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Relief, rehab, recovery

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Last week, as vice president of Crisis Recovery International (CRI) and an associate of Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN), I visited the site of the Sindhupalchok landslide, to assess the situation and identify possible interventions that CRI could undertake in collaboration with the local authorities and local community groups for the recovery phase. We often help people start to try to re-build their lives and livelihoods by providing chicken or goats to women’ groups, for example.

We met the CDO and the LDO of Sindulapchok, the Armed Police and others  involved in the relief work. We walked up to the point across the river, from where the full enormity of the landslide could be seen, and talked to local people about what had happened, what was the impact and what in their could and should be done for the survivors who had lost their homes, their fields and their livelihoods.

It was in the very early hours of the morning of Saturday, 2 August that a huge landslide tore the hillside away, destroying around 100 houses in its path, burying some buildings and damaging others, killing up to 200 people and displacing many hundred. A number of villages (Mangkha, Ramche, Tekanpur and Jure) were affected both directly by the landslide itself and by the blocking of the river, the road side market and secondary school at Ban Sanghu on the west bank were buried.

Bhote Koshi timebombThe landslide also blocked the river entirely, creating an artificial lake and inundating more houses, it destroyed or submerged the Arniko Highway and other routes upstream, damaged the Sunkosi hydropower dam, and transmission line. We talked to a local restaurant manager who said simply: “For 16 hours, the river just stopped flowing.”

The immediate concern was to deal with the danger from the huge artificial lake that had been formed by the river blockage and to assess the number of those who had been killed, the number of survivors and the damage done to property. The response in this regard was rapid and commendable, the Nepal Army addressed the dangers posed by the blockage of the river, all 56 sluice gates of the Sapta Kosi barrage on the Indian border were opened, and controlled explosions were used to open up the flow. Each household that had lost a family member was allocated Rs 40,000, and a few were given Rs 5,000 in relief. Some casualties were helicoptered to Kathmandu.

The CDO, LDO and the District Disaster Management Committee were involved at an early stage, as were the Armed Police (some 700 men) and a ‘base camp’ for the provision of relief (food and other supplies) was established within a relatively a short time at an old factory site less than a km down river from the site of the disaster. There was a limited effort to drop supplies to some villages by helicopter, but by and large relief was either carried the long way around the blockage to villages affected upstream or villagers. By the time we arrived, the relief operation was in full swing, with hangars well stocked with supplies.

Sunkoshi landslide dam area

Donations from charitable organisations, private companies and banks, and other sources in Nepal were beginning to arrive, as well as some assistance from non-Nepali institutions. But, as the CDO bitterly commented, much of this was if not “too little” then certainly “too late” for many. It was now three weeks since the landslide occurred. Many local people had been without food and water for days and remained without shelter even now. It was depressing to return to Kathmandu after a long and emotionally exhausting day to see that the UN representative had just offered his condolences — three weeks after the event. He suggested in effect that the relief effort had gone well, that all was under control and that ‘some newspapers and social media have reported numbers (of those affected) that are grossly overestimated’.

In fact, the relief effort was not slow to get going, but the problem was then getting to the people who needed it. Reports from the site through the first week indicated that many of those whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed and were now without either had not received any significant help. A week after the landslide, as we heard, many displaced villagers were still without relief or shelter. A representative from the National Human Rights Commission, who visited the area emphasised that the government must ensure their basic rights, including shelter, health, education and transport. The assistant CDO said that the local authorities would convey his concerns to higher ups and emphasised that ‘our priority is to provide immediate relief and rescue those facing threat of more landslides’.

Victims of bhote koshiIt is easy to be critical in such circumstances, where people’s lives have been so disastrously affected and are unable to receive the help they so badly need within a matter of days. But international experts accept that it may well be 72 hours in most disasters before anything can be expected by those directly affected, even when the relief effort moves fast and there is a real capacity to reach the people in need. This is why disaster preparedness at the lowest level – that of the household and the tol or hamlet – is so crucial. Self-reliance is the only guarantee of basic relief, and even that cannot help those buried under the water or the landslide or collapsed buildings. Local risk analysis by the District Disaster Risk Management Committee and the use of early warning systems also need to be strengthened.

Recovery is still a very long way away for those affected and, indeed, for many may never really take place. But we have some local contacts now and will pursue opportunities to help people earn an income to maintain themselves if we can.

David Seddon is the author of Nepal in Crisis: Growth and Stagnation in the Periphery and is also vice president of Crisis Recovery International.

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