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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