The large earthquake of last Tuesday 12 May, which at 7.3 on the Richter scale was only a little less than the original devastating 7.8 earthquake, resulted in a far lower number of deaths but further huge destruction in the rural areas near its epicentre, a little northeast of Kathmandu. One reason for the lower mortality was that the worst affected area is less densely populated, another that many buildings had already collapsed, and a third that everyone is alert to the danger and now knows what to do: get into the open, fast. Yet with already weakened buildings giving way, the swathe of devastation has moved eastwards, hitting again Sindhupalchowk but also Dolakha district particularly badly. Dolakha’s district centre of Charikot, for long a centre of Swiss development support to the area, is now reported to lie in rubble. Until Tuesday, it was a proudly thriving small town of shops and hotels, including many new multi-storey concrete buildings.
For many in Nepal, including many of our staff and their families, the Tuesday earthquake took a particular mental toll. With the first terror and shock subsiding, and the relief effort well under way, there was a sense of picking up the pieces and getting on with life, however heart-breaking the effort. Tuesday’s earthquake re-emphasised vulnerabilities and uncertainties. When will it be possible to start reconstruction? Is it wise to travel? (Landslides are a significant danger – in Gorkha aid workers were killed in such a way). How to best support worried family members? Are any buildings really safe? How to stop recurring thoughts of the horrors witnessed? These are the sorts of issues and fears that will be addressed in a counselling session that is being organised for staff over 18-19 May.
Meanwhile, Nepali resilience is still in evidence. In Charikot, horticultural entrepreneur Shyam Khadka, who had made a successful business out of selling kiwi seedlings, is now living with his family in the poly-tunnel constructed for the seedlings – his house and most of a lifetime’s savings destroyed. In a brief moment of power supply, his son wrote, “We are all safe and good…Hoping for new day with bright sunshine.” Staff member Usha Dahal, who is the Team Leader of the COPILA project (mentioned in a previous blog), was stranded in Ramechhap district after the first earthquake. Staff were conducting a Farmer Field School training on ways of adapting to changing climatic conditions – proposing new crop varieties, and raising awareness of new pests and diseases and how to treat them. Usha writes of most farmers’ houses being damaged, and of staff and farmers together taking shelter under tarpaulins and other temporary shelters. Yet after two weeks of adjusting to temporary living conditions, the farmers’ groups of Kathajor and Manthali VDCs resumed their regular field activities. Last week, the Manthali farmers were harvesting their crop of okra (lady’s finger) and selling them in the local market. One of them is Chanamati Majhi, who as her name indicates, belongs to the community of traditional fishing people – who are generally marginalised and own very little land. As Chanamati pointed out, the sale of vegetables has become their main way of making a living; they cannot let the earthquake stop them at harvest time. Undoubtedly fresh local vegetables are also welcomed to supplement meagre food supplies at the market.
Equipment supplied through the COPILA project has also been put to unintended uses. Shyam Khadka’s family are not the only people to adapt poly-tunnels into human shelter. The farmers’ group of Kathajor VDC reported that the plastic sheets intended for soil treatment had provided shelter for four households after the first earthquake, until alternative shelter could be improvised. Now, however, the plastic sheets are back in the fields, covering the soil as part of integrated pest management (IPM). One group member, Eka Bahadur Nepali, phrased their determination is the following way, “We have been doing IPM programme in a group and we need to do it, this is inbuilt in our livelihood. Therefore, we will continue in the face of the disaster”. Positive words – and indeed it is the collective spirit of these farmers, bolstered through project activities, that is likely to be one of their greatest assets in the coming months.