Monday, October 12, 2015

Nepal's New Crisis: Life During the Siege of Kathmandu

Hello again! Time for a less formal update.

As many of you know, after a 2 month visit to Canada, I've returned to my English teaching work in Kathmandu. My visit home was lovely. I got to spend a lot of quality time with friends and family, I spent all my money on beer and gained 10 pounds from pies, doughnuts, ice cream and beer. I know this because my Nepali students were kind enough to point out my weight gain. It was good, but alas, I was running out of money and needed to return somewhere I could get a glass of beer for less than $7.

When I left Kathmandu in August, things still seemed kind of...earthquake-y. Lots of piles of debris. People still a little on edge. Some tremors. One of the first things I noticed while driving from the airport to my friend's apartment was that Kathmandu no longer seemed earthquake-y to me. A welcome and encouraging sign. However, there was something else that I noticed before I even managed to get IN a taxi. FUEL SHORTAGE. I landed back in Kathmandu just a few days into a fuel shortage that has turned into a crisis in following weeks. I have good timing, always have. I paid twice as much for a taxi as I normally would have, and found out later that if I'd arrived a couple days later they were charging 6 times more than I would have usually paid. The situation has continued to get worse. I arrived on September 29, and it is now October 11, and less than 200 oil trucks have crossed from India into Nepal in that time.

Why is this happening? It's incredibly confusing, and technically nobody has claimed responsibility for the stranded trucks at the India-Nepal border. It has a bit to do with a new constitution, unhappy ethnic groups near the borders, Indian imperialism and bureaucracy. Feel free to search it for yourself, as I'm certainly not qualified to explain it to you. What I'd like to tell you about is what everyday life is like in a city that's under a fuel siege.

When I arrived on September 28, road rationing had already been implemented. Vehicles with odd number license plates were allowed to drive one day and even numbered plates the next. A couple days later private vehicles were banned from buying petrol at the gas pumps. Some of my friends started walking to work in an effort to save their remaining gas for emergencies. As public transportation became overcrowded, people turned to bicycles. By the end of the first week of October it was becoming difficult to find bikes for less than $100. Getting to and from work and school has become a daily struggle and source of stress for people, and the slow down has had a bigger negative impact on the economy than the spring earthquakes did.

Parked taxis lined up blocks away from the pump, waiting days for their turn.

I have been lucky because I live only a 15 minute walk away from where I work, and about a 40 minute walk from where I would usually go out at night. If I want to go further away than that, things get a lot more difficult. I've managed to take a bus to the other side of town once, but had a lot more difficulty getting back. Kathmandu busses are usually pretty full, but what's happening now is madness. On almost every bus you can see people riding on the roof and hanging out the door with just the ball of one foot on the step. Around 9 PM the busses stop running, and we depend on taxis. However, taxi drivers have to wait in line at petrol stations for days at a time until they can refuel, and in the last couple weeks, taxi prices have skyrocketed When we're able to eventually find a taxi, we then have to pay 3 times or more what we'd normally pay for a trip. Even worse, schools don't have fuel for their busses and hospitals don't have it for their ambulances.

 Not only is getting around the city becoming difficult, getting out of the city feels like a far-away dream. In just 30 minutes you can drive out of Kathmandu and into the hills for beautiful hiking and day trips. But you need gas to do that. You also need busses to transport tourists around the country, and without them the industry as a whole is suffering. Tickets to Chitwan, one of the major tourists spots in south Nepal, have become scarce. Tickets to Nepal's second biggest city, Pokhara, are still available, but it's unclear for how much longer. Tourists attempting to hire private vehicles are also having difficulty. The shortage also applies to jet fuel, and it's been fortunate that most airlines fly shorter flights and are able to refuel at their point of origin or even in India.

In addition to transportation woes, Kathmandu depends on gas to fuel its generators and cook its food. Load-shedding is part of everyday life in Kathmandu, and many higher-end houses and apartments, restaurants, tourist shops, hospitals and hotels use generators when the power goes out. Not being able to use your generator at home is usually at most an inconvenience, but at a hospital it can make a life or death difference. Businesses dependent on tech suffer for each period they are unable to use machines and connect to their servers and restaurants lose money when they cannot serve customers.

As for cooking fuel running out, this poses an even graver issue. Restaurants serving limited menus and missing out on income is one thing, but families at home running out of cooking gas is a much bigger problem. Traditional Nepali food is rice and lentils, foods which are only really edible when cooked. As people have started to run out of cooking fuel, they've turned to wood fires. In Kathmandu, we don't have much access to wood, so this is not a viable option for the whole city. Out in the countryside, there is wood, but having villagers chopping down forests creates a pretty serious ecological dilemma later down the road.

It's not just the physical and logistical problems of this shortage I want to address. The burden is also psychological. This isn't my first crisis in Nepal, and in some ways it's almost as crippling as the first one was. An earthquake is an unstoppable, unpredictable force that brings death and tragedy. After the earthquake, we were all just lucky and happy to be alive. And within the first week there were already signs of relief and improvement. This shortage was created by a blockade/embargo that nobody accepts responsibility for, for reasons that so far we've only been able to speculate on. The world isn't paying attention (which is fair), and nobody is coming to the rescue. Instead of getting better, the situation has only continued to deteriorate over the last couple weeks, with no end in sight. Those trucks didn't stop coming because of some natural, uncontrollable force, and what's happening is fixable now and was avoidable in the first place.

Misinformation is rampant, and many remain hopeful that it will be over soon, but nobody knows for sure. This is surely what it feels like to be a pawn in a game of chess, waiting for the players to make their decision without having any idea what it is that's going through their minds. And as we wait, we are totally stranded, unable to move, unable to live our lives because we can't get where we need to go. Frustration is building, and with the big holiday just around the corner, the situation could get tense. People are coping as best as they can, just like they always do, but they can't last like this forever. And unlike the earthquake, there must be somebody somewhere who can be blamed for this crisis, and we may even someday figure out who it is. In the meantime, we're stuck motionless in this city, hoping things will return to normal sooner than later, just trying to make it through until our holiday vacation starts.

PS- Sorry for the lack of photos! Not on top of my photojournalism game apparently. But feel free to search online and have a look at some of the images of people hanging off busses and huge lines of trucks at the borders!