Feel the earth move

It is hard to imagine the devastation of a major earthquake. Not only does the middle of the North American continent not experience more than rare quiver of the earth beneath our feet, we have few mountains to avalanche on top of us. Neither do we have an abundance of tall buildings to come tumbling down. What a helpless feeling it must be to feel the ground shake and roll under you and to see trees and buildings move above your head!

The tiny country of Nepal has experienced not one but two major earthquakes in the last couple of weeks as well as hundreds of aftershocks following each quake. Afraid to return to their damaged homes, many people are sleeping outside.

Nepal is one of the least developed countries in the world. Landlocked, they are dependent on imports of many of the necessities of life and export mainly agricultural products such as rice and jute, timber and textiles. There are few major roads and not many motor vehicles.

Earthquakes shake up everyone. Rich and poor suffer the impact of the devastation of these natural disasters. While everyone’s home may be damaged, the poor usually suffer more. Often their homes are self built with whatever tools and materials are available and affordable. The poor do not have homeowners’ insurance nor the funds to clear the mess and to rebuild their homes. Often, everyone they know is in a similar situation. Family and friends find themselves homeless and unable to offer assistance.

In 2010 a devastating earthquake leveled much of Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince. Most of the island country suffered some damage, not only to homes but to governmental buildings, destroying records of land ownership, birth certificates and more. Water systems, sewer lines, and electrical systems which were inadequate and limited before the quake were rendered useless. People fled from the capital and moved to communities in other parts of the country which were unprepared for the vast increase in residents. More than five years later, in spite of an outpouring of relief funding, the country of Haiti still struggles with a lack of infrastructure, overwhelming unemployment and poverty that is as hard to imagine as is a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

Many non-profit organizations have been raising funds for and distributing emergency aid for decades. It seems that immediate aid is something the world has become good at providing. Almost before the ground had quit shaking, aid agencies from around the world were flying to Nepal to lend a hand with tents, food, medicine and more. The same was true for Haiti in 2010. Certainly navigating blocked roads, airports too small for cargo plains, unstable buildings, landslides and politics make distributing aid difficult. Still, the immediate aid seems to work much of the time.

What happens after the immediate response to a disaster, however, is not always good. Non-governmental agencies (NGOs) sometimes get caught up in carrying out projects that benefit donor countries and companies. Corruption funnels money away from the poor. Projects are envisioned by boards and committees who don’t bother ask the people they are trying to help what they want. Efforts to fix things often fall short and in a short time many of the aid projects fall apart.

It will be interesting to see if we have learned anything and if the aid sent to Nepal really helps in the long run. Will the houses of the poor be rebuilt to withstand an earthquake? Will efforts to improve the well being of those hurt most by this disaster reach them? Will there be tent cities in Kathmandu five years from now?

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains