Nepal Earthquake: First Anniversary

– in the House of Commons at 9:26 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party 10:39 pm, 25th April 2016

Nepal is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it has deep and long-established links to the United Kingdom. The Himalayas, Everest and the continuing story of the sacrifice and courage of the Gurkhas hides a deeper truth about the fragility of life for many Nepalese people. Some 7 million to 8 million people out of Nepal’s population of 19 million live in absolute poverty. Malnutrition rates in Nepal are among the highest in the world. More than 2 million people in Nepal do not have access to a safe water supply, and more than half the population do not have access to a proper toilet. Many families see their menfolk forced to migrate for some of each year—usually, but not always, to India—to earn a living for their families as incomes are simply too low in Nepal.

At midday on Saturday 25 April 2015, an earthquake struck Barpak in the historic district of Gorkha, about 76 km north-west of Kathmandu. More than 300 aftershocks —four of them registering over 6.0 on the Richter scale, including one measuring 6.8—followed. Almost 9,000 people were killed and 23,000 injured. One million homes were destroyed, and an estimated one third of the population of Nepal has been impacted by the earthquake. Some 31 of the country’s 75 districts have been affected, with 14 declared crisis-hit, and another 17 partially affected.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I asked the hon. Gentleman earlier whether it would be okay to intervene on him, and I thank him for allowing me to do so. He mentions the homes that were destroyed and the people who died. Some £2.87 billion has been set aside by a number of countries to help the rebuilding work, but none of that has been spent yet. Does he share my concern, and the concern of those in this House and those outside it, that not £1 of the £2.87 billion set aside has yet been spent? Is it not time that the Government and the Nepalese Government together ensured that the money is spent, houses rebuilt and people sorted out?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I want to come in a few moments specifically to the issue of money that has been pledged for reconstruction, but which has not actually been committed.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

On that point, my hon. Friend will be aware that, within days of the earthquake striking, Rotary International delivered to Nepal a huge number of shelter boxes, which was the first western aid to reach Nepal. The Rotarians, particularly those in Ealing and Greenford, seldom get thanked for that. Will he take the opportunity of doing so this evening?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

Absolutely. I am very aware of my hon. Friend’s support for the excellent work Rotary International does—if he will forgive me for saying so—not just in Ealing, but in many constituencies, including mine. I want to touch on its reaction, along with that of other non-governmental organisations, in a few moments.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. The Rushmoor Rotary and the Farnborough Rotary moved immediately into action to raise money on the streets of Aldershot and Farnborough. As he knows, I have 10,000 Nepalese in my constituency. The response from the local community was fantastic, as was that of the Nepalese community itself. Kapil Rijal, who is a dentist in my constituency, not only has raised money, but has gone out to Nepal and is actually spending the money on reconstruction work. Whatever the Government are failing to do, the private sector is doing some good work.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I echo the tribute the hon. Gentleman pays to the people in his constituency who have donated to the earthquake appeal. Many people across the UK, not least because of their awareness of the contribution that the Gurkhas have made to the British Army down the years, were very generous in their support for the response to the earthquake. I suspect they share the concern, which I suspect is shared across the House, at the slow pace of reconstruction.

When the earthquake struck, residential and Government buildings were destroyed, and schools, health centres, roads, bridges, water and hydropower supplies were all affected in many areas. In the worst hit areas, entire settlements were swept away by landslides and avalanches triggered by the earthquake. Hundreds of historical and cultural monuments at least a century old were either destroyed or badly damaged.

The damage exposed the weaknesses of homes that did not have any seismic-resistant features or had not been built in line with proper building codes. Poorer rural areas were hardest hit due to the inferior quality of the homes. More women and girls died than men and boys. The death toll, bad enough as it was, could have been much worse. As it was the weekly holiday—Saturday—schools were shut, and considering that nearly 7,000 schools were completely or significantly destroyed, there could have been far heavier loss of children.

As it is, the earthquake and the many aftershocks have had a profound impact on the Nepalese people. Twelve months on, the consequences of the earthquake are becoming clearer, and the pace—or rather lack of pace—of reconstruction is a major concern.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this fine debate. Two of my constituents, Thomas and Elke Weston, have very strong links with the Tibetan Buddhist community in Nepal, and over the past year they have taught me a great deal about the work that local charities are doing. They have not been slow to put in the effort and put in their money. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at this time, not least given the imminent monsoon period, we need to encourage all local charities, as well as Governments, to assist?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the many charities, small and large, that have assisted. I want to draw particular attention to the contribution that many from Britain made to the search and rescue effort once reports of the earthquake had become clear, and to pay tribute to the work of NGOs such as the excellent Oxfam, Save the Children, VSO and Christian Aid, which have responded. CAFOD is another strong example of an international NGO operating in Nepal.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

This is indeed a very important day to remember what happened last year. A few weeks ago, I visited Nepal with my constituent, Bishnu Gurung, who raised a significant amount of funds in Hounslow, along with fellow Councillor Hanif Khan, to support the work of Humanity First. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as looking at the reconstruction, it is absolutely vital to rebuild the economy of Nepal—its GDP growth dropped to about 1.5% rather than the forecast 4%—and we need to do much more to open up trade relations and to build Britain-Nepal trade opportunities?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

My hon. Friend makes a good point about trade links. Encouraging economic growth within Nepal was important before the earthquake, given the fragility of life for many Nepalese people, but it is particularly urgent now in the wake of the earthquake. World Bank and Government of Nepal analysts estimate that the total cost of the damage from the earthquake is roughly $7 billion, or 706 billion Nepalese rupees.

With the exception of the Kathmandu valley, the central and western regions that have been affected by the earthquake are essentially rural and heavily dependent on agriculture. The quake destroyed the stockpile of stored grains and killed almost 60,000 farm animals. These districts have tended to see larger numbers of households reliant on livestock as their main, or one of their main, sources of income. The widespread loss of that livestock has caused a severe income shock in the short term for many already very poor families. Sadly, inevitably for vulnerable families with fewer assets, limited access to economic resources and a lack of alternative livelihoods, there is a heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking, child marriage, and child labour. Indeed, I have had representations from Nepalese constituents of mine worried about an increase in the trafficking of young earthquake victims.

If a major earthquake was not tough enough on its own for a country to negotiate, there has been a major cross-party effort to agree a new federal constitution for Nepal. That was finally agreed in January, but it led to a 135-day unofficial blockade of food and fuel across the India-Nepal border, which has made the reconstruction effort even more difficult. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s assessment of the level of political stability in Nepal and the strength, or otherwise, of its relationships with its two big neighbours. The tensions have, I understand, eased recently. Crucially, the Nepal Reconstruction Authority has been established, which began its work on 16 January.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate, one year after the disaster happened. As hon. Members have said, many faith groups and other charity organisations have raised funds and contributed their knowledge and know-how to help to rebuild the country. Does he agree that tourism, which was the main source of income, was also affected by the earthquake disaster? This is the right time for the Government and other institutions to learn from the disaster that investment in building resilience against future disasters should increase from 6% to 10% of humanitarian aid.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to do what we can in the UK to support the Nepalese authorities to build back better. I will come on to his point about the proportion of humanitarian aid that is used to support countries to become more resistant to earthquakes.

I want to touch on comments made by Sushil Gyawali, the chief executive of the NRA, on his appointment in January. He made it clear that the real task of reconstruction and rehabilitation could begin only in mid-April—about now—because a detailed damage assessment and a full list of genuine victims were needed to formulate a national action plan. Although emergency relief eventually reached most people, thanks to a combination of Government, aid donors and NGO efforts, as colleagues have made clear, the next stage of rebuilding and long-term reconstruction has barely begun.

There is a series of concerns about why we are in the state we are in, which I want to put to the Minister. In doing so, let me first acknowledge the considerable ongoing support—£70 million, I understand, and counting —that the Department for International Development has provided, and the personal interest the Secretary of State and her ministerial team have taken in the earthquake response.

The NRA is reportedly heavily understaffed, and the village development committees with which the NRA needs to work at local level in the affected areas often struggle to recruit enough people of sufficient calibre to co-ordinate the considerable work that is required. Some reports suggest that as many as 75% of positions at the NRA are not yet filled. What is the Minister’s assessment of the progress that has been made in staffing the NRA and village development committees, and in the preparation of a detailed damage assessment? Has the Department placed, or at least offered to place, people in the NRA to help to build its capacity?

I understand that, as Roger Mullin made clear in his intervention, hundreds of thousands of people are bracing themselves for their second monsoon season in temporary shelters, because the Nepalese Government have admitted that they will not be able to finish, or in many cases even to begin, the construction of permanent housing in many districts before the rains hit. Does the Minister share that assessment? If so, what steps is the Department taking to support families in temporary shelters to prepare again for the monsoon season?

At last year’s donor conference, international donors pledged, I understand, some $4.1 billion for reconstruction, of which only $1 billion has been committed. Does the Minister recognise those figures? If he does, what further action can the Department take to galvanise agreements between donors such as the World Bank, India, China, the Asian Development Bank, the European Commission and the Japan International Cooperation Agency with the Nepalese NRA to help to speed up the financing of the rebuilding process? Given the lack of an ongoing media profile for Nepal’s reconstruction challenge, and the concern about whether aid pledges will actually materialise, is it now time for Britain to help Nepal to convene, through the UN, a friends of Nepal group of countries to help maintain the political will and so turn the aid pledges of last year into actual aid commitments, and then homes on the ground?

Some NGOs have complained that they have been stopped from building new homes that do not fit with NRA rules and designs for future earthquake-resistant homes. I understand the need for strong co-ordination and enforcement of sensible planning rules, but again I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of the extent to which those difficulties have been ironed out.

The scale of reconstruction activity needed provides an opportunity to challenge some of the long-term social problems in Nepal and, for example, ensure rebuilding programmes are inclusive of women and those who are landless—some of the poorest and most marginalised people in the country.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. Does he agree that it is critical for the longer term sustainable redevelopment of Nepal that local democratic institutions —locally elected councils and provisional councils—are put in place and that the UK Government are uniquely placed to support that through their local governance programme?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I share the hon. Lady’s view. As I understand it, the village development committees that I alluded to fulfil that role, and there are real concerns about the staff available to those committees. As I said earlier, it would be good to hear the Minister’s assessment of their effectiveness.

Women in Nepal have traditionally had limited land rights and access to entitlements. Recent new legislation and policies have begun to change that, but entrenched culture can mean that although policy might be good in principle it does not actually change things on the ground. NGOs, including Oxfam, have put it to me that the lack of rights and access to land ownership faced by many women in Nepal have been exacerbated by the earthquake, as their lack of documentation, or the fact that they are not named on documentation, means they have to rely on local advocates to put their case forward to the authorities. Similar issues affect those who are landless. It would be good to hear how the Minister’s Department is thinking through those issues and responding to them on the ground.

The Minister will know that shortly after the earthquake the International Development Committee raised a series of concerns about corruption in Nepal. What is his assessment of the progress being made to tackle those issues?

Lastly, I would welcome hearing from the Minister about the extent to which donors and the Nepalese Government are planning for future possible earthquakes and other national disasters in their reconstruction work. As my hon. Friend Mr Sharma made clear, Christian Aid argues that investment in building resilience to future disasters needs to increase from 6% to 10% of humanitarian aid. Will the Minister comment on that point?

I was lucky to visit Nepal as a Minister in the Department for International Development; I am lucky now, as a constituency MP, to have a strong, articulate Nepalese community who are proud to be British, but proud too of their Nepalese roots. They look to us as Nepal’s oldest friend to stay with them on the journey of reconstruction, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne The Minister of State, Department for International Development 10:58 pm, 25th April 2016

I thank Mr Thomas for bringing this issue to the House in such a timely fashion, on the anniversary of the earthquake. I will endeavour to deal with the issues he has raised in the short time available, but first I want to emphasise the success of the relief effort. We have already heard about the tremendous interventions by, for example, Rotary International. The response to the Disasters Emergency Committee was tremendous—DEC raised £85 million. In addition to all that fundraising, through a number of independent organisations, I anticipate that the contribution from British people’s own pockets was in excess of £100 million; we should add to that the £70 million that the Government provided.

In the time available, I will not go into itemised detail about the relief effort that we provided—hon. Members can read the book—but I will draw attention to the effort made specifically on behalf of women. Thousands of dignity packs were provided for women in difficult circumstances, as were safe spaces, psychological advice and counselling.

The one piece of international development effort that the popular press actually approves of is disaster relief for this sort of emergency, but the hon. Gentleman was right to identify the need to build in resilience beforehand. The lesson of the success of the relief effort in Nepal is that it was built on the millions of pounds spent—including by DFID when he was the Minister responsible—in advance over the years. Let us face it: an earthquake in Kathmandu was no surprise to anyone, but the success was based on the fact that we prepositioned supplies and rehearsed volunteers in their distribution. We trained people to be first responders and for search and rescue. We put a blood bank in place. We created the logistical space, equipment and warehousing at the airport, so that seven weeks of cumulative effort could be saved to respond to what happened. People imagine that after an earthquake all of a sudden from nowhere come resources, with highly trained people with sniffer dogs and so on, but clearly there has to be effort and investment in the core costs of organisations throughout the year so they are ready when there is an earthquake. As the hon. Gentleman so rightly said, we need to spend significantly more on building resilience beforehand.

The relief effort was a success and I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration—frustration evident in the House tonight—and the clear frustration of the people of Nepal that after that initial effort the pace of reconstruction was so slow. Clearly, in a country with difficult terrain, the remoteness of the areas most affected, monsoons, and a long winter and therefore a short building season, there should be a greater sense of urgency than would normally apply. That was not my perception when I visited Nepal last summer. The Government’s attitude was: “No, no, it’s over. Nepal is open for business. Let’s get the tourist trade going again.” I entirely understand that attitude and the importance of reopening the tourist trade, but I felt—it was my prejudice—that the determination to show that Nepal was back in business came at the expense of concentration on the continuing need for humanitarian relief, particularly in outlying areas.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the constitution. To be fair, we have been pressing for progress on the constitution for months and months and years and years. To an extent, the earthquake galvanised the political class to push on with the constitution. Unfortunately, what happened thereafter—infighting, the problems in the Terai region and the blockade—led to a very substantial slowing up in any kind of relief effort. We in DFID were actually commissioning mules to carry our relief supplies into the mountains because of the fuel problem arising as a consequence of the blockade. The earthquake put some 600,000 people into poverty, but the blockade drove 800,000 people into poverty. The Nepal chamber of commerce estimated that the blockade did more harm to the economy of Nepal than the earthquake.

The hon. Gentleman said that the reconstruction authority, as of 6 January, has now started, well behind what we could have anticipated. It is understaffed, as he says, but nevertheless work has begun. The surveying of needs is supposed to be concluded by the end of this month. Grants have started to be issued. We have issued cash to 100,000 people already. Of the £70 million that we committed, £35 million has been spent and a further £35 million is committed.

We are concentrating on providing technical assistance and training. We have trained 600 masons in earthquake-resistant building techniques and 150 sub-engineers in the same disciplines. We are concentrating on the worst-affected areas and the more remote areas. We are prioritising the need for police stations and healthcare facilities. We are back in business in healthcare, which was always our main effort, restoring the services to 5.6 million people.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

Helicopters are one way of restoring contact with remote areas. What helicopter supplies have been given to the Nepalese army to ensure that aid gets to the areas where it is needed?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne The Minister of State, Department for International Development

DFID commissioned some 2,000 hours of helicopter flights. We provided Chinooks, which were not used. I am very disappointed that that was the case. We never quite got to the bottom of it, but I would rather stand in this House and say that we believed that helicopters were desperately needed and we provided them, even if they were not used, than find myself standing in this House knowing that helicopters were desperately needed and we did not send them. I think the right decision was made. It cost some £3 million, but emergencies demand such commitments.

The reconstruction effort continues. The problem, as I see it, going forward—the hon. Member for Harrow West alluded to it—is that there remain significant political problems in Nepal. Although there has been an easing recently of the problem in the Terai, I do not believe for one moment that it has gone away. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the problem of endemic corruption and the problems with governance and bureaucracy. Nepal must transform its investment environment if there is to be any significant prospect of recovery in the long term. It has huge assets in respect of hydropower—

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I welcome what the Minister has said and the support of my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook and of the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend John McDonnell. May I press the Minister on conversations with other donors about fulfilling their pledges and turning them into commitments, which the Nepalese Reconstruction Authority can use to speed up progress on the ground?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne The Minister of State, Department for International Development

We are having conversations all the time with other donors, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN agencies. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to press for a greater sense of urgency, but frustration has been evidenced in the donor community as well. There is a question of our ability to spend while the specifications of the reconstruction authority about how things are to be done have yet to be delivered. That has been part of the problem and I can understand the frustration of the donor community in that respect. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s challenge to do more to galvanise and take a leadership role in driving that forward.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Does the Minister agree that now that the constitution has been agreed, it is vital that Nepal presses forward and has elections for the provincial governments and the local councils, so that there are appropriate democratic structures through which reconstruction aid and sustainable provision can be delivered?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne The Minister of State, Department for International Development

Indeed. That is very important, but equally the focus has to be on reconstruction and on building back better. Principally, the Nepalese must deal with their stifling bureaucracy and the problems that stand in the way of foreign investment. That is the only long-term solution for Nepal. It must deal with the problems of governance and endemic corruption.

I see that time is nearly up. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West again for concentrating the mind of the House on this important issue, and for having so forensically identified the very problems that are holding up progress in Nepal.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.