Nepal’s long road to recovery

Photo: Carlo Heathcote

Head east of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and quickly the rough gravelly and narrow main road gets steep. An hour or so out of the capital there’s a sheer drop off one side, down to a river; it’s a long way down.

It’s also rainy season, so the ground is wet, muddy and unstable; think rock slides and land slides.

This is the precarious trip our people and others take all the time. I took it last week on my way to the villages of Dolalghat and Jyamdi, Kavre district. It’s about a 30-minute walk from where the nearest road ends, up a steep and slippery narrow forest path and another similar walk up to the fresh water supply.

The path to and from Dolalghat village, Karve district. Photo: Mukesh Singh/Australian Red Cross

The village, like many others in the area, was decimated by the earthquake that struck Nepal last April — the worst to hit the country in 80 years .The earthquake killed more than 8,800 people and ruined up to 900,000 homes. Life here will most probably never be the same again.

The area suffered major damage in the earthquake, and many villagers lost their lives. More than a year later it still has no secure fresh water supply, and families are living in temporary accommodation. Life is tough here.

Recovery after any kind of disaster is not simply a matter of quickly banging up a row of new houses and repairing roads; recovery is enormously complex.

As I sat in Dolalghat’s small, cramped school room and listened to community leaders explain what happened and the ongoing efforts to bring life back to some sort of normality, what struck me most was how long it will take Nepal to recover.

Even before the earthquake hit, Nepal was facing big challenges. It is going through huge political and social change. Most of its people depend on subsistence farming and many rural households have little or no access to quality health care, education, safe water or toilets.

Alongside this is the fact floods, earthquakes and rock and mud slides happen all the time — regularly damaging homes and infrastructure. Unfortunately, in some villages up to 90% of the young men have left to find jobs in other countries — meaning there are fewer hands to help rebuild.

The focus now is all about how they recover after this huge setback. It is a challenge so immense that the country is still grappling with it.

Some of the temporary housing. Photo: Mukesh Singh/Australian Red Cross

Here you can see how all of this translates on an individual level. People here used to own cattle and buffalo, and most of their income came from selling their organic fertilizer in the market.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake destroyed the water supply so they no longer have cattle and buffalo, and therefore no longer have that income. But what’s worse they now have to buy chemical fertilizer to grow maize, their staple crop, which reduces the yield and undermines their access to this most basic food staple.

The earthquake also changed the water courses that run high above their village, and on which they rely for survival. So another utterly basic need, fresh, clean water for drinking, is no longer met.

Unstable shelter, little fresh water, reduced food, reduced livelihoods — it is a terrible combination.

But Dolalghat and Jyambi villages are getting help.

Humanitarian aid workers from all over the world, engineers and technical experts, are helping local people find solutions. Australian Red Cross is here, with colleagues from Denmark and Canada. Under the leadership and coordination of Nepal Red Cross, we are looking after the water, sanitation and hygiene side of the operation. We’re trying to restore their access to clean fresh water, it is slow work that is held up by the rainy season.

Photo: Niki Clark / American Red Cross

What struck me as I stood in the villages was not the enormous global effort to help, it was the absolute resilience of the people who had suffered so much.

Their lives have been turned upside down, but they have perseverance and each day they move forward with ingenuity.

That resilience shows itself in so many quarters of life here, school is still a priority here — with 40% of the kids attending being girls. That spirit also shines through by the very existence of the community recovery committee, a group that’s spearheading the recovery effort.

This is the story of just two villages. The devastation and the resilience is echoed in many communities across the country.

In Dolalghatvillage’s school room listening to stories of devastation and resilience. Photo: Mukesh Singh/Australian Red Cross

I left Kavre district feeling that I wanted us to be able to do more but not yet sure how.

For our Nepalese colleagues the recovery effort will take many years, and our ongoing, long term and reliable support is much needed.

Since the earthquake Red Cross has distributed life-saving relief supplies through our network of 8,000 Nepalese volunteers. This includes food assistance for 2.5 million people; emergency shelter for 550,000 people and rebuilding tools for 360,000 more; hygiene kits with toothpaste, soap and other essentials for 467,000 people; and 3.7 million litres of drinking water.

Before I left Nepal we made a commitment that we would continue to stay by their side and — thanks to the support of the Australian public who backed our Nepal Region Earthquake Appeal — we will be.

Australian Red Cross and Nepal Red Cross have been working together since the 1990s to support the country’s most vulnerable families.

Story by Judy Slatyer — Australian Red Cross CEO

Photo: Carlo Heathcote