By Caroline Crang and Hannah Bedford
Saying good-bye to Kathmandu, we left behind lines of cars, trucks, motorbikes and school buses outside the few open gas stations, empty kerosene containers outside shops and uneasy faces of people facing a winter without heating oil, food or medicine.
A fuel crisis has gripped Nepal since September, crippling efforts to rebuild after the worst earthquake in its history last April. We witnessed the impact during three months we spent volunteering with an NGO supporting children who are homeless, forced to work or abused.
We arrived in early September, two weeks before a new Constitution, in the works since the end of a civil war in 2007, was finally approved. A worker at our small hotel excitedly told us to expect celebrations.
Indeed, in the following days we saw small celebrations — and some protests — as we walked to work. We also noticed growing lines outside gas stations. Our hotelier explained that few trucks could cross the border with India due to a blockade by the Madhesi people.
The Madhesi are one of many ethnic groups that make up Nepal’s population. They are ethnically Indian and live in the fertile Terai region in the south of the country, along the border with India.
The Madhesi say the Constitution treats minorities unfairly and have vowed to keep the blockade in place until their demands for changes are met. Fifty people have died in protests so far.
Sitting between China and India, Nepal is recovering from a conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces that ended a decade ago. Political instability and two deadly earthquakes last year have hurt efforts to alleviate poverty afflicting an estimated seven million Nepali.
Black market fuel costs five or six times the normal price.
Landlocked Nepal imports all of of its fuel from its southern neighbor, and shipments generally arrive by truck. Many Nepali accuse India of supporting the blockade by refusing to send tankers to border points where there are no protesters. India denies the accusations.
In any case, the Madhesi effectively have Nepal in a choke-hold.
Kathmandu residents we spoke to see the Madhesi’s claims as extreme. Some said the protesters want to force out the government in favor of a more pro-India administration; others said the Madhesi want independence or to become part of India.
We soon noticed a surge in taxi prices. Drivers more than doubled their fares, saying they had to buy fuel on the black market at five or six times the official price because they could not afford to stop work to wait in line.
Our NGO, Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), had planned to send us to its Peace Home, a shelter for girls it had rescued from forced labor and abuse. The shelter is an hour and a half from Kathmandu. But none of CWIN’s vehicles had any fuel, and we were told we would have to stay in the capital.
Luckily, the leader of a Norwegian NGO offered to drive us.
At the Peace Home, we learned that what had been an annoyance to us was devastating to people outside the capital. Food, materials for rebuilding homes destroyed in the earthquake and medicine were not getting to where they were desperately needed.
Food prices were soaring and hard-to-find buses were overcrowded. On November 3, a packed bus with passengers on the roof crashed near a village outside Kathmandu, killing 30 people.
“A serious humanitarian crisis”
When we returned to Kathmandu, the city was in near-darkness. Few could afford to keep lights on.
At peak tourist time, streets were almost empty. Flights to Pohkara, a major destination for hikers bound for the Himalayas, were cancelled or delayed. Planes flying to international destinations had to stop in India to refuel.
Restaurants and hotels began turning guests away because they had no cooking gas. To save on heating oil, residents heated their homes with recycled wood, charcoal and paper.
One CWIN staff member had a miscarriage which her doctor blamed on the stress of walking long distances and worrying about the children CWIN supports. Staff had to consider delaying the transfer of rescued girls to the Peace Home, where they would be safe from former employers.
On December 11, the United Nations World Food Programme warned of the potential for a “serious humanitarian crisis.”
But from what we witnessed during our time in Nepal, the crisis had already begun.
Hannah Bedford is taking a gap year before starting a History and Politics degree at Royal Holloway University in London. She is passionate about helping people and hopes to be a human rights lawyer.
Caroline Crang is taking a year off after graduating from the United World College of Southeast Asia in Singapore. She plans to do more volunteering stints in Asia over the next few months.