The past year has been unbelievably tough for Nepal. A devastating earthquake on the 25 April 2015 killed nearly 9,000 people, injured 22,000 more and destroyed or damaged in excess of 750,000 homes.
Political disputes over a new constitution sparked protests in the country’s lowland regions – the Terai – and a subsequent border blockade. This resulted in a five-month fuel crisis, severely affecting the delivery of badly-needed shelter and winter materials at the coldest time of year.
Earthquake and monsoon induced landslides cut off access to vulnerable communities for months at a time, leaving many to brave the winter snows in makeshift shelters. Ongoing aftershocks, with some at significant magnitudes, bring constant reminders of the tragedy that struck the country a year ago.
Reconstruction has barely started and millions of people are still living in temporary or unsafe accommodation. A new report by Oxfam finds that thousands of women and landless people risk being excluded from government rebuilding schemes, which require documentation to claim support.
In the aftermath of such devastation and delays, it’s easy to expect Nepali people to be downcast and ascribe to a victim mentality. However if you had visited Nepal in this last year, like I have, you may have been surprised by what you saw. Not disaster and defeat, but defiance and strength; Nepali people are extremely resilient and I found their drive to rebuild their lives after the earthquake incredibly inspiring.
When I visited Oxfam’s earthquake response, six months after the initial earthquake, the organisation had started to move away from providing emergency relief and focus instead on rebuilding homes and livelihoods. At this stage, it was supporting people to rebuild damaged or destroyed toilets, water pipes and water supply systems.
Prior to the earthquake, Nepal had been working towards a policy of ‘one house, one latrine’ whereby every household in Nepal should have a safe, private and hygienic place to use the toilet. The earthquake meant that many household toilets were destroyed or significantly damaged. Families had to resort to going outside, putting their health and that of their neighbours at risk. Oxfam’s provided additional support for families that could not rebuild their own toilet through age, income or disability.
During my visit, I met Sanko Tamang who confided to me that he had never been able to afford a toilet. Instead, he and his family used a stream a short walk away from their home. He told me he felt ashamed and was always scared that someone would see him, or that he may be bitten by snakes that hide under the leaves he used to clean himself. Despite having had a leg amputated, he insisted on contributing stones and sand to mix the cement used to build his toilet. Undeterred by his own disability or the rough terrain, he worked with local masons to complete the work. When it was
finished, including a handrail which would help him to use it, Sanko told me it had changed his life. The total cost of the latrine was £40 including transport, materials and labour – a small price for offering dignity and pride to Sanko and his family.
This is just one of many examples of Nepali people’s ability to withstand shocks, and their capacity to build their lives back. The most effective humanitarian responses recognise that those affected by disasters are not helpless victims, but have the agency and ability to lead their own change.
Oxfam’s staff in Nepal, most of whom are Nepali and have been personally affected by the disaster, work tirelessly with communities to facilitate this process. They too show great resilience and dedication. Teams frequently have to walk for several hours to reach isolated communities. They often visit every family in an area – sometimes as many as 500 households spread over mountainous terrain – to hear their stories and learn about their needs. During the monsoon, they would walk and camp in the rain, waking up to feet covered in leeches, simply to do their jobs. Their motivation
and positivity despite physical, political and personal obstacles is inspiring.
At the first anniversary of the earthquake, it is right to question what is holding back reconstruction, but we should also celebrate the resilience of Nepali people. The effects of the earthquake will be felt for some time to come and while people will still need support to rebuild their lives, our focus one year on should be on the power and capacity of Nepali people to rebuild despite all the challenges.