Nepal Earthquake: “People are not helpless; let’s learn to listen”

Nepal Earthquake: “People are not helpless; let’s learn to listen”

Publication info

Lex Kassenberg

After one month, CARE and the other humanitarian actors working on the earthquake response have managed to do a lot, despite the huge logistical challenges. We have reached over 23,000 people with initial life-saving aid across four of the worst affected districts. However, there remains much, much more to do. There are still some very remote locations that have yet to be reached with aid supplies. The monsoon season is fast approaching adding extra and immediate time pressures to get aid quickly to people before the already bad roads become even worse. On top of this, people are still living in fear of another earthquake and continuing aftershocks. Even in Kathmandu people continue to spend their nights sleeping outside in makeshift shelters rather than go back inside their homes.

In Nepal it is the remote, rural and mountainous locations that dictate a lot of our logistics and planning. Here we have a team of 15 staff working just on logistics and procurement; buying, transporting and distributing relief items. CARE has worked with other organisations and donors to use helicopters and 4x4 trucks to reach some of the most cut-off communities. We have sent teams on foot to scout areas, camping - sometimes for days - on the remains of people’s destroyed homes in order to make sure supplies reach them.

One thing I have learnt from my work in previous emergencies, and something that I think CARE is very good at, is the importance of working with communities and local partner organizations to make sure we listen to what they have to say. Those that have been affected are often the ones who best know their own needs and the most culturally and geographically appropriate response. It is then up to us to tailor our response around this. Throughout my career of close to 35 years this is the most important lesson I have learnt; that most of the time people know very well what they need, and the key is being able to listen to, and tap into, this. 

I have seen this particularly after the Nepal earthquake. People are not helpless; within the first few days and weeks they were already salvaging what they could from the wreckage in order to start rebuilding. I met families who had sifted through the rubble of their former homes and carefully laid out all the salvageable material in neat piles ready for reconstruction. They were very specific in telling me what they needed, even down to the type and quantity of nails they required to rebuild. 

It is one of CARE’s strengths that it makes sure to tap into and use community resources wherever possible. For example, we have suggestion and complaints boxes at every distribution site to make sure we get people’s feedback and evaluate ongoing needs. Our staff go through these comments every evening and feed them back into nightly operational meetings.

Luckily for us, we have also been working in Nepal for over 35 years, with a strong presence in 47 of the country’s 75 districts. This has helped not only in allowing us to quickly respond, but also in our relations with local communities. We have networks we can tap into, groups we already work with and very good relations with local people in many of these communities. 

The earthquake response does not stop with the provision of relief items and emergency shelter. The road to recovery and rehabilitation is a long one, with many different stages. People have already begun pulling down damaged houses and we need to make sure this is done safely. The next step is helping to build destroyed homes back safer and stronger in case of any future earthquakes. 

Many people’s livelihoods have also been destroyed along with their homes by the earthquakes. Humanitarian actors such as CARE will need to work with them going forward to find the best ways to regain these, whether it be with direct, targeted assistance or cash voucher systems to empower them to get back on their feet. One month on the needs are still great and the road ahead to recovery remains long. We must not become complacent about Nepal now that the initial emergency is calming down. The recovery and rebuilding of an entire nation is critical to ensure Nepal grows back stronger and more resilient.