The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015 killed almost 9,000 people and injured over 22,000. More than 600,000 homes were completely destroyed and those left behind had no shelter, no food and no water.
The scramble to survive in the days and weeks immediately after the quake was felt by everyone, not least the aid workers, who made the difficult choice of leaving behind their families to venture out into the rural mountains in search of survivors.
“When the quake struck, we were playing football”
Nepal has long been one of the poorest countries in the world, where one in four people live on less than $1.25 per day. People are still adjusting to the aftermath of a decade long civil war that ended in 2006 and NGOs have been working in the country for many years. On April 25th, some of ActionAid Nepal
’s staff were playing an interagency football tournament in Kathmandu, the country’s capital, with players from other international organisations.
Bisesh Sangat was working with ActionAid at the time and recalls the moment the earthquake hit:
“We had just finished our game and we were taking rest by the side of the ground, and then the ground started shaking. Some people fell over and some even injured themselves from the fall.
“I won’t ever forget the sound. The earthquake had a kind of pulse. Even though we were on a football pitch, there were buildings and walls around us, so we all ran for an area where we thought we wouldn’t get hit by anything. It was hard to stand and a lot of people crouched to the ground. People were crying and just in total shock at what had happened.”
When the shaking subsided, Bisesh tried to call home to see if his family were still alive. But he couldn’t get through to them; electricity was down and mobile phone lines were intermittent. After a few hours he managed to hear just a few seconds of his father’s voice before another aftershock came and he had to run to a safe place. He knew from the sound of his voice that his family would be ok. Upon arriving home, Bisesh saw that his house had some partial damage. He and his family, along with most of his neighbours, decided to sleep outside on the field as aftershocks continued to rumble. They continued to do so for a week after the quake and later shifted to a new and safe place.
As quick as ActionAid staff were to contact their families, they began their emergency response within hours. With phone lines down (they had started working but the network was poor), the team still managed to coordinate relief supplies such as food and utensils, tarpaulin and sanitary products. The internet was working, albeit slowly, and the team ploughed on into the night working on everything from requests from international media to deciding the best route for delivering aid - all the while trying to stay safe from the recurring aftershocks and landslides.
"We thought they were dead."
In any emergency response, be it an earthquake, tsunami or conflict, ActionAid has a duty of care to its employees and must account for their survival. ActionAid’s sister organisation The Global Platform
- a training centre for young Nepalese - had recently recruited a number of Danish volunteers to assist in its programme work. On the weekend of the earthquake, the volunteers had taken a trip to an adventure resort in rural Sindahpalchok, set on a high cliff-top gorge, known for its bungee jumping and white water rafting.
On top of juggling their personal family situation and the emergency relief efforts, the ActionAid staff were now desperately searching for the volunteers who had not made contact since the earthquake. One staff member recalled; “We all thought they were dead.”
As phone connectivity returned, the team took regular calls from their traumatised parents and had to assure them that they were doing the best they could to find their children.
The Danish government funded a helicopter search party and, after a whole week, they were miraculously found, some with broken limbs. Despite their ordeal, a few of the non-injured volunteers showed their humanitarian spirit and stayed on in Nepal to assist ActionAid with their response.
The day after the earthquake, ActionAid sent teams out to the rural hills where some of Nepal’s poorest people live. The people in these areas mainly depend on subsistence farming and agriculture to survive. In one such area, 95% of homes were completely destroyed.
People were desperate, standing by the roadside asking for food and assistance, but the sheer scale of the earthquake meant that aid agencies had to work in a systematic and ordered fashion - sometimes driving past those calling out for help. Previous experience has shown that if you single out one person or family to give them preferential treatment, you risk causing distrust within the community and even risk the potential for violence to break out.
The journey to the rural areas was not easy; there were cracks in the road in a few places, and dry landslides were frequent.
Finding inspiration to move forward
Just two months after the earthquake, monsoon season arrived which made distributing aid even more difficult. As the rain poured, the roads turned to mud and the emergency teams would often have to get out of the car and walk to reach the affected communities. Our team were staying in tents, away from their families often for weeks at a time. It was hard to contact people back home, but staff continued to work long hours for many months after the quake, putting aside their emotional and psychological battles to continue to support the people who needed it the most.
It was people they met over the last year that gave them inspiration and the motivation to continue. Like Tok Tomang…
Tok’s only two children were killed in the earthquake and his home destroyed. Instead of falling into a dark depression, working through the tragedy and the trauma Tok led his communities’ reconstruction plan. Working alongside ActionAid, Tok and other committee members decided what relief was needed for the community and how it should be distributed.
Tok supported the building of many temporary shelters and aided community members in making purchases for new livelihood opportunities. The community started up a women’s friendly space, to ensure that the voices of women are heard in the decision making processes. Now Tok and his committee members are planning a new phase of recovery, hoping to build better water infrastructure that is closer to the community.
Another source of inspiration has been a women’s mushroom farming cooperative in Sindapalchok. Ten women came together to use money they had received for livelihood support from ActionAid, to pool in and purchase bamboo, mushroom seeds and equipment to set up their own mushroom farm. The women have been taking it in turns to water and sell the mushrooms in the local town of Malamchi, and have so far been earning more money than ever…
Laxmi, who is part of the cooperative, feels the money she earns from the mushroom farm gives her far more than just the money she earns. The other work Laxmi does, such as rearing the animals and looking after the children, is unpaid and so she now no longer has to ask her husband to buy things and feels this work gives her more freedom. She said;
“Women earning is a very good thing… We always need to ask the men (for money) but these days we don’t need to ask them. Not even a little…
“We have to do the household works from early in the morning until late in the evening. But this kind of work is never noticed. We don’t see the fruit from this hard work. We are busy in the work at home, but if we do this kind of business, we actually get to see some money. So if we help women, women’s status will get uplifted.”
Such inspirational people as Laxmi and Tok have spurred the ActionAid Nepal team to continue through the difficult times, but it hasn’t always been easy. An unofficial trade embargo with India has meant that fuel and cooking gas were in short supply; staff members had difficulty reaching the rural areas and for many months and needed to cook by firewood.
WHat's needed now...
The trade embargo ceased in February 2016, and ActionAid and other aid agencies have been able to get back to speed. However, the same cannot be said for the National Reconstruction Authority – the government body tasked with supporting the reconstruction of permanent homes. Two hundred thousand Nepalese rupees had been promised to survivors to rebuild their homes. But one year after the earthquake, not one family has received the money
. Over 600,000 homes were completely destroyed and most of those people continue to live in temporary shelters.
People like Maiya...
When the earthquake struck, Maiya had been in the fields and rushed back to her village to find that her home, and almost all of the other homes in the village had been completely destroyed.
She lost her main source of livelihood; five of her goats perished when the shed they were kept in collapsed on top of them. Maiya and her family lived for several weeks under a metal sheet, until ActionAid worked with the community to build temporary shelters and gave Maiya and her family new livestock to rear.
In the community led reconstruction programme, it was the communities themselves who decided what kind of support they needed. ActionAid worked with the most vulnerable women, providing them with sources of livelihood and supporting the construction of a temporary school.
Whilst Maiya’s life has improved since the earthquake, she says now it is the water supply and having a permanent home that is her main issue
. The water supplies were damaged in the quake and now the community has to walk for up to three hours a day to fetch water. With monsoon on the way, Maiya is worried that the journey for water will become treacherous and that her temporary shelter will soon pass its shelf life.
ActionAid has supported over 120,000 people since the quake, building temporary shelters and schools as well as ensuring women have sources of livelihood and safe spaces to participate in decision making. Whilst much still needs to be done in Nepal, it is clear that though this work, and that of other organisations, lives have been saved.
The ActionAid staff in Nepal have worked passionately and tirelessly throughout the last year to ensure the communities we work with have been engaged in our emergency response. It is through their hard work and dedication that we have been able to achieve so much. Our staff in Nepal were not only dealing with the emotional and psychological effect of seeing others suffering, but were also suffering themselves. Out of fear of another earthquake, many were sleeping outside for weeks.
We cannot underestimate the dedication and bravery of the ActionAid Nepal team and the communities we work with whilst facing such adversity; whether it be the team who walked for miles though rain and mud carrying relief supplies, the man who led the community reconstruction plan despite having lost his own children, or the Danish volunteers who stayed in Nepal to help others against their families wishes, despite having nearly lost their own lives.
While the earthquake took many thousands of lives, it also brought many people together. When people unite, they can achieve anything.