A month after the 6.4-magnitude Jajarkot earthquake that rendered thousands of survivors homeless, many are still languishing in tarpaulin under the open sky, unable to find decent temporary shelter. Deepening cold is compounding their plight. New and expectant mothers, new-borns, and elderlies with pre-existing medical conditions are worst affected. At least 22 of the quake-displaced have died, with several said to have died due to cold-related ailments. It’s gut-wrenching to see new-borns succumbing to cold. The devastating toll on their health is palpable. Making matters worse, there is a lack of warm clothes.
That virtually all of the houses in the region were made of mud and stone meant that they were easily prone to crumble. There is no house in the affected districts of Jajarkot and Rukum West which has not sustained some damage, giving the victims reason to feel unsafe to live there. But the most pressing question they are asking is: When will their house gets rebuild so that they no longer have to endure in the cold. However, the sluggish pace of reconstruction has frustrated many. A shortage of skilled human resources to reconstruct temporary houses and manage the destroyed houses has been cited as the cause for the delay.
This is not the first time we are grappling with such a problem. In the wake of the catastrophic 2015 earthquake that killed around 9,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless and injured, many found themselves living in the tarpaulin for far longer period than they had anticipated. The reason then was also a lack of skilled manpower in adequate number with the know-how of constructing earthquake-resistant houses. But we are also aware that with enough political will this problem can be sorted out, as has been the case in the past. With the formation of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) in December of 2015, the reconstruction started building momentum, leading to thousands of houses being built.
The government claims to have provided significant aid for the victims, but why so many are complaining about a dearth of clothes to keep themselves warm needs serious thought. It has recently pledged to train the security personnel to fill the shortage. This must happen as fast as possible because delay is already proving costly. Among the damaged structures are the toilets. Where there are no proper toilets people defecate in the open, amplifying the risk of water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and cholera. So, importance of sanitation in saving lives, especially in the aftermath of a disaster, cannot be overstated.
We should bear in mind that the outbreak of diarrhoeal diseases, which gripped Jajarkot in 2009, affecting 30,000 people and claiming lives of over 500, was attributed to open defecation then prevalent in the district. That crisis of monumental scale highlighted the importance of sanitation and relieving oneself in a toilet, whose reconstruction along the houses shouldn’t be an afterthought. Another crucial aspect is the strict enforcement of building code. It is imperative to make reconstructed buildings are strong enough to withstand quakes. Equally important is monitoring to ensure every reconstruction effort respects the seismic code. The quake has presented us an opportunity to build back better. We must leave no stone unturned to seize on this moment and rise to the challenge. But for now, the government must zero in on giving the critically-needed momentum to rebuilding houses.