The Nepal Earthquake: A Humanitarian Crisis and a Major Setback for Nepalese Development

By Travis Cady

Aerial view of Kathmandu
Aerial View of Kathmandu, the capital and largest city of Nepal. August 2013. Photo by Travis Cady

In August of 2013 I spent nearly a month traveling in Nepal.  I stayed more than a week in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital and largest city, and another two trekking in the Himalayas.  It remains one of the highlights of my travels, thanks not only to the stunning landscapes but also to the generous people of Nepal that welcome thousands of travelers like me into their country and their homes every year.  While my time in the small, beautiful country was limited, I couldn’t help but feel moved upon hearing of the tragic natural disaster that rocked Nepal last week.

By now most people have probably heard about the earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday, April 25th.  The 7.8 magnitude quake was the strongest to hit the mountainous country in over 80 years and the damage has been massive.  The epicenter of the tremors occurred nearly 50 miles from Kathmandu and effected regions as far as Nepal and Tibet.  With death tolls nearing 4000, and many more injured, this is quickly becoming an unmanageable situation for the Nepalese government.  With the additional destruction of infrastructure, residences, and businesses, as well as many historic monuments dating back centuries, the full extent of the crisis is difficult to grasp.  The damage could set back development for years.  To compound the strain, tens of thousands of Nepalese have been left homeless as their residences were destroyed or rendered unsafe by the disaster.  The damage to the country, in addition to the dozens of foreign nationals and tourists that were killed in the quake, is sure to set back the tourism industry in Nepal, which is a serious loss for a poor country that heavily reliant on foreign visitors.  This is especially unfortunate for the industry as just over a year ago an avalanche on Everest killed 16 Sherpa guides in the deadliest slide in the mountain’s history, shutting down expeditions for the year.

Durbar Square
Durbar Square. Historic Temple District in Kathmandu. 2013. Sustained serious damage in the 2015 earthquake. Photo by Travis Cady

However, the purpose of this post is not simply to dwell on the current tragedy.  There are dozens of news sources reporting up-to-date information on the ongoing relief efforts and the extent of the damage.  I also want to explore some of the history Nepal and share some of my experiences there.  Hopefully, creating some awareness of the background and the people of Nepal might serve to frame the current crisis in a fuller perspective.

Nepal is geographically in a tight spot, both literally and figuratively.  It is one of the least developed countries in the world and is entirely locked in by mountainous terrain.  Agriculture accounts for over 30% of GDP and another 22% is from remittances from Nepalese working abroad, particularly in India.  With little developed industry of its own, Nepal is in a position of subsistence and depends heavily on the international community for development projects.

Nepalese farm
Nepalese farm in the Himalayas. 2013. Much of Nepal is mountainous terrain with little access to transportation and natural resources. Photo by Travis Cady

Nepal might seem to be a relatively unimportant country geopolitically, and indeed in the study of international relations we tend to focus on interactions between major players or on the most active conflict zones.  However, Nepal, an ancient country in the heart of the Himalayas, has had its share of turmoil over the past half century.  Despite being among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, Nepal has long struggled for democratic representation.

After a brief period of democratization in 1959, the mountain country existed under 30 years of monarchic rule by the royal family.  It was not until 1990 that widespread protests led to a restoration of democracy.  However, as is typical of the advent of democratic governance after decades of single party dominance, unrest rose once again.  In 1995 a recent electoral victory by a Maoist party was overturned by the courts, spurring a civil war between the Maoist faction and the Nepalese monarchy that crippled the nation’s already underdeveloped economy.  A peace treaty was established in 2006 and was swiftly followed by the abolition of the monarchy in 2008 leading to the creation of the current Federal Republic of Nepal.

Despite the maintenance of democratic governance, political deadlock has prevented the government from effectively implementing reform and development projects.  Progress has been made over the past few years and there is a deal in the works with a Chinese firm to develop a series of hydropower electric plants, an attempt to take advantage of one of Nepal’s few exploitable natural resources.  However, the recent earthquake has already affected existing hydropower grid and could set back development even further.

Combined girl and shrine nepal
Young Nepalese girl posing for photo (left). 2013. Woman visiting Shrine in Durbar Square. (right) 2013. Photos by Travis Cady

Regardless of the troubles that Nepal faces in the coming years, I have confidence in the resiliency of its people.  During my short time in the country, the locals I met were some of the kindest and toughest people I met throughout my travels.  From the industrious denizens of the Thamel district in Kathmandu, a bustling city that rarely slept, to the farmers and inn keepers deep in the mountains that have weathered both nature and political unrest for generations, the citizens of Nepal left a lasting impact on me.  I stayed many nights in the modest homes lining the trails, eating home-made Dal Bhat and watching people go about their daily lives in secluded, mountainous areas that host travelers only sporadically throughout the year.  I remember the conversations about Nepal and its history that I had with Gambu, my Sherpa guide that led me safely through miles of rough terrain, as well as the hospitality of Khem Raj Adhikari and the rest of the staff at Elbrus Home hostel, my home for more than a week in the Thamel District, which was luckily spared the worst of the earthquake.

Fortunately, those I am still in contact with in Nepal are safe, but I can’t help but wonder about the many other Nepalese that I met during my time there.  Studying international relations can often be an activity divorced from the reality on the ground.  It can be easy to look clinically at the people and the culture of a place in terms of wider geopolitical events.  The reality of the earthquake reminded me that there are very real people on the ground for whom aid and development really matter.  I hope that Nepal can swiftly recover from this disaster and can continue to develop.  Giving immediate aid is important, and I encourage people who want to help to donate to a reliable, well-researched charity, but Nepal is also going to need financial support for years to come.  I am not explicitly a student of international development like many of my fellows at the Patterson School, but the current crisis in Nepal underlines the importance of developing economies and infrastructures not only to aid in the case of natural disasters, but also to mitigate the harm done.

Sherpa
Sherpa Guides on my Himalayan trek. August 2013. Photo by Travis Cady.

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Travis Cady is the managing editor of ExPatt Magazine and a master’s candidate at the Patterson School specializing in International Commerce. He previously graduated from the University of Louisville studying political science and philosophy and has traveled in both Europe and Asia. His interests include international trade networks and diplomatic relations with a focus on Asia.

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