebuild his house, which was destroyed in last year’s Nepal’s earthquake. But he returned to his family empty handed. His home had been left off the list of damaged buildings.
     
    About 9,000 people were killed in the 25 April 2015 earthquake and another that followed on 12 May. The back-to-back disasters damaged 284,479 houses and completely destroyed another 602,567, according to surveys carried out by the government.
     
    Quake victims are eligible to receive grants of about $1,885 for reconstruction. After more than a year of bureaucratic bungling and political infighting, the government finally began distributing the first installments of about $470 during the past couple months. 
     
     
    But people like Kanwar now face an additional bureaucratic hurdle: surveyors may have missed more than 100,000 homes when carrying out their damage assessments. The government only realised this belatedly, issuing a form in May to allow people who were left out to register.
     
    Surveyors failed to note more than half of the 600 homes in the Kerabari Village Development Committee area, which includes Kanwar’s village of Ragé and is in Gorkha District where the epicentre of the quake was. 
     
    Those left off the list in Kerabari submitted their forms to the government. But when a group of residents went to the town of Bhachhek to claim compensation two weeks ago, they found that their forms hadn’t been processed yet. Only those counted in the initial survey received grants.
     
    “This present situation is like bringing three brothers to a table laid out with a sumptuous meal, and then letting only one of them eat while the others watch,” said Kanwar as he prepared to walk back to Ragé.
     

    Waiting game

     
    The government’s National Reconstruction Agency has received almost 150,000 forms from across the country, according to Ram Prasad Thapaliya, the NRA spokesman.
     
    “Committees for deciding cases of houses missed out have been formed at the village and district levels already, but it’s not effective yet because we are focused on the distribution of funds (for houses included in the initial survey),” he told IRIN.
     
    Before disbursing funds to people who have submitted the forms, the NRA will need to check their homes to confirm damage. It’s unclear how long this process will take, but considering that it has taken Nepal about 15 months to start disbursing reconstruction grants to those who were surveyed, the prospects are not encouraging.
     
     
    “I’ve been told from the centre that those who have filled the forms will receive the money soon,” said Ram Prakash Chaudhary, secretary of the Village Development Committee in Kanwar’s area. “But I can’t say what that ‘soon’ means. It could mean one month, two months, or even next year.”
     

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    Kapil Bisht/IRIN
     

    Frustration rising

     
    Errors, both technological and human, appear to have undermined the initial survey, although the government has so far declined to explain publicly what happened.
     
    Villagers said some of the tablets used by the surveyors to collect images of damaged buildings malfunctioned, and an official at the NRA confirmed this to IRIN on condition of anonymity.
     
    “Confusion about the area assigned to an individual surveyor, and deploying social workers in villages other than ones they had worked in also contributed to the errors,” said Shiva Bhusal, a government engineer working in Gorkha District.
     
    He explained that social workers could have easily missed homes if they were surveying areas they were not familiar with, because they would not have known where all the houses were and may not have known the exact boundaries of the areas they were surveying.
     
    The reasons for the missteps hardly matter to victims who are weathering their second monsoon season without adequate shelter, as winter looms.
     
    Rajendra Regmi, a teacher in a primary school in Birauta, said frustration is rising in his village as some receive compensation while others are left out.
     
    “It’s hard to console yourself when the person who is receiving government aid has not lost anything more than you have,” he said. “The aid distribution has become like a lottery.”
     
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    (LEAD PHOTO: Victims of Nepal's 2015 earthquake queue at a bank in Bhachhek in August 2016 to receive compensation grants to rebuild their homes. CREDIT: Kapil Bisht/IRIN)
    Nepal quake victims made to play reconstruction “lottery"
  • When disaster strikes, should China do more?

    Sixty-two Chinese rescuers and six sniffer dogs were the first global team on the ground in Nepal the day after a massive earthquake devastated the country just over a year ago.

    The quick deployment was a sign of China’s growing role in emergencies, but critics say its humanitarian contributions are still paltry compared to its economic and diplomatic clout. With the world's second-largest economy and largest standing army, China's contributions do not match official pronouncements about its growing international role.

    “We are trying to play a bigger role in the existing international order,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference in March. 

    “The world is so big and faces so many problems; the international community wishes to hear China's voices and see China's solutions, and China cannot be absent,” he told reporters.

    But the figures belie such statements.

    China contributed only $54 million in humanitarian aid in 2014, according to Development Initiatives, which analysed data from sources including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UN, and the International Monetary Fund. In contrast, the United States contributed $5.9 billion, while Britain gave $2.3 billion, and Saudi Arabia $755 million. 

    The UN’s Financial Tracking Service, which documents global humanitarian aid flows, shows that China’s contribution fell in 2015 to a mere $37 million.

    (The above figures are for humanitarian aid only, and do not include grants and loans aimed at development goals.)

    Even China’s own statistics underscore the relatively low importance it places on foreign aid.

    According to a 2014 white paper on foreign aid – including development as well as humanitarian funding – China’s average ratio of aid budget to gross national income was about 0.07 percent in the period from 2010 to 2012. 

    That's much lower than the average 0.3 percent given annually by the 29 countries making up the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, which include the Group of 7 advanced economies as well as smaller countries including Slovenia, Greece, and the Czech Republic.

    In a recent commentary, the UK-based Overseas Development Institute said: “With greater power comes greater responsibility and China should step up its contributions to international humanitarian assistance to an amount at least remotely worthy of its GDP.”

    The Ministry of Commerce, which administers Beijing’s humanitarian aid, has not responded to IRIN’s requests for comment and further information.

    Politically motivated?

    Observers have also noted that China’s aid often seems motivated at least in part by political goals.

    “In terms of commitments overseas, it seems highly tactical,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London.

    He cited South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 from Sudan, a long-time Chinese ally. China suddenly found itself in the awkward position of having invested heavily in oilfields that were now part of an independent South Sudan, while having provided support to the Khartoum government throughout the war, including supplying weapons.

    China sent peacekeepers to join the UN mission in South Sudan, and contributed other humanitarian aid.

    “We also saw this in Costa Rica in 2007 when China agreed to buy $300 million in bonds and give $130 million in aid to secure Costa Rica’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing instead of Taipei,” Brown said.

    Learning curve

    Some experts say it will take time for China to build up its humanitarian activities overseas. But as one of the most natural disaster-stricken countries in the world, China has the potential to contribute its considerable experience to disaster relief. 

    For example, when the worst earthquake in 30 years struck southwestern Sichuan Province in 2008, international agencies played only a small role and China’s response was widely praised. The government immediately launched a massive effort, which included deploying troops to rescue people buried in rubble, deliver aid and organise evacuations.

    But critics also point out that China’s “draconian laws” stymie independent humanitarian efforts from Chinese NGOs.

    SEE: Activist arrest puts foreign NGOs in China on edge

    “China might be a great power now, but it has to learn how to behave like one, especially in the area of humanitarian aid,” said Xu Guoqi, professor of Chinese history and international relations at the University of Hong Kong.

     

     

    Xu said China has very few NGOs relative to its population, and they are still figuring out how to function within China as well as abroad.

    A former Chinese NGO worker, who requested anonymity and whose organisation recently shut down after losing access to international donors, told IRIN: “Many Chinese NGOs have relied on foreign funding, as local philanthropy is still underdeveloped. Now that the government is clamping down harder on civil society, NGOs are thinking about how to survive, not how to expand overseas.”

    Inequality undermines charity

    Despite rapid economic growth, private donations have not yet taken off.

    “Even with so many newly rich people, charity-giving is still not widely spread as in many Western countries,” said Xu.

    On Weibo, a popular Chinese website similar to Twitter, most discussions of China’s humanitarian aid are critical of the leadership for giving money to other countries when commenters felt the funds should be used assisting its own citizens.

    China's income inequality is among the world's worst. The country's Gini coefficient for income was 0.49 in 2012, according to a recent Peking University report, where a number above 0.40 represents severe income inequality.

    “Some members of the public will think, 'there are so many poor areas of China – why should [Chinese] give foreign aid?' But this is changing,” a staff member of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation told IRIN. 

    Since 2003, this Beijing-based NGO, which enjoys government support, has carried out disaster relief operations in countries including Indonesia, Haiti, the US, Myanmar, Nepal, and Ecuador with expenditure totaling around $13.7 million.

    The CFPA staffer said the idea of charity could be catching on, judging by recent fundraising efforts.

    “For example, many individuals gave contributions of more than 1,000 yuan ($150) for Nepal earthquake relief, and within 24 hours of fundraising to fight against the Ebola virus we raised 1.21 million yuan ($182,747) from the public,” she said.

    (With additional reporting by Jennifer Rigby in Nepal)

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    When disaster strikes, should China do more?
  • A year after Nepal quake, billions unspent and little rebuilt

    Haribansa Thami gestures towards the ruined house where he used to live with his family on a mountainside in Nepal's Dolakha District.

    “I’m angry,” he said. “The people are angry. We voted for them, and we expected them to do something for us. But it is like the Nepal government is still running from the earthquake."

    Thami and his neighbours are not the only people who are angry. On 25 April, it will be one year since the first of two major earthquakes hit the country, killing nearly 9,000 people, damaging or destroying almost one million homes and disrupting 5.2 million lives.

    Emergency relief eventually reached most people thanks to local and international NGOs and the government. But the next stage – rebuilding – has barely begun, despite $4.1 billion pledged at an international donor conference last June for that very purpose.

    Now there are fears that the full amount of money may never materialise due to delays caused by the government, which instead focused on pushing through a new and controversial constitution in the months after the disaster. The constitution then sparked a 135-day unofficial blockade at the India border and an ensuing fuel crisis, slowing reconstruction further.

    SEE: Will a political dispute become a humanitarian disaster in Nepal?

    “Because of the crisis, the country couldn’t move from recovery to reconstruction,” said Plan International’s Nepal country director, Mattias Bryneson. “The slower it is, the less money they will get. If there is no project where the $4 billion can be put in, the donors will not stay.”

    ‘Deconstruction Authority’

    Hundreds of thousands of people are now bracing themselves for their second monsoon season in temporary shelters. The government recently admitted it won’t be able to finish – or even begin – the construction of permanent housing in many districts before the rains hit.

    Renu Sharma, who runs the Women’s Foundation Nepal, was blunt: “This was a natural disaster, but the humanitarian disaster is far worse.”

    The National Reconstruction Authority finally emerged from months of political squabbling as a functional body in December. It began work on 16 January, although it has only about a quarter of the staff it needs and is itself housed in a temporary building.

    SEE: How politics delayed Nepal reconstruction

    The NRA has finally dipped into the $4.1 billion pool of pledges. Of that, only around $1 billion is committed. The rest of the money is, at least theoretically, sitting in the bank accounts of the donors that have not yet signed agreements to get it to Nepal. Of the committed funds, only around $615 million is actually available in Nepal, from donors like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, according to NRA Joint Secretary Ram Thapaliya.

    Half will go directly to people via compensation housing grants, and half to government ministries for rebuilding. In March, the first tranche reached a handful of victims: 50 people in Dolakha got 50,000 of an eventual 200,000 rupees (roughly $470 of $1890).

    “Though the people are very needy, though they might not be satisfied with the delays, we have had very difficult circumstances,” explained Thapaliya, before running through an extensive list of guidelines that he said needed to be written before rebuilding could begin.

    The NRA’s laudable aim is to “build back better”, and it now has 17 earthquake-resistant home designs. But some of its guidelines have backfired, prompting the Nepali Times newspaper to dub it the “Deconstruction Authority”.

    For example, people who took the initiative to rebuild quickly were shocked to find out they may not be eligible for compensation, because their houses do not fit the NRA’s designs (which only emerged in December). In Ramecchap District, the International Federation of the Red Cross was prevented from building homes for 100 families until NRA frameworks were finalised.

    “It’s frustrating,” admitted Michael Higginson, IFRC Nepal programme coordinator. “Like any humanitarian organisation, we want to get on… But the reality is, these (rules and regulations) are needed.”

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    Rubble from Nepal's earthquake
    Jennifer Rigby/IRIN

    ‘Too slow’

    Many donors say progress is too slow. The ADB is responsible for $200 million of the $615 million available to the NRA, and country director Kenichi Yokoyama told IRIN he wants action.

    “We need to see actual reconstruction start to happen, and fast,” he said. “Too much time has been spent on preparatory works. I think many donor agencies are getting very frustrated with the pace of progress.”

    Frustrated with waiting for the NRA to be formed and start work, some donors have gone ahead with reconstruction on their own. The UK’s Department for International Development is already spending its $100 million on reconstruction projects, including roads.

    “Donors are sceptical about the feasibility of implementing their money,” warned one high-level donor agency official who was not authorised to speak to media. He pointed out that India and China have pledged $2 billion between them, which has not yet been accessed. 

    Thapaliya said he “hopes” the money will remain available, but “time is moving on”. He promised housing reconstruction will take three years; local officials told IRIN they fear it could be more like 20.

    For Thami, it is too long to wait. As has been the case since the earthquake, he will have to depend on help from NGOs, and ultimately trust the only person he can rely on: himself.

    “This is a temporary shelter for one to two years. We made it because we expected the money, but (the government) are late in everything,” he said. “But I am hopeful I can rebuild my life. I’m young, I can do things for my future.”

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    A year after Nepal quake, billions unspent and little rebuilt
  • After 60 years of Zika in Asia, why worry?

    Zika has been in Asia and the Pacific for at least 60 years, though its mostly mild symptoms have prompted little cause for concern. But with the World Health Organization declaring a global emergency after an outbreak in Brazil that's been linked to serious birth defects, some countries in the region are taking special precautions.

    Tonga has declared an epidemic, and the government of the Cook Islands has advised women to delay becoming pregnant. Japan, South Korea, Nepal and India have issued advisories to pregnant women against travelling to infected countries.

    South Korea has announced a fine of two million won (about $1,700) on doctors who fail to immediately report suspected cases, while Malaysia has asked travellers to the country to report to health centres if they have symptoms.

    Nepal is trying to get rid of any standing water where the Aedes mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, can easily breed, said Dr. Babu Ram Marasini, director of the disease control division at the Department of Health Services.

    “We carry out search and destroy campaigns, and request people to throw the water from external containers and dry them out for a few hours,” he said.

    India has set up a technical group to monitor the situation, posted warnings at international airports and has promised to ramp up community awareness to stop mosquito breeding.

    Although no cases of infection have ever been documented in India, it was in that country, back in 1953, where the first evidence emerged that Zika had jumped from animals to humans. In that study just six years after Zika was discovered in monkeys in Uganda, researchers from the National Institute of Virology, in the city of Pune, found that 33 out of 196 people surveyed had immunity to the virus.

    For the most part, symptoms have not been particularly serious, usually a rash and a fever, and little attention was paid to Zika for a long time after the study. But in 2007, Zika exploded in the tiny Pacific island of Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia, where almost three quarters of its approximately 10,000 inhabitants tested positive.

    Six years later, Zika infected about 35,000 people in French Polynesia. It was there that researchers discovered the potential connection between the virus and Guillian-Barré syndrome, according to a 2014 article in Eurosurveillance, a scientific journal that focuses on communicable diseases. Guillian-Barré syndrome causes the immune system to attack the nervous system, leading to a weakening of the limbs and sometimes paralysis.

    It is unclear how Zika arrived in Brazil, but researcher published in a US Center for Disease Control journal theorised last year that it may have arrived with participants from Pacific countries at the World Canoeing Championships in Rio de Janeiro in August 2014.

    Zika is now spreading rapidly through the Americas after recently showing up first in Brazil, where there have been about 1.5 million cases. Preliminary research appears to show a link between Zika and Guillian-Barré syndrome as well as microcephaly, which can cause babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains.

    Despite Zika's relatively benign history in Asia and the Pacific, there is risk that a stronger form of the virus may have emerged, and that it could spread throughout the region with much more severe consequences than previous outbreaks.

    "The strain in Brazil could be new because mutation rates in these viruses are high. Moist tropical climates, population explosion and international travel mean Asia is susceptible to Zika," said Dr. Shailendra Saxena, of the Indian Virological Society.

    He said that rapidly growing populations in many Asian countries make them vulnerable to an outbreak of Zika. As migration to cities increases, so do slums with poor sanitation and stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed.

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    Is Zika a risk to Asia?
  • Boomtime for fuel smugglers in Nepal

    A severe fuel shortage has crippled Nepal, causing added hardship for millions of people already trying to recover from a devastating earthquake. But not everybody is suffering – a flourishing black market is enriching both smugglers and police.

    Nepal is struggling to rebuild after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in April 2015, which killed almost 9,000 people and destroyed about half a million homes. But unrest along the border has blocked imports from India, including medicines, food, and fuel. The lack of fuel has impeded efforts to bring relief supplies to remote areas and cut off transportation to healthcare facilities.

    Last month, nine international aid agencies, including several United Nations bodies and major donors from Britain, South Korea and Germany, issued a joint statement warning: “The health and humanitarian implications of the present scenario are grave.” They urged “all sides to address restrictions on imports”, although they did not name the parties involved.

    Protests against a revamped constitution dividing Nepal into seven new provinces have been ongoing on the Indian border since August. Members of the ethnic minority Madhesi and Tharu communities who live in the frontier region oppose the size and borders of the new provinces, claiming those and other measures mean they will be under-represented in parliament. The protesters, with tacit support from Delhi, have enacted an unofficial blockade on imports, and Nepal’s government has been unable or unwilling to negotiate a settlement.

    SEE: Will a political dispute become a humanitarian disaster in Nepal?

    The crisis has created a thriving trade in fuel smuggled into the country from India, which is sold openly by dealers who pay the police to look the other way. At one market in an empty plot of land in the capital, Kathmandu, petrol flowed down from large plastic drums into the customers’ jerry cans. The dealer, who declined to provide his name, was overwhelmed by phone calls from customers.

    “I don’t care who gave you my number,” he told one caller. “I don’t sell on credit. If you want fuel, come with the money and take it. Come soon, it’s going to be sold in half an hour.”

    In half a day he sold some 3,000 litres of petrol. His profit from the transaction was 210,000 rupees ($1,900).

    The black market price for petrol is about 230 rupees ($2) per litre, which is 130 percent more than the official price fixed by the government. But the fuel stations authorised by the government are mostly empty. Metal plates hang from the pumps that read: “THERE IS NO PETROL”.

    The dealer argued that he is providing a vital service. “My price is very reasonable,” he told IRIN. “I am a businessman, not a thief.”

    Bishal Rai, a taxi driver, agreed. “I blame the government,” he said. “What need is there to arrest people who are supplying fuel when it cannot? At least they are giving us what we need.”

    Smugglers dues

    The government denies claims it is letting the black market flourish and says it has arrested more than 140 illegal traders over the past two months.

    “These are all rumours, that the government is encouraging black marketers,” said Yadav Prasad Koirala, joint secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs. “The government has and will continue to arrest and punish those involved in black marketing of fuel.”

    He denied that police were taking bribes. Yet, several fuel dealers who spoke on condition of anonymity told IRIN that they regularly pay off the police.

    An officer said the police were intentionally letting the black market thrive. “The current fuel scarcity has created a difficult situation,” said the officer. “Yes, it is true that we have had to turn a blind eye to the black marketing of fuel.”

    Dealers told IRIN that some fuel is smuggled across the border into Nepal on motorbikes, which can carry as many as 150 litres per trip. The fuel is then sent on to Kathmandu, with small-time dealers bringing it on buses. Larger operators drive pick-up trucks crammed with 250-litre drums.

    Prices soar

    The border blockade has caused commodity prices to rise dramatically, according to the World Food Programme. Cooking gas has shot up in price by as much as 630 percent since the blockade began five months ago, while the cost of rice has doubled and commodities like lentils, a staple, have risen sharply as well.

    Last month, WFP said the fuel shortage had caused “severe delays” in its ability to get food to more than 224,000 people. The organisation’s Seetashma Thapa told IRIN that the government has since set aside fuel for its deliveries.

    “Although we have been able to continue transporting aid to earthquake victims, the fuel shortage has resulted in the price of essentials like cooking oil almost doubling,” she said.

    The government says it is attempting to ease the crisis by re-routing fuel shipments away from the main border crossing in the city of Birgunj, which is at the centre of the protests. Indian officials are reticent to allow goods to cross there, and protestors in the city have burnt fuel they confiscated from smugglers.

    Shiva Tirpathee, under secretary at the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies, told IRIN that the government is trying to move as much fuel as it can through smaller crossings. “Fuel supply will improve in another 10 to 12 days,” he said. “But it can’t return to normal until the Birgunj border crossing reopens.”

    The border crossing is unlikely to reopen until the government and the protestors resolve their political differences. Meanwhile, Nepal’s economy is running on fumes.

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    Boomtime for fuel smugglers in Nepal
  • How politics delayed Nepal reconstruction

    After delays due to political haggling, Nepal’s government has finally authorised a National Reconstruction Authority to begin rebuilding the earthquake-devastated country, although the actual reconstruction will not begin for a couple of months – almost an entire year after the 7.8 magnitude quake killed about 9,000 people.

    The move comes too late to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people still living in shelters made from tarpaulins that provide little protection from the harsh winter. They lost everything in the earthquakes in April and May last year, and then became victims of politicians engaged in a power struggle for control over the NRA, which finally held its first board meeting this week.

    The NRA can now begin to access $4 billion in funds pledged by international donors for reconstruction. Its first order of business was to task the Central Bureau of Statistics to carry out an assessment of how many homes were destroyed. The NRA’s undersecretary, Bhisma Bhusal, told IRIN that the assessment will take about seven weeks, after which reconstruction can begin.

    Aid agencies welcomed the news.

    “Better late than never,” said Vivek Rawal, a housing reconstruction advisor with the United Nations Development Programme.

    Initial reports after the quake indicated that half a million houses were completely destroyed, but Rawal told IRIN that an assessment was necessary to verify the exact number of homes that would need rebuilding. Such an assessment should have been done as soon as possible to get accurate numbers and allow reconstruction to begin. One concern is that, during the long wait to get started, people may have unnecessarily pulled down damaged houses that could have been restored.

    The NRA’s former CEO, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, said he had actually asked the Statistics Bureau to begin its survey right after he was appointed back in August. He lost the job in October after Nepal’s parliament chose a new prime minister – Khadga Prasad Oli of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party, which leads the coalition government – and then refused to ratify an ordinance to authorise the NRA.

    “We started that, but once I left, the work was very slow,” said Pokhrel, who is seen as connected to the opposition Nepali Congress party.

    Despite the political wrangling, the government could have ordered the Statistics Bureau to continue its work. It is not clear why that did not happen.

    “We would like to know,” said Rawal, while stressing that the most important thing was the work at hand. “Now, energies are correctly focused on all these reconstruction policies,” he said.

    Others are less forgiving of the government’s interminable delays.

    Guna Raj Luitel, editor of the Kathmandu-based Nagarik newspaper, told IRIN that the government should start disbursing grants immediately, especially as the destruction of homes had already been confirmed in some areas.

    “There are data already,” he said. “It's petty politics and a lame excuse not to initiate reconstruction now.”

    Pokhrel warned there is a danger the NRA could use reconstruction funding for political purposes – for example, by directing money to certain people or areas to gain support. He said there was a risk that the UML could stack the reconstruction body with its supporters, although he said this should not delay the NRA’s work any longer.

    “We need to stop the misuse of funds by the government, which has politicised this NRA,” he told IRIN. “On the other hand, we need to help people suffering as soon as possible. That is the dilemma Nepal is facing.”

    Pokhrel said new guidelines allow the government to appoint staff members onto the reconstruction authority who might then exert influence in local communities.

    Bhusal, the NRA’s undersecretary, confirmed that 115 of the authority's 208 personnel are to be supplied by the government. He said he knew nothing about the political background of the newly-appointed CEO, Sushil Gyawali, but several sources told IRIN he is a former UML student leader.

    Regardless of political connections, Gyawali is widely seen as a good choice to take the helm at the NRA. He headed the Town Development Fund, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Physical Planning and Transport, which provides financing and expertise to build municipal projects such as water systems and health centres.

    “He has lots of experience and he can work in a very good way with local people,” said Bhusal. “We are quite optimistic.”

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    102359
    Politics delays Nepal reconstruction
  • Briefing: Will a political dispute become a humanitarian disaster in Nepal?

    Eight months after a huge earthquake devastated Nepal and killed almost 9,000 people, an import-crippling border blockade provoked by a political dispute has sent prices skyrocketing and is stalling efforts to rebuild. If left unresolved, hundreds of thousands of quake survivors, many of them still living without proper shelter, could suffer shortages this winter.

    Nepal’s parliament is set to begin debating amendments to a new and controversial constitution that could help resolve tensions and head off a humanitarian crisis.

    After almost 10 years of political deadlock that followed a decade-long civil war, the constitution was pushed through quickly in the wake of the two earthquakes in April and May this year. The constitution was approved on 20 September – and it was hoped that doing so would free up the government to concentrate on reconstruction – but it was met with resistance from the start.

    Members of the ethnic Madhesi and Tharu minorities oppose the constitution. Among other points, they say the size and shape of the seven new provinces created will reduce their political representation.

    The Madhesi live in the lowlands of mostly-mountainous Nepal, on the Terai plains, as well as across the border in India. Many of them have – with quiet backing from Delhi – shown their displeasure with the constitution by mounting mass protests that have blocked goods coming into Nepal. India is by far the largest source of imports to the landlocked nation, and the blockade has crippled the economy and severely impaired efforts to rebuild since the earthquakes.

    See: India border trouble blocks medicines to Nepal

    Nepal’s parliament has tabled a bill that could amend the constitution to change the electoral make-up and the representation of various groups in political bodies. But it’s unclear if the amendments – even if they were made – would be enough satisfy the protestors. The United Democratic Madhesi Front, which has been leading the protest movement and negotiating with the government, says the language of the bill is too vague and needs to be changed.

    “If it passed through parliament as is, it will not address the demands of the movement,” Upendra Yadaf, a UDMF leader, told IRIN over the phone from the Nepali capital, Kathmandu.

    Using near identical language in separate statements, major donors from Germany, Britain and South Korea, as well as UN agencies and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have urged “all sides to address restrictions on imports”.

    So far, negotiations between the government and the UDMF have come to naught and tensions remain high. More than 40 people have been killed since the protests began, including one who was shot by police on Sunday. As civil unrest continues on the border, and discussions proceed in Kathmandu, the situation for most people in the country is only getting worse.

    "WFP urges all sides to once again allow the free flow of food items across the border to ensure that Nepalis, especially those who struggle on a day-to-day basis to feed their families, are not the ones who bear the burden of this protracted political standoff," Seetashma Thapa, of the World Food Programme in Nepal, told IRIN.

    ‘Looming crisis’

    Even as Nepal struggles to rebuild after the quakes that destroyed or damaged almost a million homes, aid agencies warn of another looming humanitarian crisis. Fuel shortages are preventing shipments of emergency supplies like blankets and tarpaulins to remote communities, and time is running short, as winter snows begin to block access roads and trails.

    Cooking gas has shot up in price by as much as 630 percent since the blockade began, while the cost of rice has doubled and commodities like cooking oil and lentils have risen sharply as well, according to WFP. The fuel shortage has caused “severe delays” in the organisation’s ability to get food to more than 224,000 people.

    UNICEF has warned that more than three million children under the age of five are in danger of death or disease this winter if the bottleneck on imports continues. The government has already run out of tuberculosis vaccines, it said, while stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low.

    The organisation’s chief of health in Nepal, Doctor Hendrikus Raaijmakers, told IRIN that two thirds of medicines are out of stock at primary healthcare facilities throughout the country, and UNICEF plans to fly in $1.5 million worth of antibiotics and other drugs. “The health facilities, regional medical stores and pharmacies warn of dire impact if the current situation continues for a month or more,” he said.

    Stalled talks, violent protests

    It’s unclear how or when the border unrest will abate, allowing goods to begin flowing freely again. A polarised constitutional debate continues, and protests periodically explode in violence with different sides blaming each other.

    On Sunday, police shot and killed one protestor in the town of Gaur, according to both the government and the UDMF.

    That is about the only fact they agree on.

    Yadaf of the UDMF said the protests were peaceful and that people only started throwing stones after police fired into the crowd to disperse them. He said a student protestor was shot and injured as he was fleeing and was subsequently killed by police. Yadaf said the killing was only the latest in a string of violent abuses of civilians by the security forces.

    Laxmi Prasad Dhakel, spokesman for the Home Affairs Ministry, accused protestors of attacking a police station. “They have been throwing petrol bombs and stones,” he told IRIN. “Police were forced to fire, and at that moment a protestor was shot and he died.”

    Dhakel dismissed reports by human rights organisations that implicate security forces in abuses and killings, saying that police have only responded with violence when attacked.

    In a 16 October report, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of 25 people between 24 August and 11 September during protests against the constitution that began before it was approved by parliament. Nine of those killed were police officers, eight of whom were encircled by a mob on 24 August and “viciously attacked” with homemade weapons.

    The police have reacted equally viciously, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented the shooting deaths of 15 people, including six who witnesses said were not taking part in protests. Witnesses said they saw police kill protesters who were lying on the ground after being shot. One 14-year-old victim was dragged from some bushes where he had been hiding and shot point blank in the face, according to the report.

    Human Rights Watch noted that while opinions differ on whether the new constitution is inclusive enough, grievances held by the protesters are underscored by: “a longstanding history of discrimination by successive governments, which remains dominated by traditional social elites from Nepal’s hilly regions, against marginalised groups including Madhesis and Tharus.”

    Regional politics

    Nepali politicians have accused India of backing the protests and imposing a blockade along the border. Indian officials have sent mixed messages, denying any official blockade but warning that Nepal must resolve the political crisis, which would allow goods to move again.

    Madhesis live in both countries and analysts say India is concerned that the protest movement, now in its fourth month, could spiral out of control and destabilise communities within its own borders.

    “If you don’t address the moderate democratic demands, there is a danger of the movement intensifying,” said Prashant Jha, an editor at the Delhi-based Hindustan Times newspaper who has spent time on the border.

    “The movement could become secessionist,” he told IRIN. “It’s a scenario that India wants to prevent at all costs.”

    It’s impossible to know exactly what India is hoping to achieve by at least tacitly backing the blockade, the Nepali Times newspaper observed in an editorial this week. But the paper also accused the Nepali government of shifting the blame for the crisis to India while failing to address the issues being raised by the Madhesi and Tharu as it fast-tracked the constitution.

    The Nepali Times listed a litany of government failures, including political wrangling that has delayed the formation of a Reconstruction Authority to oversee efforts to rebuild after the earthquakes. The body would allow the government to access more than $4 billion that international donors have pledged.

    “We don’t really need India to wreck our country,” the editorial concluded. “Nepal’s politicians are doing it just fine.”

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    102312
    Briefing: Nepal’s dangerous border block
  • India border trouble blocks medicines to Nepal

    Seven months after two devastating earthquakes, Nepal is facing “critical” shortages of life-saving medicines as political unrest along its border with India prevents imports of medical supplies and fuel.

    Nine international aid agencies, including several UN bodies and major donors from Britain, South Korea and Germany, issued a joint statement yesterday urging “all sides to address restrictions on imports”. But they did not specify who the “sides” were; nor did they recommend specific actions to end the crisis.

    Protests have been ongoing along the border with India since a new constitution that will divide the landlocked country into seven new provinces was passed by parliament on 20 September. Members of the ethnic minority Madhesi and Tharu communities oppose the size and borders of the new provinces, claiming those and other measures mean they will now be under-represented in parliament.

    India also has a sizeable Madhesi population, and analysts say the government is concerned that if the grievances of the minority in Nepal are not resolved, the political crisis could destabilise its own communities and even evolve into a separatist movement that could spill across the border.

    Nepal has accused its larger neighbour of indirectly supporting the protests and of preventing trucks from bringing goods across the border in order to put pressure on the central government in Kathmandu to resolve the issue. India denies claims of a blockade and has urged Nepal to find a political solution to end the unrest, which would allow border trade to resume normally.

    Struggling to rebuild

    Nepal is already struggling to rebuild after a 25 April earthquake and another temblor on 12 May. The quakes killed close to 9,000 people and destroyed or damaged almost a million homes.

    Relief efforts that were already problematic due to the mountainous terrain, the poor transport infrastructure and the onset of winter are now being exacerbated by shortages of medicines and other supplies. Plan International warned that fuel shortages were impeding its operations to the point that remote communities might not receive relief kits, including tarpaulins and blankets, before the winter snows cut off access.

    SEE: Fuel shortage threatens Nepal aid as winter comes

    Aid agencies have repeatedly called for a resolution to the border crisis, but they have refrained from wading into the political debate. Instead, they have highlighted the worsening humanitarian situation and made vague calls for unspecified actions by unnamed parties.

    “We urge all sides to address restrictions on the import and free movement of essential supplies including vaccines, drugs and other medical goods as a means of respecting and facilitating the human right to access quality health care services,” said the statement by nine agencies, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund.

    Another signatory, UNICEF, warned on 30 November that more than three million children under the age of five are in danger of death or disease this winter if the bottleneck on imports continues. The government has already run out of tuberculosis vaccines, it said, while stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low. Shortages of supplies such as food and fuel could lead to a spike in malnutrition and hypothermia, as well as pneumonia, which killed 5,000 children last year.

    “UNICEF urges all sides to address the restrictions on essential imports of supplies to Nepal,” Karin Hulshof, the agency's regional director for South Asia, said in a written statement.

    When asked by IRIN, the agency declined to comment on who the sides were in the dispute and what action should be taken.

    In a 20 November statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office said he was “alarmed by reports of the obstruction, and destruction, of life-saving medical supplies” along the border.

    “He calls on all sides to lift these restrictions without further delay and underlines Nepal’s right of free transit,” the statement said, although, again, it did not name the sides that are maintaining restrictions.

    Political intrigue

    Meetings by Nepali and Indian officials have done little to clear up the controversy – or to resolve it.

    Nepali Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said that Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa travelled to India last week and had “very positive talks”. Yet, reassurances in Delhi have not translated into movement at the border, where trucks are lined up for 20 kilometres on the Indian side.

    “Sometimes the border is closed. I don’t know if the order comes from the top. I don’t know where the order comes from,” Dhakal told IRIN. “Indian security people know at the border.”

    India’s foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said on Twitter that Foreign Minister Shushma Swaraj had assured Thapa that “there is no hindrance to supplies from India. But Nepal needs to normalise situation asap”.

    Dhakal said some protestors had used “homemade weapons” against security forces. He said the government is attempting to resolve the situation through negotiation with protest leaders, whom he said were mainly unelected members of political parties. He suggested that they did not understand the constitution, which has been accepted by most people and is "the best constitution at this time".

    At least 40 people have reportedly died since the protests began.

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    102279
    Border trouble blocks medicines to Nepal
  • Nepal unlocks quake funds: It only took 7 months!

    Seven months after a massive earthquake devastated Nepal, the government has finally found its way through a political logjam that was holding up billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction.

    International donors pledged more than $4 billion after the 25 April quake and another temblor on 12 May. The earthquakes killed close to 9,000 people and destroyed or damaged almost a million homes.

    The government formed a National Reconstruction Authority to devise quake-resistant building regulations and risk reduction strategies as well as to oversee the allocation and utilisation of funds. But political wrangling prevented the body from being authorised to begin its work. Opposition parties disagreed with the ruling Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist, known by its Nepali-language acronym UML, over who should run the NRA, and the issue remains unresolved.

    SEE: Politics prevent Nepal reconstruction

    But the Cabinet has belatedly found its way through the political muddle by authorising the country’s National Planning Commission to decide how much funding will be spent in particular sectors over the rest of the fiscal year to the end of April.

    “We are now planning to spend around 500 of the $733 million allocated for this financial year,” commission joint secretary Gopi Nath Mainali told IRIN.

    Much of the $500 million will be spent on rebuilding homes, and the government plans to distribute $2,000 to people whose houses have been destroyed completely. About $3 million will be spent in the education sector, and around $2 million will go towards rebuilding damaged roads. About $1.3 million will be directed to the energy, drinking water and sanitation sectors. Another $2 million has been allocated for rebuilding government and community buildings.

    “However, these figures are preliminary and might be revised in the days to come,” Mainali said.

    Despite the progress in unlocking the funds, the decision was greeted with scepticism by some.

    Although he didn't think the political deadlock should be allowed to delay assistance, Semanta Dahal, a lawyer and political commentator, said the NPC is not authorised to actually implement reconstruction work – that remains the role of the NRA.

    “Assigning the role at this moment to NPC is only tactical gimmickry,” he told IRIN.

    There were 761,000 people with ongoing humanitarian needs at the end of September, according to the Early Recovery Cluster, which is chaired by representatives from the government and the United Nations.

    Aside from the political hurdles to reconstruction, Nepal is facing a fuel shortage due to a separate political crisis. Protests erupted on the border with India against a new constitution, which was passed by parliament on 20 September.

    Many in the ethnic minority Madhesi and Tharu communities oppose the size and borders of seven new provinces created by the constitution, claiming those and other measures mean they will now be under-represented in parliament. Nepali officials accuse India of imposing an unofficial blockade, which has prevented fuel imports, while India blames violent protests for blocking fuel convoys.

    SEE: Fuel shortage threatens Nepal aid as winter comes

    Aid agencies say the fuel shortage is hampering relief efforts.

    Damian Kean, a spokesman for the World Food Programme, said it has been taking measures to conserve fuel while still trying to get emergency food and shelter supplies to about 84,000 people in remote communities, many of whom will soon be cut off as the winter snows begin to fall.

    Nepal’s rugged geography also makes it hard to get supplies to remote communities. In many areas, villages are not accessible by roads, and even mountain paths were destroyed by the quake. Kean told IRIN that WFP is hiring porters and using mules to make deliveries in some areas.

    "They're racing against time, really,” he said.

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    102244
    Nepal finally unlocks quake funds

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