Writing in a blog post shortly after the Hurricane Katrina disaster in Louisiana, writer and activist Jim Wallis pointed out that often it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster. One can even go further and point out that, when it comes to disasters, the categories of “natural” and “social” are indistinguishable. Natural disasters not only reveal social disasters; they unleash forces that deepen them. All “natural” disasters occur within historical and socioeconomic contexts so that the dividing line between natural and social causes and consequences are inevitably blurred.
While international attention is focused on the recent devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti and other Caribbean areas, the hyper-short-term memory of the mainstream media — along with the tendency to see “disasters” as “over” with the passage of time — leads us to forget quickly about ongoing social disasters that were accentuated by natural catastrophes.
The Earthquakes in Saipu, Nepal
The twin earthquakes that struck Nepal on April 25 and May 12 of 2015 are a case in point. Registering around 7.8 and 7.3 on the Richter scale, the earthquakes killed more than 9,000 people, injured another 23,000 and destroyed almost a million homes, thousands of schools and a broad spectrum of basic infrastructure.
Statistics like this conceal as much as they reveal. By describing damage solely in terms of a geological event, they create the illusion that disasters are destructive accidents that disrupt otherwise normal lives. While earthquakes obviously disrupt lives, this view of disasters conceals the reality that they inevitably exacerbate and even increase the suffering that is normalized as part of everyday life in many global spaces. Moreover, this more limited “natural” view of disaster suggests that solutions only involve returning human populations back to their normal lives as much as possible.
In July 2016, we spent almost a month in Nepal talking with local subsistence farmers in the community of Saipu, located in east-central Nepal, not far from the epicenter of the second earthquake. We were interested in unraveling the complexities of post-earthquake recovery, especially as understood by local people, rather than so-called experts. Too often, the voices of people most affected by disasters are marginalized and infantilized by the voices of politicians, disaster specialists, development workers and those embedded in one way or another with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) industry. We simply wanted to know how these subsistence farmers understood the disaster that hit 14 months earlier.
What we learned from the farmers of Saipu was precisely what Wallis referred to with Hurricane Katrina: The actual devastation of the earthquakes was one additional ingredient stirred into a pre-existing brew of suffering.
The stories we heard about the earthquakes and their aftermath were certainly terrifying. A man was cutting a tree in a deep ravine between steep mountains. The mountains began to dance toward one another and, clinging to the ground, he sensed that he would be crushed between them. An elderly grandmother survived by hugging the interior support post of her house as it crumbled around her into a pile of rubble. A mother prevented a group of children playing outside a house from instinctively seeking safety inside as the Earth trembled and the walls of the house collapsed. A family, knocked to the ground, watched in amazement as two buildings appeared to nearly collide as the pulsating earth pushed them in different directions.
Post-earthquake narratives were equally disturbing. Many families still live in temporary shelters constructed out of bamboo, scrap materials salvaged from the devastation and plastic tarps brought in with the first wave of aid. Others live precariously in their damaged houses, fearful about whether more earth tremors might finish the job started over a year ago.
Comfort is difficult to maintain when the rain seeps through the open spaces of these temporary shelters. Packed dirt floors become mud. Insects, frogs and other nocturnal animals invade food prepared for the evening meal. Human dignity, they told us, is difficult to maintain under these conditions.
Yet these stories are told with grace and humor. Intentional irony and humorous paradox produce laughter in both the storytellers and listeners. Local poets who sing their verses in traditional forms perform songs filled with the same biting tragedy and comic relief. Laughter masks the real suffering of terrifying memories and harsh current conditions. But laughter also demonstrates the very real resilience and values of community members, both hiding despair and revealing hope.
The stories are also a form of local resistance to the forces that have descended upon these rural areas. They externalize internal, individual and social struggles, expressing a deep-seated resistance to conditions that often seem beyond local control. The earthquakes may be primary topics, but this oral literature transcends those immediate events to encompass the forces that are seen as even more destructive.
The other ingredients of this toxic brew predate the earthquakes and will without doubt outlast earthquake recovery if and when it happens. The main ingredients of this brew are the geopolitics of India, the NGO industry and global climate change.
Deepening the Crisis
Just four months after the earthquakes, the Indian government quietly initiated an “informal” blockade on goods passing from India to the landlocked country of Nepal. At a time when Nepali people were suffering deeply, India decided to play the economic card in an attempt to collapse the Nepali coalition government. The Modi government in India wasn’t happy with Nepal’s constitution and what it claimed was the mistreatment of people along the Nepali-Indian border. Vital supplies like fuel, medical equipment and reconstruction supplies were effectively cut off for months.
This was just the most recent hand played in the geopolitical games of the region. Sandwiched between the powers of India and China, Nepal is caught inextricably in the squeeze. The earthquakes certainly accentuated the disaster of this geopolitical game, but the geopolitics of suffering in Nepal preceded and will outlast that natural disaster.
The second pre-existing ingredient is the presence of the NGO industry. One might think that people devastated by earthquakes would welcome whatever aid might come their way. Not so.
The negativity toward that industry in rural areas of Nepal has been building for decades. The farmers of Saipu all reacted the same way when we mentioned NGOs — bursts of laughter followed by words of derision. They said NGOs don’t even have Nepali names. They don’t know the communities they work in and the communities don’t know them. They distribute goods unfairly, often making the rich richer and the poor poorer. They serve the goals of their donors, not those they claim to help. They never ask people what they need. They think they know best. They come with projects that no one in the community asks for. NGO workers only care about their jobs.
While this negativism toward outside aid often develops after disasters — since local needs always are more extensive than outside help can manage — the Nepali view of NGOs grows out of a long history with them. Over the past three decades, the NGO industry has exploded in Nepal. Filling the vacuum created by insufficient and inefficient government projects in rural areas, NGOs stepped into the void. Yet, after decades, the lasting impact in Nepal has been negligible. The cynicism that we found is not only due to the lack of substantive help after the most recent disaster, but also the result of long-term experience.
The farmers understand from their direct experience that the NGO world is linked to the power of Western donor countries. They are not fooled by the mystification that claims these NGOs care about their welfare.
There are over 50,000 International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and national Non-Governmental Organizations registered with the government — approximately one for every 600 citizens, although most are inactive. Dozens of NGOs have visited Saipu since the earthquakes, with almost no positive impact on post-earthquake conditions. As a coordinator of NGOs in the district center of Manthali, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted, “This disaster is like a big festival for NGOs — they access funds, hire new personnel, hold meetings, write reports of success to donors, and little of substance gets done.” Other than the initial emergency relief efforts, there are few visible signs of reconstruction, despite the thousands of INGOs and NGOs working in rural communities like Saipu.
The final and perhaps most deadly ingredient is global climate change. Nepal has experienced erratic weather conditions for the past 10 years or so. Glaciers are receding, snow is melting earlier and earlier, monsoon rains are less predictable, too much or too little rain disrupts traditional farming patterns. For a country of farmers, the nationwide consequences are dire. Recently, the United Nations designated Nepal as one of 34 nations experiencing serious food insecurity conditions due to climate factors.
In July 2016, Saipu should have been receiving its most serious dose of monsoon rain. Instead, the muggy skies were producing brief afternoon and nighttime showers. When we suggested that the monsoon might still arrive, the reply was always something like, “Yes, but every hour that it doesn’t is a disaster.” Farmers have longitudinal knowledge about climate variations, and they uniformly attribute current deteriorating conditions to climate change. Looking us in the eyes, they said, “The people who are causing this are killing us.”
The intentional irony of this statement is apparent. Located in the midst of what some scientists have called “the third pole” of the Earth — the Himalayas — Nepal has little to do with the causes of climate change. Yet, this small country and its inhabitants are a primary recipient of the disaster created by the excesses of the industrialized West and East.
Shortly after the earthquakes, Nepal hosted a donors’ conference and received around $4.4 billion in commitments from a number of countries, including the United States. They had hoped to receive $6.7 billion, an amount still far short of recovery needs. At least half of the pledged amount was in loans. Already an impoverished, indebted country, the conditions that existed prior to the spring of 2015 are bound to worsen. With more debt, more NGO activity serving global capital and declining climate conditions, even if houses can be rebuilt in communities like Saipu, the disaster will continue.
An earlier version of this article appears at Anthropology News.