Achyut Luitel

Achyut Luitel

Achyut Luitel is the Practical Action Nepal Director Achyut is trained as a Civil Engineer and has over two decades of experience in the development sector, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Helvetas. During this time he has gained practical knowledge in many different kinds of rural infrastructure programmes. He was part of the core team involved in the design of DFID's transport and livelihood programme (Rural Access Programme) between 2000 and 2001, leading this team until early 2006 when he joined Practical Action as the Country Director, Nepal in March 2006. He feels that having the opportunity to work at Practical Action is quite a unique and exciting experience. He likes the people centred approach, using technology to fight poverty. He also feels that Practical Action always offers a learning environment and encourages people to come up with ideas which can change people's lives in a meaningful way.

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Posts by Achyut

  • Nepal Earthquake: Top Thirteen “Not to Do’s”

    June 10th, 2015

    Nepal saw a devastating earthquake of 7.8 Richter scale on 25 April 2015. The country was hit by other two powerful aftershocks measuring 6.6 Richter scale on April 26, and 6.8 Richter scale on 12 May. A total of 270 aftershocks over 4 Richter scale were recorded in a period of a month, according to National Seismological Centre (NSC). Over 20,000 tremors including mild ones were felt in this period. These altogether affected over 40 districts, while 14 districts experienced the worst impact of the earthquake.

    One of the oldest and historical Durbar School severely damaged by the earthquake

    One of the oldest and historical Durbar School severely damaged by the earthquake

    According to Nepal Police, until 25 May, a month after the devastating earthquake, altogether 8,673 people lost their lives, while 21,944 were injured with 4,877 still in different hospitals. Likewise, a total of 470, 991 houses recorded to have sustained partial and complete damage in the quake, while Kathmandu Valley alone saw 67,188 damaged houses. Hundreds of temples and monuments of historical importance including the ones enlisted in the World Heritage Sites also sustained significant damages; while the historical tower, Dharahara, has been reduced to rubble.

    According to the Home Ministry, more than 4,000 military personnel and medics from 34 different countries were mobilized in the search, rescue and relief operation in support of Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and Nepal Police including representatives of several organisations and volunteers following the tragic earthquake.

    Although Practical Action is not a relief organisation, it was necessary to get engaged when the country was crawling through the hardest period of modern times. Practical Action immediately mobilised funds to initiate necessary response and recovery works. We decided to focus ourselves in Gorkha and Dhading districts due to our long engagement with people in these districts and coordinated with District Emergency Operation Centre (DEOC) and District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC) of both the districts.

    Relief operation by Practical Action in Gorkha close to the epicentre of the quake

    Relief operation by Practical Action in Gorkha close to the epicentre of the quake

    There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this earthquake. Being vigilant of initiatives and the works of the government, relief organisations, media and social networks and our own working experiences, I have come up with following thoughts.

    1. A designated National Authority to handle disasters like the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in India would have better managed and coordinated disaster management including the rescue and relief. Due to multiple roles across the ministries and departments, the coordination aspect in Nepal had noticeable shortcomings. Countries prone to disasters should have a dedicated disaster management authority to be better prepared and manage similar situations, and the disaster management as a whole.

    2. Almost 17 years have elapsed since the last local elections were held in 1997. The five-year term of the elected body expired in 2002 but the government failed to hold local elections thereafter owing to violence and other political problems. Had there been local bodies, the rescue and relief operations would have been better coordinated. There were many instances of overlapping and lack of statistics that resulted powerful communities getting repeated reliefs, while the needy ones failing to get even for a single time.

    3. There has been no uniformity of approach and relief package across the relief organisations too. The World Food Programme (WFP) is under severe criticism by media and National Human Rights Commission for distributing poor quality rice while many relief organisations provided unusable clothing items. This created severe criticism of relief organisations including the Red Cross Society.

    4. In many villages, food was available since the houses did not fully collapse. Shelter was the main issue as the houses were damaged and unsafe to live in. Many relief organisations had shortcomings in addressing people’s needs.

    5. All relief organisations distributed tarpaulins for shelters. However, distributing tarps is an ad hoc measure – the tarps having limited durability in view of the soon approaching monsoon. This shortcoming was realised by some organisations and instead, they decided to supply corrugated galvanised iron (CGI) sheets. The CGI sheets are useful for building temporary shelters with bamboo and wood available in villages, and can be reused once the affected people are able to build a permanent house.

    6. People developed a dependency syndrome. They were wasting their time queueing up for relief materials although that was not an absolute necessity for many of them. Rather they were expected to be in the maize fields for weeding to ensure food security for the winter.

    7. Inappropriate construction practices have been one of the main reasons for the destruction of houses. Often in the villages, the common practice of constructing house is by using random rubble masonry with mud mortar which is highly vulnerable in case of earthquakes, even of moderate magnitude. There is dire need of developing resilient construction technology and practices.

    8. Because of massive quakes and aftershocks, numerous cracks are formed across the hills making them highly vulnerable towards landslides. The recent big landslide in Baisari of Myagdi which blocked Kaligandaki River for 16 hours even before the monsoon was an alarm to take protective measures well on time.

    9. Media should act responsibly during such hard and trying times. The irresponsible act of some Indian media triggered the hashtag #GoBackIndianMedia and it became a rapidly popular trend across twitter. Likewise, the local media provided space to astrologers which demoralised people’s confidence to get back home.

    10. It was widely accepted that “Drop, Cover, and Hold On (DCH)” is the appropriate action to reduce injury and death during earthquakes. However, this concept does not work in case of failing of structures. Most of the dead bodies were found in DCH position under the tables. Massive awareness is required to identify the best location a person should try to occupy during an earthquake.

    11. There was strong indication to the government that a devastating earthquake in Nepal was already overdue following the 1934 earthquake. But this signal was not seriously respected to reflect in preparedness activities. The preparedness works were limited to celebration of earthquake days. As a result, the protection measures for the cultural, historical and government infrastructure were overlooked.

    12. The government asked to channelise the relief works through government system using one door system. However, this was not possible and also was not an appropriate mechanism given the bureaucratic process of the government that takes time and undermines the urgency of the relief works on the ground. There is still a need to discuss and draw lessons on how the relief works can be expedited at the quickest possible manner to reach the most needed ones at the time of such large disasters by mobilising all stakeholders and individuals

    13. The government asked the rescue teams coming from India, China and from other countries to leave as soon as the rescue operation was thought to be over. But in fact by extending the stay, they could have also been mobilised to deliver relief materials to the remote areas since they came with helicopters that help reaching out to the remote communities.

    Note: Originally published in All India Disaster Mitigation Institute AIDMI’s monthly publication, Southasiadisasters.net; Issue 131

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  • Road to recovery after #NepalQuake

    May 8th, 2015

    I have witnessed some of the most notorious disasters and insurgencies in the recent times. The Operation Blue Star conducted in Golden Temple in Amritsar, India in 1984 was the first one when I got stranded for a week in Kashmir and luckily got a special train to leave Jammu for Delhi. For the first time in my life, I had seen violence and curfew.

    The same year I witnessed the Bhopal gas tragedy, while I was a second year engineering student in the same town. I was lucky to get unaffected, but have seen the climax of people being affected after methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant. I volunteered in the local hospital for a couple of days, and saw how people were dying and how mass cremation was being held without being able to consider their religious faith. Just a month earlier, I had witnessed brutal attack on Sikh communities following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

    EarthquakeAffectedDistricts

    Districts most affected by the earthquake (c) Kathmandu Living Labs

    However, the big earthquake which rocked central part of Nepal on 25 April 2015 is hard to explain. I was with my wife and daughter at home. Just before noon, the house started shaking brutally. My wife screamed and tried to run outside but I stopped and without any thinking, we all entered an adjacent room. I advised to calm down and asked to duck, cover and hold down near a big wooden cupboard thinking that it will be strong enough to protect us. Unfortunately the cupboard fell above us ramming my wife’s hand and daughter’s leg, but by chance my back came in between and prevented major injuries to them.

    We expected that it will stop in a while. But the tremor which was swinging from west to east occasionally started rotating and continued for two minutes. Never in my life have the two minutes been so long. My wife was literally crying thinking that we all will die. My daughter tried to console her saying it will be okay, we will be fine. I thought I was quite strong and kept telling to calm down. Once the tremor stopped, we rushed outside in an open ground where our neighbours were already there. We started looking around. The boundary wall of one of our neighbors had collapsed, while another neighbour’s house had multiple cracks. We stayed there for an hour or so. The aftershock kept coming in every 5 to 10 minutes. We tried to call our close relatives. Fortunately the phone was working for post-paid mobile numbers and we could get ‘survived’ news from some of our close relatives.

    Durbar square destroyed

    Kathmandu Durbar Square after the earthquake

    My parents were in the US but my wife’s parents were in Kathmandu living nearby us. Being worried about them, we closed the main door hurriedly and walked to their house. Surprisingly very few houses were damaged nearby, but we started getting stark images of our heritages like Dharahara and Durbar Square ruined to rubble through Twitter. We came to know that the quake’s magnitude was 7.9 Richter scale. My in-laws were also safe and had assembled in an open area together with their neighbours. We joined them and started taking stock of other relatives. I was speechless when one of my cousins told me that his brother died while he had gone to attend a meeting in a commercial complex near Kalanki in Kathmandu. My legs shivered and just could not hold off. My cousin who died was very close to me. We grew together in a joint family and lived happily for many years since my childhood until I got married. I just cannot explain the condition of his body when recovered from the complex. I had to helplessly witness his funeral and his family members. That was one of the most shocking pains in my life.

    Immediately after the weekend, we tried to behave normally by coming to the office and discussing with the colleagues on how we, the fortunate ones to survive, should help the victims, who lost their families and houses. Although Practical Action is not a relief organisation, we decided to work on relief and response. Our Head Office immediately decided to give us GBP 100,000 to initiate necessary response and recovery works. Our staffs who were all fortunate to survive together with their family members decided to contribute at least one week’s salary to the earthquake victims. That too was a big money amounting Rs 17 Lakh, equivalent to 11,000 GBP. Practical Action is not enlisted as a relief organisation and not a member of Disaster and Relief Committee (DEC) and Rapid Relief Forum (RRF). So, we have no access to relief fund though DFID has pledged GBP 22.8 million in assistance to respond to the quake victims. We have been successful to mobilise another GBP 100,000 from our partner, Christian Aid. Likewise, our supports and staff from other country and regional offices have also contributed.

    Gorkha Relief

    Distributing relief materials in Gorkha district

    We have limited money but the affected area and population is enormous. It was a very difficult decision to agree on our working area. We all felt that we should work with those communities who know us and where the organisation has a long presence. Therefore, we decided to focus ourselves in Gorkha and Dhading districts. The epicentre of the earthquake was in Gorkha, while Dhading is the adjacent district to the east, and both are considered as most affected districts. We coordinated with District Emergency Operation Centre (DEOC) and District Disaster Response Committee (DDRC) in both the districts, who assigned Ashrang, Borlang and Sorpani Village Development Committees (VDCs) of Gorkha and Jogimara, Jyamrung and Salyantar VDCs of Dhading district. We will expand beyond these VDCs once we have more resources and capacity. Beyond relief, we plan to engage in these areas for post recovery works to make sure that they have decent facilities and sustainable livelihood to cope with the adverse situations. The first relief package has already reached Gorkha while we are preparing to dispatch over 6000 tarpaulins, mattresses, water tanks, polythene pipes and food package within a week.

    We have a long term plan for post recovery. We are planning to concentrate on (i) shelter, (ii) WASH (water connection and latrine facilities) and (iii) energy (lighting and mobile charging). In medium term, we are exploring to support for earthquake resilient affordable shelters since over 90% houses are unusable. People use stone masonry with mud mortar in villages. Such structures are vulnerable when they face earthquake more than 6 Richter scale. Therefore, the challenge for us is to offer affordable resilient house building technologies as a medium term plan for recovery. We are collecting the models from our earlier experiences from Sri Lanka (Post Tsunami) and Peru. We are also exploring with other organisations having expertise in developing community shelters.

    I would like to emphasise that Practical Action will not leave any stone unturned to ensure the most needy have access to simpler technology with regard to shelter, water supply, sanitation and energy. I thank Practical Action Nepal staffs who have generously contributed over Rs 16 Lakh to complement our support to the people in need. I would also encourage our associates to join and contribute in whatever capacity you can. We will coordinate with the local authorities to make sure that we complement each other. We wish that all of our trauma of losses will soon subside and make us more resilient in the days to come.

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  • Preparedness helped us

    Bardiya, Nepal,
    January 9th, 2015

    Tihar Bahadur Chaudhary is resident of Balapur village in Guleria Municipality, Bardiya. Balapur is situated along the bank of Babai River, which is regarded as a volatile area during monsoon time. Practical Action has been working in Bardiya since 2008 with the European Union’s DIPECHO co-funding. Tihar has always been an active person in the village and he was unanimously proposed by the community as one of the village disaster management committee members. He has participated in variety of disaster preparedness trainings and is leading fellow villagers by taking initiatives and getting actively engaged in community works.

    Tihar Bahadur Chaudhary explaining the night of 12 July

    Tihar Bahadur Chaudhary explaining the night of 12 July

    Every year during monsoon Babai River is flooded several times between June and September. With the project’s initiative, a communication flow arrangement has been agreed by all stakeholders including District Emergency Operation Centre situated in the District Administration Office, District Development Committee (DDC), Nepal Police, Nepal Army, District Disaster Management Committee, Village Disaster Management Committee and so on. The communication flow enables connection among vulnerable people, relevant stakeholders and flood monitoring gauge station of Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. Gauge reader provides flood information to respective stakeholders using the communication channel. In order to ensure smooth communication, the DDC had committed an allowance of Rs 3000 per month to the gauge reader. Tihar also used to get information through this communication network and at times he could get direct information from the gauge reader. Years were passing on like this.

    However, 2014 was a different year. On 12th July evening, he got a phone call from his bhanja (sister’s son) from Dang district, saying that there has been a huge flood in Dang and enquired about the situation in Balapur village. He immediately called the gauge reader in Chepang, but the call was not received. He tried several times but his efforts went in vain. By the time he was trying to call, the flood water in the village was already knee high. He started panicking and informed police. The villagers were already gathering around and started discussing about the coping strategies. The water was getting higher and higher and was moving like a big river. They sensed that the flood had entered the village and it would keep on increasing, so they must think about saving lives of all the villagers. Tihar reminded the villagers about what they had learnt from the trainings and mock drills during the DIPECHO project time. They also remembered the evacuation route and emergency shelter. They carefully packed their clothes and beds and hung them high on the walls of their houses, untied the livestock and started moving to the school where one of the buildings was developed as emergency shelter by the project. They were also guided by policemen who came on site to rescue them. They spent the entire night on the first floor and top of the buildings.

    By 5 am on 13th July, the water was high enough to drown people of average height.  The floodline can be seen on the photograph of the toilet constructed by one of the families. Then onwards the water level started decreasing and by the evening they could gradually move to their houses to assess the damage. Many of their livestock were carried away by the flood and their kitchens were unusable for several days due to mud. However, they were pleased that they could save their lives and no one died in the village although nine people lost their lives from Bardiya district.

    The flood mark clearly seen on the toilet

    The flood mark clearly seen on the toilet

    Tihar believes that the preparedness activities that he and other fellow villagers learned from Practical Action and its partner Radha Krishna Tharu Jana Sewa Kendra was instrumental in savings their lives although they could not get early warning information from the gauge station on time. He believes that he did not get information from the river gauge reader because he was not paid as promised earlier. Later the river gauge station was also washed away by the flood on same night. It was the biggest flood probably in last 50 years. In exceptional situations, the system may not work, but the skills they learn are always useful to save lives and assets to a large extent.

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  • Exciting Initiatives in Agriculture

    November 17th, 2014

    Usually we have agricultural interventions in most of the development projects. In the Water and Sanitation Sector, which used to be one of my initial engagements in the development sector, we used to promote kitchen gardening from the waste water coming out of community tap stands. This was quite unique as women could sell some vegetables and make some money which was helpful in raising their status both at household and community level.

    Practical Action is quite unique as we apply different kinds of technology to help poor people to reduce drudgery and make some incomes to fight poverty. We have a number of agricultural initiatives within other programme areas, mostly in the vegetable sector. We have introduced better inputs, technologies, promoted off season varieties, and linked them with markets. They have yielded results and created impacts. This has always encouraged me. However, last week when I visited our project site in the eastern part of the country, I felt truly excited.

    I visited a number of sugarcane and rice demonstration plots at the IFC funded Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR) sites in Sunsari district. In both rice and sugarcane sector, we are working with lead firms who should take over the project after a couple of years.

    Sugarcane Demo Plot

    Sugarcane Demo Plot

    I could see young trainers who graduated from Rampur Agriculture College only a year ago, confidently training the local farmers and providing tips to enhance productivity. We observed it in the demonstration plots and the technical expert who was visiting the site with me claimed that the sugarcane of these demonstrated plots are expected to yield at least 50 per cent more than the conventional ones. That was quite encouraging. However, with the only sugar factory’s monopoly and the government’s inability to fix the annual rate of sugarcane on time, the farmers are not getting payment on time. That really frustrates them.

    Directly Seeded Rice (DSR), Swarna variety

    Directly Seeded Rice (DSR), Swarna variety

    I was more excited with the rice demonstration plots with flood resilient and climate resilient varieties. Some four varieties of Directly Seeded Rice (DSR) were ready to harvest and the grains (and panicles) looked healthy. Our Rice Technical Expert told me that the yield is better than the average and plantation cost is much lower (at least Rs 10,000 less per hectare compared to the conventional practices). However, this requires some additional skills and our extension workers can do it quite easily with a number of farmers.

    This excited me as it looks like a feasible alternative to conventional transplanted puddled rice (TPR) that requires less water, reduces labour requirement, mitigates green-house gas (GHG) emission and adapts to climatic risks. The yields are comparable with transplanted rice if crop is properly managed. Unlike the conventional method, which is also called TPR, the plantation should be done with a machine which is not costly at all. As the country is facing labour shortage due to out migration, this technology can really offer lot of opportunities to the farmers. If the state promotes this technology, this can also contribute to address the current food insecurity issues. It can also offer response to current climate change implications.

    It is always a motivation to see new initiatives being implemented that can possibly make a difference in the lives of the poor people. And, the visit this time really excited me to do something more of this kind.

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  • Earthquake in Nepal

    September 19th, 2011

    I was about to leave a social function at 6:30pm yesterday (Sunday), when the ground started trembling. I realised that it was an earthquake, so I guided all in the room to kneel down near the door and cupboards.

    Once we felt that it was all over, we all ran outside. I started ringing my wife at home, but the mobile was not working so I rushed home. When I reached home, my wife told me she ran out in an open area as soon as she noticed that it was a quake. However, my kids were very smart. They did not come out of the house but instead covered their head and stayed calm under a big table until the tremor was gone. This was what they were taught in their school.

    It was an earthquake measuring 6.9 Richter scale with the epicentre somewhere in the east near the Nepal and India border. The news reported that 21 people were severely injured, 68 people injured and over 200 houses were damaged in eight districts. The tremor was felt across 20 districts of Nepal. Three people were killed in Kathmandu after a wall of the British Embassy collapsed over a car and motorbike.

    Nepal has been ranked as the 11th most earthquake-prone country in the world. In terms of human casualty risk, Kathmandu is billed as the most risk-prone area in the world.

    The Practical Action Nepal Office is working to reduce disaster risk, but it is mostly in the field of community based disaster risk reduction and mainly floods and landslides. Practical Action has worked with communities in Peru to build earthquake-resistant houses. Now it is high time to get engaged in earthquake preparedness in Nepal as well, which could come up in our next strategy.

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