When I arrived in Kathmandu, it was the third day since the massive earth quake devastated Nepal. The tourist city was quiet. All shops were closed. Many of the open spaces and sidewalks were covered with the tents. People were scared to go back to their homes due to frequent aftershocks. It was a country in mourning caught in an inexplicable sense of despair.
As days progressed, a clearer picture emerged; of loss of lives, properties, the scale of damage and so forth. Each of those staggering accounts of loss was shattering to hear.
The week after the quake also witnessed humanitarian support pouring in from several countries. The International Airport at Kathmandu saw an influx of relief aircrafts carrying relief items, rescue teams, humanitarian workers and volunteers.
I was one among them; part of the Emergency response team sent in by ActionAid to assist our 30 years old office in Nepal.
On the 3rd day of quake, in one of the first rapid assessments we did in Kokhana an ancient town built by Newar communities, what we saw was destruction beyond measures. Most of the houses in Kokhana were located on sloppy terrains. Around 10,000 people are affected with 80% houses completely destroyed and rest is structurally unsafe to live.
As we further went into the interiors, it was evident that the highest rates of destruction and damage to housing were in places like Sindhupalchowk, Gorkha, Nuwakot, Ramechhap and Dhading.
While the initial period of chaos and confusion with regard to relief storage and distribution appears to be more or less over, there are many unmet needs like temporary shelter and livelihood restoration, which must be addressed urgently, especially in the interiors and inaccessible areas. Organisations like ActionAid are reaching out to women, children and elderly in these areas with relief, shelter and medical support – but much more needs to be done – given the massive scale of devastation.
In Maidan village in Kavre, one of the major concerns raised by women was of of safety and security. Most of them are staying in open shelters prone to all forms of attacks and harassment. A lot of them were fearful of leopard attacks. They do not have torch light and afraid to go out in the dark for daily routine.
Most people have lost their identity which may make it difficult to settle land issues, when the reconstruction work begins. The UN has estimated that $415 million is required to reach out over 8 million people with life-saving assistance and protection in the next three months.
In any disaster, the capacity of local communities cannot be ignored. In Nepal too several citizen volunteer groups were in action within the first 48 hours – holding the fort and rescuing people, while any form of specialist support reaches them.
ActionAid’s work in Nepal for over 30 years also provided us with a strong network of people based formations and grassroots organizations that swung into action in the first 48 hours. For instance, the organization that has been working on the issue of land rights for women and landless in Sindhupalchowk and that had a strong membership base among the people in the area provide immediate relief in the first few days before our team could reach with more support. They played a significant role in dispelling several rumors and helped people to move to safer places. They were the first respondents in rescuing people from the rubbles, providing first aid and instituted community care system by putting up the emergency shelters and sharing of food, till the relief came in from outside.
The resilience of Nepal people to overcome all odds and to stand up for each other was a heartening symbol of the human spirit that emerged in the face of a tragedy. While we mourn the loss of thousands of lives we must also find comfort in this spirit of compassion and empathy – at the centre of which are people of Nepal themselves.
While food related needs of the families are met to a great extent, there are urgent needs like children’s education, need to restore livelihoods of people, creating clean water and sanitation facilities, building temporary and transitional shelter, which need urgent attention. Around 80% of the schools are damaged and which would force children out of school for many days.
Uma Saha Shikshlaya – the Higher Secondary School, located in Kothtlamka-ward no-9 of Chandini Mandan VDC in Kavre dist is one such. 400 children from around seven VDCs study here. The school buildings are fully damaged in the quake and are now closed. School books and school dresses are all damaged.
Most of the water sources are damaged or destroyed, which is forcing women in those areas to walk for an hour or more to fetch water. The women in Maidan village( Kavre Dist) said that it would cost atleast Rs.5 lakhs to repair the water source. Women in Chandini village ( Kavre Dist) echoed the same views. Most of them complain about unclean water and fear that their children could fall sick using it.
Recent harvest wheat and barley crops are damaged and seeds set aside for the planting season mostly destroyed. Women in Maidan and Chandini village feared for food security and said that they might have to depend on food aid for long if they miss the cropping season.
Most of them also believe women felt that as soon as the agriculture is restored, the families will recover fast. Loss of livestock (goats, cows and buffalo) is also a cause of rworry for many. as an income source. In Maidan village the families have lost 41 animals- 4 cows, 2 Buffaloes, 35 goats. Only 2 animals are insured and the family may get the insurance for the loss.
While the immediate relief efforts are rolling on now, the future challenge is rebuilding Nepal. The scale of damage is huge and widespread. It needs concerted and collective efforts of all actors to transform Nepal to a great country.
‘Build Back Better’ should find meaning in actionable tasks on the ground – while reminding ourselves that the pursuit of reconstructions often become too mechanical that we tend to forget the people who are in actual need.
To build ‘better’, it is essential to keep women, girls, boys and men at the centre of the reconstructions. The reconstruction efforts must be owner driven rather than donor driven.
We have seen the courage and resilience of women and men in the disaster. It is them, who should lead the long term reconstruction and recovery process in Nepal.
In Sendai, at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, the world leaders committed to make world safer for the future generations through “unceasing and tireless collective efforts”. Collective is the keyword.