Sunday, 21 February 2016

Life in Kathmandu + Visit to the Earthquake Epicentre 'Barpak' + IDP Camps in Dhading

Nepal Red Cross Visit

Two weeks ago I had a meeting with Nepal Red Cross in Kathmandu. It was not very far from our office, so I cycled there. The complex is enormous, with one main building in the front and quite a few additional buildings in the back plus a massive Red Cross car fleet. I was brought to an office on the 3rd floor and I learnt that Nepal Red Cross is the District Support Lead Agency for 20 districts in Nepal. 
Map from Nepal Red Cross with all locations they are working at

In total Nepal has 75, so that is a huge number. However only one is the 14 most affected areas from the earthquake, which is Rasuwa. A second person joined 20 minutes later and it felt like I was back in IBM doing a Sales call I have to say ;) It seems like I haven’t forgotten the skills I gained, so in the end after listening carefully, emphasizing and asking the right questions at the appropriate time, I got the agreement I wanted. Good meeting after all :)

The earth was shacking on Friday,  5th February

 I actually just came home around 10pm and was on the 2nd floor in my room, when I heard some ‘loud beeping’ going off in the house. I first thought “oh no, the power backup is empty and now we have no Internet”! But it took only another second when I realized that this was the Earthquake Alarm in our house, which had gone off, and the earth started to move. The first thought I had “I have to stand underneath the door frame”, so that’s what I did. It took only a few seconds, and then it stopped. I was not sure if I was allowed to move, but I did go quickly to my bed, grabbed my mobile and went back under the doorframe and stood there for another minute. All was quiet and I decided to go downstairs and outside of the house, where I met with other VSO volunteers and neighbours. It was an awkward feeling, however I was only asking myself how frightened the Nepali people and foreigners must have felt who were actually here during the major April earthquake last year. A lot of people spend a few hours outside their houses until they felt comfortable to go back in.

Visiting Phu’s House

Making 'Kapsi'
 Saturday, two weeks ago I made my way across the city with my bicycle to meet Phu. We met in Chabahil at the Stupa and from there I cycled another 2km, Phu took the bus. At the cross road we met again and walked over to Phu’s House. Phu became a friend of mine when I was in Nepal in 2012. I met him during my first trek in the Annapurna Region. His house is beautiful in a nice and quiet area a little bit outside of the hassle and bustle of Kathmandu. His entire family was so welcoming. I learnt, that Sherpa’s like the Vietnamese celebrate the New Year at the same time. This year it falls Beginning of February. However, Hindu New Year will be celebrated in April in Nepal. Therefore the family prepared already a lot of food. 15kg of dough had been prepared and rolled out to make a food called ‘Kapsi’. So I joined the family in the kitchen and helped with making ‘Kapsi’s’. 

Frying Kapsi's

We had Dhal Bhat for lunch and before the sun went down I made my way back to the South of the city. I took a new route with my bicycle and at times I had no idea where I was ;) However, the back roads I took where much nicer to cycle on then the main roads. It didn’t take too long when I was in a familiar area again and I was home before sun set.

UN OCHA Contingency Planning 

UN Kathmandu
OCHA prensentation
The Secretariat was invited to take part in a UN OCHA Contingency Planning Workshop, so I cycled to the UN House in Kathmandu. It felt funny to be back in the UN compound after my internship in Bangkok. The security guards were smiling at me as I arrived with my bicycle, me a Westerner. I did find that amusing, they only wanted to see my VSO ID and then they did let me pass and I parked my bicycle in the UN compound. The meeting was about a study from the University of Durham, which had mad a prediction about a massive follow on earthquake in Nepal, which could possibly happen in the future. It was an
interesting prediction, however slightly frightened as well. UN OCHA from Bangkok then guided the workshop and we were asked to think about the emergency response structure especially in Nepal, where each agency would fit in alongside with the government and all the other actors. It was interesting! 

However, I as a Sustainable Development Practitioner was asking myself, if we should not instead put all our resources and efforts into making the local communities more resilient, invest in earthquake proven housing upgrades instead of planning how the construct of response should look like after another earthquake. Maybe this does come from deep insight, as I deeply believe in Sustainable Development and working with the local communities to enable them to be better prepared.

A week of sickness
Since almost one week my stomach was causing problems unfortunately. Not really sure at all where it came from, but on Tuesday I was so weak, that I had to stay home from work. Anybody, who knows me well, can imagine how miserable I must have felt. The toilet was my best friend and at times I felt like I would have to wear nappies. It improved slightly on Wednesday and I went back to work. Unfortunately on Thursday I was back to Diarrhea and stomach craps. Slight improvement on Friday after eating banana’s all day. I felt very weak, so I decided to rest as much as I can. It does proof itself a little bit challenging while sharing with 4 other people. One evening they ordered delicious Pizza in and watched a movie, so you could hear every single word on the top floor, where I was staying and the delicious smell in the house is not helping, when you are not able to eat one bite. No fun to be honest! I have to be fit by Tuesday, as we have planned our first field visits and I am so excited!

Magic tablets from the NIC (Nepal International Clinic)

My stomach didn’t turn out to be better over last weekend, so I decided to go to the NIC, where VSO is having an arrangement with for the health of all VSO volunteers. I met the doctor and described my symptoms and what had happened over the last 7 days. She took a blood sample and said it sounds very much like if I would have caught some parasites. She gave me 4 ‘magic’ tablets and I waited for my blood sample. All results were good and she said I was not dehydrated and I will feel much better after I would take these 4 tables before I go to bed. She also warned me that I could have a metallic taste afterwards for 24hours. I followed the advise of the doctor and on Tuesday lunchtime I was able to have my first real meal again! I was so happy and I finally gained some energy again :) All good!

First Field visits are planned
I have planned the first field visit and we are off to Gorkha District on Tuesday for 2 nights and then we stop in Dhading for one night. It is our first initial visit since the Secretariat is established and I am curious to find out how the situation is in the districts, what does work well and what they might need help and support with. One Information Manager, which we hired, has started this week, so our team is growing :)

Apartment Hunting
I really enjoy looking at apartments anywhere on this globe, however I have to say this time it turned into a little ‘nightmare’ with quite a lot of frustrations. Nevertheless, I have decided to start from scratch and let’s see how this goes ;)

Field visit to Gorkha

Gorkha town with a cow in the middle of the road ;)

District Goverment Office

We started off on Tuesday morning from the VSO Office with a team of 4 from our Secretariat. A Minibus was hired including a driver and he brought us safe down to Gorkha, which was a good 4.5-hour journey West of Kathmandu. The District Support Lead Agency ‘CARE Nepal’ was so kind to pick us up at our guesthouse and we made our way to meet the Chief District Officer (CDO) of Gorkha. It was a quick courtesy visit, but very important that the CDO made time to see us. 

Madhav - CARE Nepal in Gorkha

Afterwards we visited the CARE Nepal office in Gorkha and had a good meeting with Madhav. He showed us his district map, explained the VDC (Village Development Committee’s) structure and showed us the location of ‘Barpack’ - the epicentre of the April 2015 earthquake. 
It was in a very remote area and he invited us to go with him the next day to see it. I got very excited, but also a bit frightened, as I did not really know what to expect. 

Madhav drawing the structure of Gorkha District 

We also met with some of the INGO’s and NGO’s to discuss good practices, what works well, however also what challenges they are facing and where we might be able to support. Madhav drew a structure from all actors in Gorkha district, which was really helpful for us. Thank you!

The structure is done!

Before it got dark we had a quick stroll around town to see where we could have dinner. We found one cute little restaurant a little bit further up the hill and decided that we would like to go there as a team this evening. The owners were very nice and we had lovely food. So the next day Shanti and I would go with CARE Nepal in their vehicle to the epicentre and Jessica would go back to Kathmandu.

Visit to the epicentre “Barpak” of the Nepali 2015 Earthquake (25th April)

I had mixed feeling when I woke up that morning - Excitement, about getting the opportunity to visit the epicenter. However, I also wasn’t sure what to expect really and how bad the impressions would be and what we would see. The 5-hour road trip from Gorkha was horrendous to say the least. It reminded me of my bus ride almost 4 years ago when I started my trek in Langtang. The roads were only paved for the first 30-45 min, and then we drove on sandy, dusty roads, a lot filled with gravel and deep holes everywhere. Shanti and I jumped up and down in the back of the Jeep, sometimes my head would touch the roof or my elbow would touch the door. I first tried the seat belt, but soon decided that this was no use at all, it strangled me more than it helped. It felt like all our organs were reorganized in our body and the roads got worse after we had stopped for an early lunch. 

We had also passed a hydropower construction site where they are about to complete a 4km tunnel system. This was impressive, taking into consideration the geographical area and accessibly. 

Tunnel for the Hydropower Construction

Lunch break in the village
In the small village, where we had lunch we saw some tents from Oxfam and there was also a birthing center set up by the International Medical Corps after the earthquake. All was still in use and the birthing center and women friendly place were very clean.

Women's friendly space
Women's friendly space - inside
Local birthing center
We crossed rivers with no bridges and drove up for another 1.5 hours, steep dirt roads with even more and deeper holes in them. Sometimes I thought I should get out of the car and just go on a trek. It would be more enjoyable to walk up, but we didn’t have enough time for that. 
Landscape we drove through 
River Crossing without any bridge!
We finally reached the first few settlements, mostly temporarily shelters as houses were all destroyed and people lived mostly in tents. 

Reaching the first temporary shelters
People are still living in tents after 10 months!
Then we reached the village and epicenter ‘Barpak’. You could see a lot of blue iron sheets everywhere, which were used for temporary housing and must have been distributed after the earthquake. 
Village 'Barpack' - Epiccentre of the April 2015 Earthquake

Shanti and I got out of the Jeep and went on a stroll around the village. Some houses were still intact, but mostly with big cracks or some were unsafe to live in. Then we got closer to the area where it must have hit hardest. We walked through lanes with lots of rubble on either sides, fallen in houses, areas where only parts of houses were left and abandoned. We met an older woman when we stopped at a house, which had been fallen in and the wooden staircase was still visible. 

Fallen in house with the wooden staircase still visible on the right side

She told Shanti, that her mother and son were still buried underneath the rubble and if we would know of any diggers, which would come up here, so they could get their bodies out. I had tried to not expect anything from this visit to the epicenter. However, if a woman stands in front of you and you hear these heartbreaking stories you know how fortunate you are in life. The only thing I could think of was that no digger would ever come up here in any foreseeable future and I wondered how this woman would survive every day looking onto her house, which was completely destroyed, knowing that two of her loved one’s are buried underneath.

Rubble everywhere...!
Only one wall standing ...!

A local man digging a massive hole by hand for his new house!

Rubble everywhere from collapsed houses!
We walked a little further up in the town and everywhere you could hear hammering and building works going on. Spring had arrived and people were clearly eager to start rebuilding their houses or to create a completely new one from scratch. The government still hasn’t released any grant to the earthquake-affected households, as evaluations are still ongoing. This is almost 10 months now after the earthquake had hit. I did understand the local people. They used anything they could find from their old houses or houses in the neighbourhood which were destroyed as they didn’t have any new building materials. 

Barpack Town
Even getting up local materials to this remote area would be a challenge. The big concern I have is, that people built back their houses, but they are not earthquake proven. I don’t judge the people as they might not know how to build back safer and they might not have the resources and materials to do so. They clearly want to provide a proper roof for their families before the monsoon season will start in June! 
Will these households be eligible to receive the government grant later on when it will be releases? Nobody knows yet and I wonder how this situation can be dealt with, so local people in remote areas with restricted resources don’t have to take the burden.

It was an unforgettable experience and I am more than grateful that I got the opportunity to visit these local communities in the epicentre.

Road on the way back
 A lot of dirt roads with lots of sand and stones in the way

Field visit to Dhading

Thursday morning we made our way towards another district called ‘Dhading’. This time it was only a 2.5-hour drive until we reached the district office. We met up with Babu Ram from ACTED, the District Support Lead Agency to see the Chief District Officer (CDO). The government offices are in a nice part of town and all next to each other. We had a good conversation with the CDO and understood that he is only in the job since 2 months. He was working as a Minister of Labour beforehand. He was a very down to earth man and I did like him. He was interested where I was from and when he heard that I was German, he shared with us that his daughter studies medicine in Germany. After that short official visit, we had lunch and were able to meet with the Local Development Officer (LDO) shortly after that. He was a very busy man; therefore we only had a few minutes to meet with him. However, he did invite us back to see him again for a longer meeting another time as he seemed to be interested to work with us.  The Government Officials in Dhading seem to be very welcoming. 

ACTED Office Dhading
Dhading District Map
We went to the ACTED Office in Dhading, where we had a good, constructive meeting with the different agencies. It seems like Dhading is facing a few challenges and might need some support from our Secretariat. 

Babu Ram drawing the structure of actors in Dhading
Babu Ram with the complete structure in Dhading District

Meeting with INGO's in Dhading

In the evening we met up with the 4 VSO volunteers based in Dhading. They invited us over into their house and it was lovely to catch up with them and to go for some Dhal Bhat (rice and lentils) for dinner in our hotel. 

ACTED had suggested to visit two different IDP camps on Friday morning, close to Dhading town up the hill and we also planned to visit the two VSO projects in education and health.

IDP Camps (Internally Displaced People) in Dhading

IDP camp Damgade in Dhading
Another day, where I decided not to expect anything! I just wanted to see what impressions I can and will take in from our field visit to two local IDP camps, one in Damgade and another one in Dansarpakha. Both were Tamang communities, which came from the VDC’s of Lapa, Ri and Jharlang, which are all mountainous areas and all were highly affected by the earthquake. It became clear that a lot of woman and children were in the camps when we visited. We understood after chatting to some of the people, that some younger men were working abroad, others found a few hours of work. We learnt that the IOM (International Organisation of Migration) had arranged that men and women could work every other week at some building sites in Dhading town to earn a living. Other households had their own income by making baskets out of local materials. Households told us that most of the older generations stayed in the remote areas, where the earthquake had hit hardest, but they decided to move closer to Dhading town. 

Nepali Tamang family in the Damgade IDP camp
Large community hall in the camp - clean and nice place! 
Inside one of the tents
IDP Camp from above
Cooking lunch in the IDP camp
Sponsored Solar lamps from UNHCR

In one camp there were exceptionally lots of children under 5. Toilets were very rare, 400 IDP’s had to share 6-8 toilets and they were not in a good state at all. In addition, there were no washing facilities at all and people told us they are going to the nearest river to have a bath. I was wondering and questioning at the same time why there were not any washing facilities with a little bit of privacy for women especially so a standard of hygiene could be kept. 

Toilets in the camp - not separated by men & women
Water purification tank, where the water is pumped up from the river

I understood that the government had rented the land where the bigger IDP camp was on it and there were discussions going on, if the IDP’s could stay or if they could/should move back in there VDC (Village Development Committee’s).  Some IDP’s wanted to stay closer to Dhading and were waiting if they could get some land from the government. Others told us that the mountainous area where they were from originally is still too dangerous to go back to as landslides are still going down and some of their houses are buried by landslides and therefore they would have to live in tents up there as well. I was wondering if some younger families and households might see this as a chance to settle somewhere closer to the city of Dhading to maybe have an easier way of life and a better opportunity to earn a living. The thought of Gender Based Violence also crossed my mind and I was wondering if these IDP camps are safe especially for women and young girls. We got no answer on this during our visit. I understood that some statistics which were taken after the earthquake had happened are not accurate as apparently some households had registered twice or had split in two households, after the earthquake happened, as the older generation stayed in the village and the younger generation moved closer to the city as IDP’s. Therefore it is hard to get an accurate picture, which household/family is entitled to a relief grant from the government to rebuild their home.

IDP camp Dansarpakha - Dhading

After the mixed impressions from the two IDP camp visits we drove to the District Hospital in Dhading to meet up with Georgina, a VSO volunteer who was so kind to show us around in the hospital.
District Hospital in Dhading
I learnt that no operations are taking place in this hospital and they have in total 6 doctors and 3 nurses employed, the rest are volunteers. The hospital was very small and when we entered into the main part, I felt that the floor was very dirty. However, it was spacious, but with no privacy and the male and female wards were just separated by a wall with no doors. 

Male Hospital Ward

We were also very fortunate to see the birthing center, which contained 4 beds, a separate room with an incubator and an actual room where the women can give birth. There were 3 newborn babies there at the time and the women can stay there for 24 hours until they get released. 

Birthing Center Dhading

There is also a post-natal tent in the backyard, where women can stay for up to 1 month with their babies if they chose so.

Post-natal tent
From there we made our way to ‘Aasaman’, the local Education partner organisation, where two VSO volunteers are working. We met up with Eunice and Lysbet and it was lovely to see their working environment.
Aasaman Dhading

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