International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Six months on the road to recovery
Six months after two terrible earthquakes rocked Nepal, disrupting the lives of 5.6 million people, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Nepal Red Cross Society have completed a massive emergency response operation that reached more than 620,000 people. But as winter looms, the situation remains bleak for many survivors.
Emergency help reaches 620,000
In any disaster, local people are the first to respond. The Nepal Red Cross had been preparing for a big earthquake for years, says Secretary General Dev Ratna Dhakhwa.
“In the Nepal earthquake response, the biggest achievement by far has been the speed and the coverage that the Nepal Red Cross had within days of the first event.
“Our volunteers provided emergency services such as search and rescue and first aid, and we distributed pre-positioned relief supplies to thousands of people. At the same time we suffered our own losses. Some of our own buildings were damaged and destroyed. Some of our staff and volunteers and their family members lost their houses and were injured or even killed. Yet we were still able to help 620,000 people.”
International Red Cross and Red Crescent partners from around the world supported the emergency operation with specialist teams including field hospitals fully equipped with operating theatres and surgeons, mass water treatment equipment and mobile clinics.
This was no mean feat in country where many people live in remote mountain hamlets that were cut off from the outside world by the earthquake. During the monsoon which arrived shortly after the earthquake, treacherously narrow and winding roads were prone to frequent landslides. The Red Cross assessed on an hourly basis which routes were safe enough to transport emergency aid.
To add to these challenges, many people left their villages because their houses were damaged by the earthquake or they feared landslides. Relief efforts needed to be sufficiently agile to deliver services to where people were now camped.
Targeted, coordinated emergency relief
The Red Cross worked in coordination with the government and other agencies to identify people and households in most need, regardless of their religious or political affiliations or caste. An extensive programme of evaluations and monitoring helped to identify unmet needs, such as those of marginalised groups including transgender communities or people living with disabilities.
People queue to receive aid. The Red Cross gives shelter materials to older people first.
Focus on recovery
With the emergency response completed, the focus is now on meeting longer term recovery needs in four key sectors – water, sanitation and good hygiene; support to livelihoods; rehabilitating health posts and improving community health; and the rebuilding of permanent homes.
Red Cross recovery programmes are developed with communities. Each sector is inter-linked.
Water for life, health and agriculture
The earthquakes and subsequent landslides disrupted water supply and sanitation for thousands of people, exposing them to significant health risks.
Over the next 18 months, the Red Cross will continue to rehabilitate the physical water and sanitation infrastructure and promoting hygiene with activities like radio shows, community meetings, illustrated flyers and training for school children.
But rebuilding will take years, and the longer people live with poor sanitation, the greater the risk of disease outbreaks.
Supplying water is not only critical for washing, drinking and cooking. Irrigation schemes need to be repaired so people can resume cultivation for their own nutrition and to generate income.
Physical and mental health
The disaster severely damaged the health infrastructure, resulting in the disruption of health services, including medical and surgical consultations, and treatment. This was especially dangerous in a country with high rates of poverty, malnutrition and maternal and child mortality.
Over the next 18 months, the priorities for Red Cross work on health are reconstructing damaged health posts so people in remote areas can access health care, training national health staff to respond to small disasters, and community health, which includes nutrition, immunisation, reproductive health, first aid and psychosocial support.
Even six months after the earthquakes, many people are still stressed, says Pabitra Basnet, a Nepal Red Cross Society volunteer and trainer in first aid and psychosocial support.
“It’s not just fear of aftershocks. People face lots of problems now because of rebuilding, like financial difficulties. Life was better before. Pupils lost many days of school because schools were closed and so life is still stressful.” [link to profile of Pabitra – coming]
Pabitra says psychosocial support helps people accept the reality of their situations and return to normal activities. “I love listening to people and being there for them.”
Earning a sustainable income
The earthquakes also severely disrupted many people’s livelihoods. Most rely on farming, and many lost tools and seed stocks. The need to replace them competes with the need to rebuild houses and prepare for winter. In many cases, people don’t have the money to replace lost productive assets.
The loss of accommodation can compound the effect of the disaster. For example, Nirmal Shrestha lost his home-based computer training business in Kathmandu when the house he rented was destroyed, along with all five of his computers. Finding alternative accommodation and business premises has been a challenge because of a shortage of wheelchair-accessible premises.
Red Cross livelihoods recovery projects include distributions of agricultural tools and seeds, cash grants, and encouraging micro-finance in women’s groups, which the Nepal Red Cross has been supporting for some time.
“When we talk about building back safer houses, it’s only part of a healing process that we need to see happen in Nepal,” says Mike Higginson, the IFRC’s Programme Coordinator in Nepal. “It’s about giving people and communities the right to work again and to feel like they’re back in control. The Red Cross trains builders, masons and ordinary people to build earthquake resistant houses. Obviously it benefits them as they gain marketable skills but it will have broader, sustainable benefits for their communities.”
The country’s task of repairing or rebuilding 900,000 houses is enormous. Negotiating land tenure can be complex; the logistics involved in transporting quality building materials to remote communities is costly; and many of the able-bodied young people needed to help have migrated to the capital or abroad for work – ironically often on building sites. For displaced people, the search for a safe home continues. Shankerman Thami and his neighbours from Boshimpa village in Dolakha don’t want to rebuild where their village once stood. “There is a big rock overhanging the village that might fall any time. We don’t know where we are going to build our homes now.” For now they are camping on forestry property but it’s not a permanent solution.
It’s clear a coordinated approach is needed. The IFRC and the Nepal Red Cross Society, together with the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, lead the Nepal Shelter Cluster, under which 120 partner agencies involved in shelter coordinate and share information.
As winter looms, the most pressing humanitarian concern is how families living at high altitudes will survive. Many have lost their thick-walled homes and are living in temporary shelters that will not protect them against the biting cold. Now the Red Cross is making plans to give cash grants to families so they can buy warm clothes and stock up on food and fuel.