Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Nepal's Earthquake Crisis - Livelihoods the hidden loss.

Belafi, Sindhupalchok, we try to find what was the cooperative milk chilling centre

Nepal’s earthquake is not the first disaster to strike our fragile planet, and nor will it be the last. Headed by organisations such as the UN, World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) there is a well- oiled system of needs assessment and emergency relief provision which kicked in within a few hours of the 7.9 Richter scale quake. The Government is involved at each stage but these global organisations are definitely the executive partners during the early phases of the disaster response.
As the earthquakes shockwave moved from the epicentre in Ghorka eastwards, it reeked its worst effects in the remote districts to the west, north and east of the Kathmandu valley, from Ghorka  through Sindhapulchok to Dolakha. In the city valley, towns built on the earthquake susceptible clay soils were the worst affected.

A typical rural settlement in a badly affected area. Small metal shelters made in Kathmandu (Habitat for Humanity) replace
the destroyed houses as shelter for families and stored food.

Relief aid provision in Sindhupalchok. A high percentage of stored rice and pulses were destroyed as houses came down. These families were receiving rice and oil.

The basic management and coordination unit of the emergency response is the 'Cluster'. Each of the twelve clusters has a principle function such as ‘Early Response’ or ‘Camp Management’, for example, and any relief agency can register and attend the well timetabled and managed meetings which are hallmarked by clarity and brevity. Everyone has the single purpose of enhancing the coordination effort whilst at the same time avoiding duplication.
On behalf of VSO I have been tasked with attending the Food Security cluster which is chaired by a young Italian woman, Ellena, whilst her French assistant Astrid manages the vast amount of information. This cluster has an Agriculture sub-group that I also attend. In the remote very inaccessible badly affected districts, assessing the damage and needs is almost more difficult than moving the huge volumes of relief aid. The FAO, WFP and other agencies feedback multi-dimensional needs assessments. The reports are designed to direct not only the emergency relief efforts but also prepare for the rapidly arriving subsequent phases of Recovery and Rehabilitation which must dovetail with the long term development programmes. Even at this early stage I have the feeling that Ellena and her young colleagues in the disaster management industry, have one eye on the next crisis and will soon be speeding away to another humanitarian relief incident  elsewhere in the world.
As you would expect VSO’s role in delivering emergency humanitarian aid is limited. Having said that Jessica, a volunteer from Derby,  who’s original placement related to biogas engineering is spending the next three months coordinating relief activities in the badly affected district of Sindhupalchok. Back in Lamjung Jude has spent the last few weeks supporting damaged schools by creating temporary learning spaces. Lessons learnt during her Sisters for Sisters education programme are also being rolled out to more communities to help schools get up and running.

A new temporary farming community, with shelter for people and livestock. The hope is that they will be effective during the
monsoon rains, now only a month away

A woman feeds her animals ground maize flour next to her new tin house, which used to house the goats.

My role has also been to focus on the future response phases of recovery, rehabilitation and the longer term development pathway. Together with my work in the VSO Nepal's country office I have joined Sijan and Gungan in the livestock team of Samarth a market development project funded by the UK’s Dept. for International Development (DFID). I support the team as a dairy and milk processing specialist. We have just returned from a visit to Sindhapulchok where we assessed damage to the milk chilling and transportation infrastructure. This milk supply chain is dominated by hundreds of very small producers, who over the years have come together to form cooperatives which handle and chill their milk. Their two main markets are local towns on the Chinese border and the urban population of Kathmandu.

Krishna Bhakta stands where his home once stood, and where his six cows died
during the quake. His new home is a low tin shed in the middle distance. Despite
all this as cooperative leader he willingly set up a farmer focus group and revealed
plans to rebuild the milk collection center. 

 Unsurprisingly in a district where 95% of housing has been destroyed, we found milk collection and chilling facilities badly impacted but in most cases still carrying out the basic functions. Farmers had lost not only their houses and livestock shelters, but also 60% of their productive cattle had died under collapsed masonry. The supply of milk had unsurprisingly diminished to a fraction of the pre-quake amount and their local and more distant markets had suffered a catastrophic decline as people migrated away to safer areas. However,  we also found that most farmers wanted to stay, and were carrying on with normal farming activities. Some had already replaced their lost cattle since their cooperatives had acted quickly to facilitate loans which enabled farmers to purchase cattle from  neighbours not wishing to stay in the district.

Navraj Giri stands in front of  a milk collection centre that was destroyed in just a few seconds.

He explains, with some emotion, that not only will the building need to be replaced but also a new market found for the milk
 since the processor they were supplying was totally destroyed.

Sijan my colleague from Samarth, with a farmer focus group outside their temporary milk collection centre, now under canvas. From here they also supply food to their milk producing members.

Happier times for Krishna Bhakta as he shows us the cows he has managed to buy from a farmer who wanted to liquidise
his assets and leave the district. A loan from his cooperative allowed the restocking following the death of his entire herd.

We were able to conduct a focus group and discovered that these small holders, despite the most arduous of circumstances, were planning for the future and the recovery of their communities. The challenge for VSO, Samarth and the few other agencies working in this sector, is how best to support this fragile recovery. Fortunately our team at Samarth had carried out research with cooperatives like these immediately prior to the earthquake. The work had identified farmers development needs - information which will be a useful foundation for future planning.  With the numbers of productive animals in these districts being so dramatically cut our interventions will focus on sustainable increasing output, improving quality and cutting production costs.

Bungamati six months ago.

Knowing that the Newari settlement of Bungamati, was built on clay soils I was keen to visit and assess the earthquakes impact on farmers. To get a full appreciation of damage I walked to the town which lies on the cities outskirts. Surprisingly some of the more modern concrete framed dwellings had survived  but the traditionally built brick houses, which form the communities heart, were devastated. 

Happier times. A Newari grandmother shows off her granddaughter from an upper room in these multistory houses.

The situation last summer with long garlands of chilli hanging to dry in the narrow streets.

During that stay in 2014 we had eaten with a family on the third floor of the house. Livestock live on the ground level, then the living area and finally the food preparation on the top floor.  

The earthquake has cruelly wrecked that way of life.

More devastation but the few modern houses had less damage.

These statues once guarded the towns central Hindu temple, but not any more.

The temple site is now where people can get a meal.

This lovely artifact stands in a now lonely position, guarding two girls as they collect water from an emergency supply. 

Everyone is helping in the cleanup process, and top priority is given to clearing the many drains ready for the monsoon rains.

The barrow and shovel often the only means of  clearing rubble, so things will progress slowly.

A farmer returns from the field with some tools that escaped being buried.

 Most families here are farmers, carrying out wood carving and other traditional crafts to supplement their subsistence way of life. As I clambered over the piles of rubble, which were once bustling streets, I was shocked at what lay beneath my feet. Here were the remains of lives and livelihoods. The small craft workshops were no more and buried along with them were tools and carvings that represent years of effort and valuable income. Livelihood loss is the hidden dimension of this sickening earthquake, which also erased the traditional marketplace where customers could find every kind of Newari cultural artwork from a carpet to a camphor elephant or Ganesh statue.

A wood carvers workshop displaying work which takes months to complete, now buried under brick rubble.  

A Bungamati, Newari resident in happier times

Keen to discover how the farmers had weathered this horrific quake I pressed on to the collections of tents that were now home to these families. News from the cluster assessments was that the wheat harvest had faultered due to a change in priorities as shelters were hurriedly made. Happily I could see that the harvest had resumed. Wheat grain plus straw were being dried and stored and the all-important rice planting had begun. Some rice seed had survived the destruction of the stores and I was delighted to learn that other rice which had not yet been milled would be planted if seeds could not be found in the market place or from donors.

The new Bungamati community.

Thrashing wheat the traditional way.

Surja Muni, a local farmer, said that timing of the wheat harvest was still reasonably normal and the hope was that rice plantings would follow with the rains.

Planting a rice seedbed.

Bhim Raj and his wife Nani Chhori were happy that their rice transplanting would be normal. Their land was unharmed but their temporary home was a tent.

Whilst plodding home, reflecting on the positives of the visit, I marveled at the way in which these farming families where dealing with the situation in hand. For many the emergency phase was drawing to a close, despite the daily aftershocks, and an embryonic recovery is underway. Huge challenges lie ahead, the first being the arrival of the monsoon rains which will test the temporary shelters and peoples moral. 

As the pendulum swings towards recovery and rehabilitation, the big donors such as USAID, DIFID, UN and the Asian Development Bank will fund the support through gifts and loans. However, the task is so huge that the main driving force will be the Nepali people themselves and their collective resolve to succeed. Certainly in my recent visits to damaged rural communities this essential element is present and about to emerge like a germinating seed. We as development agencies must nurture this desire to rebuild, and our programmes must not stop at the more tangible assets such as housing but must equally focus on the less structured, but essential, topic of Livelihood recovery.  

Bricks are now in short supply and the tall kiln chimneys have been destroyed. They will not produce more product until next winter.


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Recall to Kathmandu - earthquake recovery planning.

The wheat harvest is underway in Baglung district. Rice will be sown next.

It’s been 24 days since the first earthquake here in Nepal, but now pulling together reflections of the intervening period, it feels more like three months.
The support work I had been doing with the International Citizen Service volunteers in Baglung, immediately prior to that fateful day, should have merited its own blog post. However. the turmoil of  earthquake escape, being reunited with Jude here in Lamjung, and post crisis work have not made this possible. To reduce the burden for their host communities in the post- earthquake period, these young UK ICS volunteers were repatriated and their Nepali counterparts have also returned home. Looking through a few images of these workshops, I was moved by memories of how involved the youngsters were, both as interpreters and organisers. One  volunteer, Arohan, asked me for workshop notes so that he could perform the training himself to other interested farmers. The experience had clearly benefited both of us.

Simple teaching aids, to explain the basics of  ruminant digestion, are translated by Lalita in Mahalladanda. 

Vikram, in the blue jacket, helps with explanation of  new tools. He arranged for this second workshop in Panchase where the Dalit community members did not attend our first training.

Arohan really engaged with the workshop in his community. With the notes I supplied he hoped to repeat the messages to other farmers. The earthquake prevented this plan.

The images bring back other feelings. Little did we all know that within just a couple of hours of that final gathering in the hillside dalit (low caste) community, where everyone was so eager to be involved and talk of their plans for the coming season, that this natural disaster would strike, wrecking the lives of so many rural farmers. Lives lost, people injured, houses damaged and destroyed, livelihoods hampered, markets wrecked are just some of the effects this horrific quake and its following tremors reeked on this already fragile nation.

Dalit families gather as we prepare for the last workshop. These low caste families demonstrated their open mindedness and willingness to change, much more so than their higher caste counterparts who struggled to accept any new ideas.

A young girl prepares us rotis after we had delivered the training.

Jude and I found that our first offers of help to the local community here in Lamjung were warmly received and we hurriedly were able to do a damage assessment report in the worst affected areas of the district. Within a few days the finished report was submitted and had been well received by the Lamjung Disaster Response Coordination Committee and a DFID investigating group. But that was some days ago and further offers of assistance by VSO to the LDRCC have fallen on deaf ears. So it is with some concern that I am returning to Kathmandu. Concern not for what I might find in the city and the surrounding area which has been so badly damaged, but for this district I leave behind.
VSO are pulling me back to the country office to help plan for the recovery phase and also work with a DFID funded partner on a more formal basis. This planning will aim to  facilitate recovery using the skills of those volunteers and staff members already in country and other emergency volunteers would have begun to arrive.

Philip Goodwin, the VSO CEO, recently sent a message to the entire VSO Nepal team. In it he urged us to find imaginative solutions to the problems that any recovery plan will face. The experience and knowledge I have gained over the last ten months, especially the most recent days, will have to meld with the skills I brought with me following forty years of farming and business in the UK. My hope is that this union of skill, experience and creativity will be enough to make me an effective cog in the mechanism that is VSO Nepal. We will find out in the coming weeks.

Some of the people we have been lucky enough to meet in recent weeks. How will this natural disaster affect their lives?
A woman wood gather takes a break.

Sharing a meal after a long walk

A fellow Kathmandu resident

Earlier this year this woman stands on the steps of the now non-existent temple in Patan Durbar Square.  

Three men from a local rural community. Destroyed and damaged houses will impact
heavily on the aging population. On our post earthquake 

A young girl carrying rice to her isolated home.

Mother and daughter from a Gurung family

Friday, 8 May 2015

Nepals Earthquake Aftermath, the pain behind the smiles.

Jude collecting information from a Tamang woman whose destroyed home occupied an isolated position 2000m up a mountainside. She had a clear view of the epicentre across the valley in Gorkha. Bringing relief supplies and building materials to these dwellings will not be easy. She had received a tarpaulin but no other help. We were her first visitors.

Many residents in these badly effected distant villages are elderly. Their children and
grandchildren having migrated in search of employment.

Our mission had been to assess earthquake damage in the badly affected villages of East Lamjung. We hoped our work would ease the flow of aid, as we scrambled down the final slopes, homeward bound. After these physical challenges we now had the more cerebral task of writing a report for the Chief District Officer who coordinates the districts disaster response. 

On the whole building materials can be reused after an earthquake. However, getting sand and cement to many properties
will be a logistical nightmare.

A 200 year old Hindu mandir crumbles under the huge forces.

In Kolki VDC a large communal tent serves as a home to eight families. Hand weeding maize is a sign that some are resuming normal farming activities. 

After sleeping in a half wrecked school,on the floor, we are offered daal bhaat before setting out on our second day of fact finding.

Resuming education will be another challenge. This secondary school in Dudh Pokhari VDC has had half of its classrooms reduced to rubble.  

Our five day hike visited rural districts, and their villages, within 2km of the quake epicentre, where we had witnessed a few families already engaged in rebuilding their shattered homes. For many the shock of losing dwellings. precious food and seed stores, is rendering them incapable of going beyond their normal daily routines. Families sit under trees, by roadsides and on piles of rubble waiting for help to arrive. Some relief has come in the form of tarpaulins to drape over damaged roofs and clad rough bamboo shelters where many sleep, afraid to return indoors.

Shelters are largely constructed from bamboo and tarpaulin. The dry weather allows mustard oil seed to be dried. When the monsoon rains come these temporary homes will afford little protectio against the flowing ground water.

A Gurung woman supports her tarpaulin roof with hose pipe.

Nepali Gurkhas have airlifted in rice, daal, oil and other essentials, from where willing hands carry heavy loads back to village distribution centers. As at festival times many young people have returned to their villages to help aged relations cope with the disaster but many cannot stay and already are making plans to go away.

Despite the recent trauma our days have been made easier by helpful locals who have assisted with translation, guided us along mountainous paths, provided clean water and above all a warm welcome. They could not hide their joy of seeing new faces and possible help, yet behind these broad smiles were deeper worries of how to rebuild their destroyed homes and cope with the fast arriving monsoon rains.

In Pachok VDC three traditionally dressed Ghale people have warm welcoming smiles, which hide their real fears for the future.

We spent another night in a school, shared with platoon of Gurkha soldiers. 

A young girl about to gather grasses for her livestock gives us the 'namaste'. Daily
tasks need to be done whatever the conditions.

A knowledgeable local shows the way between remote settlements.

Devendra showed us through his Ilam Pochari village, Thullo Karpre, which had escaped
the worst effects of the quake. Only a few hundred meters away another settlement was
entirely destroyed.

Despite the circumstances this Gurung village wants to give us their traditional welcome. By now we had been out for four days, and Jude shows the harrowing experience on her face.

‘How did these earth tremors happen?’ is a frequently asked question and the explanation takes me back to classroom plate tectonics and the accompanying realisation that this is not another academic exercise but a real description of the destructive forces of nature. As my eyes cast down to the stone steps that lie ahead on a path between two villages other far gentler natural forces display themselves. A pink flower has pushed its way through the arid soil between heavy stones and now sways gracefully in the clean air, its petals searching out life giving sunlight. 

Other natural forces at work. A flower bursts through the pathway that lies ahead,
demonstrating creation, not destruction

The earthquake has done its deadly work, and despite villager’s fears, is passing away. Some people have already moved to rebuild their homes, albeit in a temporary way, but others need to start the process. The greatest challenge that lies ahead is encouraging this move to rebuild by offering some support but also using the skills and labour of local people. 

Repair work begins. Yosing is proud of his temporary home. The round bamboo containers behind the young girl are used to
store maize and rice. Traditionally  this is done on the first floor of  a house, so loosing this floor means
loss of essential rice stocks.

Farmers the world over are famous for improvisation. Why not build a tomato tunnel over your ruined house.

Another temporary roof solution, but many properties now have little or no walls. These images are the exception. Most are
still to begin the reconstruction phase.

One of the very few houses to escape damage. this timber and tin construction teaches us a few lessons for the future.

As I sit and write the final lines of this post. Our VSO buildings and situation assessment report is complete and now in the hands of the Chief District Officer, who commissioned it. By a turn of good fortune whilst we took the CDO through our findings a group representing a major international donor was in the room. At their request we shared the report with them but my thoughts still drift back to those now homeless rural folk we had the privilege to meet on our journey. That quote which heads this blog comes to mind. 'I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that then I realised I was somebody'. Perhaps I should be the somebody that needs to start the reconstruction process. I feel another huge step outside my comfort zone coming up!