Nepal: on the road to recovery
The road is long and winding but Nepal is recovering from the 2015 earthquake.
It’s midday and the sun is beaming down on Gyan Laxmi Ligal high up in the hilltops of the Kathmandu valley.
Balancing on the bamboo scaffolding beneath her feet, she pauses to wipe the sweat from her brow before carefully slotting a brick into place.
This is the fifth house Gyan has built. That is, her fifth earthquake-safe house.
The single mother worked in construction before a devastating earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, but only as a labourer.
“I just used to carry the bricks,” she says laughing.
With support from the British Red Cross, she’s now working as a head mason.
‘Build back safer’
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April 2015. Just 17 days later, a 7.5-magnitude aftershock followed.
In one of the poorest countries in Asia, nearly 9,000 people died, over 800,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed and many were left without the means to earn a living.
In the immediate aftermath, the Red Cross provided support to thousands of people with cash grants and relief items including hygiene kits, tarpaulins and tents. Two years later and the focus is on recovery.
Sitting on the fault line between the Eurasian and Indian Plate, Nepal is at risk of future earthquakes. In fact, experts predict an even larger quake in the future.
To that end, ‘build back safer’ has become Nepal’s mantra.
The mason training project, funded by the Red Cross, gives people the opportunity to learn how to build safer houses with techniques that help reduce the risk of damage from future earthquakes.
“I knew about how to build a house before the training, but no one would recruit me as a mason as I was only semi-skilled,” Gyan said.
“After the Red Cross training I knew everything I needed to. The buildings I am building now are safer than before.”
The man for whom Gyan is currently building a house for nods and exclaims: “She works like a man!”
This is meant as a huge compliment, demonstrating his faith in employing her to build his family home. While many women work in construction, female head masons like Gyan are rare.
To date 670 people in the Kathmandu valley have taken part in this mason training funded by the British Red Cross, including husband and wife Bal and Ishwori Bisunke.
They’ve built three houses together so far and are currently working on Bal’s parents’ house, which was completely destroyed in the earthquake.
Bal usually leads as mason when he works together with Ishwori because he has a bit more experience and she has other commitments like looking after their two children.
However, he’s keen to let Ishwori take control on aspects of his parents’ house so that she can gain more experience and one day lead as mason too.
The training scheme helps to ensure more masons are available to build safer homes and it also provides people with a decent livelihood.
Since the training, Gyan now earns around 80 per cent more each day. As a single mother to three sons, the extra cash is appreciated.
“I’m pleased I was able to get this training with the Red Cross. It’s hard work but I’m used to it and I enjoy it.”
Yet there is something bittersweet about Gyan’s craft. She lost her own house in the earthquake and is unable to rebuild on the spot she called home.
That’s because the property and land on which it stood remains in her husband’s name despite the fact he left many years ago.
This means she cannot access a government grant towards reconstruction, nor does she have legal permission to rebuild. This is a reoccurring issue for many women whose houses were destroyed in the earthquake.
The Red Cross is helping to address this by supporting women to generate an income, putting them in a better position to overcome such challenges.
Clearing the rubble
Although it’s been two years since the earthquake, Sita Ram B.K. has only just started clearing the rubble of his badly damaged home in the Kathmandu valley.
Until now, he did not have time to prioritise it against paid work. He makes jewellery for a living and earning enough cash to provide for his family’s every-day needs after the quake was more important.
Through the Red Cross cash-for-work scheme, Sita can finally start the process of clearing his plot. He is one of 698 households that have received the support so far to clear earthquake debris from their land.
Together with his wife and two neighbours, Sita is part of a rubble-clearing team who work collaboratively to clear their homes. They each receive a payment from the Red Cross for every day they work.
This incentive has helped many people take the first step towards rebuilding their homes and making communities safer.
It also has a positive effect on the community, as they can often use the rubble to rebuild other shared assets that have been damaged by the earthquake, like roads.
Sita hopes to build his home very shortly: “I’m hoping to build my house in a month’s time and am just thinking about the resources I need,” he said.
“I’m a bit worried about where I can collect the resources though and the difference in money I need to build my house.”
Sita’s concerns are common and a lack of both money and materials means many people still live in temporary accommodation.
Political instability in country and a blockade of the Indian border caused widespread shortages of essential supplies and delayed items needed for the reconstruction effort in a landlocked country. The upcoming elections in May also create another level of uncertainty.
But post-earthquake recovery takes time and extends beyond shelter. Ensuring people have access to water and are able to earn a living is also key.
Which is why the Red Cross supports communities in Nepal in an integrated way, providing substantial support for all types of recovery. This includes addressing shelter, water and sanitation, health and livelihoods needs.
How earthquakes discriminate
In a little sewing shop situated along a roadside in the Kathmandu valley, Sumitra K.C. proudly holds up a pair of ruby red slippers.
Delicately embroidered with swirling flowers, these slippers are traditionally worn at Nepalese weddings.
The 36-year-old has been making these shoes, among other things, with business partner Pabana Acharya for around six years. Now she has a little extra help.
With a cash grant from the Red Cross, Sumitra has purchased a new sewing machine to help speed up production.
“Before the earthquake, we did have a machine in the shop, but it was an old one and difficult to work,” she said.
“I used to make hardly two to three pieces of clothing a day. Now, with the new machine I can make ten pieces a day.”
While natural disasters like earthquakes are often thought to be indiscriminate, in reality those who are already marginalised suffer most.
This is because their homes are more likely to be at risk of damage and they have less networks or savings to drawn from in times of crisis.
The Red Cross provides cash grants to the most vulnerable people in the Kathmandu valley so that whatever they lost in the earthquake, they can at least continue to earn a living.
Helping people generate their own income means they can spend their money where it is most needed — whether that’s on repairing their home or their child’s education.
Some 1,955 households have received their first grant payment so far. Those who show it has been spent well will receive a second payment.
Sumitra looks set to receive her second payment soon and has plans to spend it on raw materials to improve the quality and quantity of products she sells.
In the long term, she hopes the support will help boost her business to meet her greatest ambition — taking on an apprentice.
In addition to the shop, Sumitra and Pabana train other women in how to make items like the wedding slippers. One day they would like to take one of them on full-time in their shop.
While Sumitra chose to buy a sewing machine, people choose to do all sorts of things with their cash grant — from buying goats to rear and sell at market, to opening a tea shop.
Spent well, the cash grants help empower people to move forwards.
After any major disaster where so many people are in need of support, there is always likely to be frustration among survivors at the pace of progress.
Yet despite the challenges, two years on the people of Nepal are showing impressive creativity and perseverance in finding solutions to aid recovery with the help of the Red Cross.
The British Red Cross continues to work together with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to help Nepal along the road to recovery.