The people here in Nepal had been expecting ‘the big one’ for decades. The last major earthquake was in 1934, and was then the most destructive and deadliest in the country’s history. With records showing that the region experiences a magnitude-8 earthquake approximately every 75 years, this year’s quake was expected, but the majority of people, particularly in remote rural villages where GOAL is now working, were completely unprepared. That said, once it hit, there was a feeling that at least people had survived.
While the expert’s predictions had come true, what caught everyone off guard - and which has had a detrimental impact on the country’s confidence - was the second quake, which there had been no mention of. Now the people don’t know if another earthquake is coming today, tomorrow, or next week. Even six months on you still hear of people refusing to go back indoors out of fear. There are often rumours that another quake is due to happen at such a time and on such a day. People are very paranoid.
Although the physical response continues, a big concern now is the extent of the psychological damage. I know non-Nepalese colleagues who were shaken and have been receiving counselling support over the last few months, so I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like for the Nepalese themselves. These are people who will be here for the rest of their lives and who may have already lost loved ones in the disasters. The population of Nepal is 29 million and over eight million of those were affected in some way by the earthquakes, so the number of people who require some form of psychological treatment is considerable.
"The common consensus in country is that despite the death-toll, the extensive damage and the psychological impact, everyone realises just how fortunate they were. "
The common consensus in country is that despite the death-toll, the extensive damage and the psychological impact, everyone realises just how fortunate they were. If the earthquake had struck at another time and on any other day, the death-toll would have been far, far higher. But because it was Saturday, children weren’t in school. Because it was the only non-working day in Nepal, there was nobody in work. Because it happened just before midday, nobody was asleep in their beds. And finally, because it happened in April, one of the hottest months of the year, almost everyone was outside enjoying the sunshine
More than 600,000 houses were completely destroyed and over 200,000 were damaged. When one considers that approximately 160,000 people were killed by the Haiti earthquake in 2010 when just 250,000 homes were destroyed, it gives you some idea of how fortunate the people of Nepal were.
If the quake had struck at 3am, for instance, when everyone was asleep indoors, or on a school morning, the picture would have been far, far worse. We could be talking about a death-toll similar to Haiti. I remember visiting one of the villages a few days after the quake. Literally everything was flattened, but no-one had died. It was quite remarkable. The kids had been outside playing football and other games; the adults had been tilling the fields. They were so lucky.
The UN says that approximately 8.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance across Nepal. GOAL’s focus has been mainly on shelter. To date, 1,400 emergency shelter kits and 1,900 temporary shelter kits have been distributed to earthquake-affected households. We recently began working in Ramechhap district. Ramechhap was very badly affected by the second earthquake on May 12th. GOAL was one of the first agencies to arrive in both our project areas and we started working straightaway. That the area had been largely ignored to that point was bizarre.
"Many of the survivors are living in makeshift shelters and overcrowded tents, with little or no access to sanitation or clean water, and with scarce food supplies. "
Currently, we are preparing people for the winter months. Many of the survivors are living in makeshift shelters and overcrowded tents, with little or no access to sanitation or clean water, and with scarce food supplies. Large parts of Northern Ramechhap will be under snow during the winter so improving shelter and insulation and providing stoves, blankets and clothes is of utmost importance. Working with local partners, we will provide 700 shelters and winterisation kits to the most vulnerable households in Ramechhap and another 1,200 in Rasuwa, another affected district. We are also working with families to help them ‘build back better’ so the next time a quake hits, their home has a better chance of withstanding the shock.
Nepal is a very poor, under-developed country, in need of assistance irrespective of the recent earthquakes. That its poor people were hit by the most damaging and devastating earthquake in their history just six months ago is bad enough; that they have to live with the psychological impact, and the threat of another major quake hanging over their heads, is simply unfair.
And if things weren’t bad enough, due to political tensions between the Nepali and Indian governments, fuel trucks have been prevented from entering the country from India for the last month or so. This has had a massive impact on the country, not least on relief efforts. We have been able to fly some fuel in but the country as a whole is really suffering, as a landlocked country with the Himalayas to the north, they have always been completely dependent on India for the vast majority of imports, including building materials.
So while there are longer-term issues, for now, we just need to get the affected communities through the winter. That is our immediate and most pressing focus.
By Stephen Jenkinson, Area Manager, GOAL Nepal.