After a short break following the earthquake of last Tuesday, our relief effort was back in operation on Friday 15 May, with three teams heading out to Sindhupalchowk, where renewed destruction has occurred. Loaded in their vehicles were a total 1,256 tarpaulins for Palchowk, and 632 for Mahankal VDCs. The aim is to continue delivery to all eight targeted VDCs in Sindhupalchowk until the supply of a standard 2 tarpaulins per household is achieved. Each household will also receive two blankets – this in collaboration with CARITAS. Hygiene and dignity kits (for menstruating women) will follow. As of 18 May, a total 12,292 tarpaulins and 2,730 water purifiers had been delivered by Helvetas to the district.
Bharat Pokharel and Rabin Niraula were in one of Friday’s vehicle, accompanied by Ernst Lueber of Solidarity Fund/Glueckskette. They report that the distribution of supplies was being conducted in carefully monitored fashion, overseen by the Nepalese Army. One army officer had been stationed in Haiti during the earthquake relief operation there, and was naturally making comparisons. In his eyes, the Haiti situation had been far more stressful, with the possibility of violence ever present. He praised his fellow citizens for being far more orderly. Indeed, Bharat and Rabin were impressed by the way that ward level representatives (there are nine wards per VDC) had developed a household list and were using this to check fairness in distribution. Chatting to those present – a local teacher and the VDC secretary (this is the one civil servant post at VDC level), they saw the importance of local knowledge in backing the army. As in any situation, a few people were trying to gain more than their fair share by sending different family members posing with different names; this might have fooled external army personnel but did not get past those who came from the same ward and know everyone by sight.
In any humanitarian relief operation, rumours are quick to circulate – and inevitably some people have unrealistic expectations of support. Those who are trying to make do with whatever is available, rather than hoping for greater outside assistance, are likely to be the ones who stay safest, driest, and best fed during the coming monsoon. All team members report being impressed by the way that tarpaulins are being put to innovative uses for grain recovery (sorting what is edible from the rubble), livestock shelter, and human comfort. Tin sheets, in particular, are being salvaged from destroyed buildings and fashioned with tarpaulins and often also bamboo, into new temporary homes. Thus the immediate need for shelter is gradually being met; what is becoming a more urgent need now is food, and sanitation.
Whilst in the immediate post-earthquake days, many households were able to recover some grain supplies from their homes – or if not, could share with others – these stocks are now running low. This is especially the case for poorer households, and amongst the elderly or otherwise infirm. Villagers are worried about having enough food for the two or three months up to the next maize harvest. In those areas that maize and paddy seeds had not been sown before the earthquake, seed supplies are needed.
Sanitation issues are now also coming to the fore. In the few years prior to the earthquake, huge progress was made in the construction of household toilets and awareness raising over the importance of hygiene. Many VDCs declared themselves recently to be “open defecation free zones” – with open defecation being “a social crime”. Residents of Melamchi VDC, for example, reflected on the impossibility of maintaining this stricture now. However, the very fact that they openly raised this issue as a concern is important, as it means that emergency toilets are likely to be appreciated and used, if built in a culturally sensitive manner. All this gives a strong base for planning next steps: the relief effort is gradually moving into a new phase.