Nepal Earthquake: Hunger in the Hills

Nepal Earthquake: Hunger in the Hills

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Navaraj Gyawali, CARE Regional Director for Asia

Navaraj Gyawali is CARE Regional Director – Asia and originally from Nepal himself. He visited Nepal at the end of April to support the emergency response and accompanied one of CARE’s first helicopter drops of food aid to the remotest village CARE had yet accessed.

As a Nepali I was shocked and saddened when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit my home country, destroying large swathes of the country and killing thousands of people. I was glad to have the opportunity to visit in my home country the following week to see family and friends, but more importantly, to see how best we, as CARE, could help the people affected by this awful disaster.

I was eager to go to Sindhupalchowk, a district which I knew from my work in the 1990s, and with the CARE team who had reached there by foot to explore how best we could support the community.  Although, I had some idea of what to expect, I was completely blown away by what I saw – complete and utter destruction.

We arrived by helicopter which took just 15 minutes from Kathmandu airport, but for those not as lucky as us it is a 6 hour drive from Kathmandu and then a challenging three hour hike to reach the remote village of Bolgaon high in the Nepalese hills where CARE was distributing rice and lentils.

Bolgaon is remote by normal standards, but the earthquake has made it now virtually inaccessible. An advance team had hiked up for three hours from the nearest village accessible by road and had camped out in tents all in preparation for the arrival of our helicopters full of food aid.  With just some GPS coordinates and our Regional Security Manager on ground to flag in the chopper we were able to land on the only piece of available flat land in the village. This turned out to be the cremation site of the 28 villagers killed by the earthquake.

Stepping off the helicopter was a surreal experience - crowds of people gathered around the makeshift landing strip staring at this strange site, a first in Balgaon history. We were the first outsiders they had seen in over a week and this was the first assistance of any kind they were receiving.

I was shocked at what I saw – first from the air and then up close - Buddhist prayer flags poked through the mounds of rubble that was all that was left of the village.

Once the food items were unloaded and the helicopter left to bring back another load of relief items, the members of the village showed me around and told me how they had lost their village members to the earthquake.  They told me that the ground shook so much, that it was difficult to get up and run.  Looking around I could see everything was reduced to rubble and not a single house was standing.  The members of the village wanted to sit and talk with me, so we huddled around for a chat.

In the 25 April earthquake, all 148 houses in Bolgaon village collapsed, some 28 people died and the body of one lady is still unaccounted for. Personal belongings and food stock were buried under the rubble, and the road that connected them with the rest of the country and key services such as health centres and markets was destroyed by landslides.

I was immediately struck by what a resourceful and enterprising people they were. They proudly told me of the loan of six million Nepalese Rupees that had recently obtained to build an access road connecting their village to the road from Melamchi which came up to Buruwa village.

Apart from the main issue of access the people also told me of their need for shelter. They were all sleeping together under a shelter constructed with pieces of flimsy metal sheeting with many others sleeping one hour up in to the hill as they are afraid of the still regular aftershocks.

They were extremely grateful of the food we had just brought, telling me that they had been left with only 2-3 days of food supplies when we arrived. The community has been reduced to sifting, grain by grain, through the recovered rice to remove the dirt and stones in the hope of being able to use at least some of it. All of the stocks of food they had carefully and meticulously built up over the previous months to last them through the upcoming monsoon season had been destroyed.

Most of the inhabitants had been left with only the clothes on their backs. The lucky ones were able to salvage some things from amongst the rubble. Despite all this they remained welcoming, dynamic and inspiringly positive.

As we sat there the sky began to rumble ominously and within minutes hail stones the size of large peas begin beating down on the flimsy communal shelter where the community are storing the rice and lentils given them by CARE. People rushed to dig drainage channels as the water began to seep under the edges of the shelter in order to divert it from the dry bags of food and the other belongings collected there.

This flash storm lasted about 20 minutes and gave a real idea of just how dire things will get for these people in just under a month when the monsoon season begins in earnest. Pathways were turned to rivers of mud and debris in just minutes.

The people of Bolgaon have so far responded to this crisis as a community.  Groups of families are residing together in make shift sheds, and are cooking and eating together.  How soon the community is able rebuild will depend on many things, including the Government’s reconstruction strategy and support communities receive from the District Government and organizations like CARE.  But I have little doubt in my mind that this community will build back sooner rather than later.   So whilst what I saw was truly heartbreaking, I left Bolgaon with hope and a belief that a village with solidarity will come out of this crisis stronger.