26 June - 2 July 2015 #764

Mission far from accomplished

The first emergency may be over, but the work of rehabilitating lives is only beginning.
Richard Ragan
Discovering Maurice Herzog’s book Annapurna as a boy growing up in the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta, I dreamt of the Himalaya.  My heroes were the mountaineers. Much later, I had the privilege to work as the World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director to Nepal when I, also, had the opportunity to explore Nepal’s  mountains and experience the sublime beauty of this unique country.

Three days after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that ripped through Nepal on 25 April, I was back there leading WFP’s massive response to the disaster. It is a big challenge. In the breathtaking Langtang Valley, the quake had triggered an avalanche that buried an entire village under thick layers of ice and rock.

Photo: Kunda Dixit

Life in Nepal’s mountains and plains have always been difficult. But now, hundreds of thousands of family homes are shattered, their food stocks wiped out, their cows, goats and poultry killed, while precious seeds for the current planting season are caked in mud. Had the earthquake struck at night rather than at noon on a holiday, the death toll would have been much higher.

Alongside many other organisations, big and small, Nepali and international, we at WFP have been bringing life-saving food to almost two million people, using roads where possible, porters where necessary, and by flying heavy-lift helicopters where no other option exists.

Nepal’s splendour is also its curse: home to eight of the 14 highest peaks in the world, with affected communities nested in isolated valleys or perched precariously on steep cliffs, the logistical challenges may be the worst I have encountered in my long humanitarian career.

The mountains also brought us exceptional allies. My childhood hero, Yuichiro Miura, the first person ever to ski down Mount Everest and at the age of 80 and the oldest person to reach its summit, is now leading efforts to raise funds for Nepal in his native Japan.

Five of the brave Nepali women of the Seven Summits Women’s Team are among my colleagues at WFP.  One of them is Nimdoma Sherpa, born in Rolwaling, who as a child had received school meals from WFP and became, at 16, the youngest person to climb Mt Everest. Her parents’ house was destroyed, and she is now part of the team making sure that food reaches the most remote places.

Other renowned mountaineers and a group of paragliders, who had been in the country exploring the Himalayas, spontaneously joined WFP’s relief efforts, bringing their intimate knowledge of a dangerous terrain. Pilots flying food, medicine and construction materials on WFP helicopters include Madan KC who rescued two climbers on Mt Everest in 1996 -- the highest-ever helicopter landing at the time.

Our mission is far from accomplished. Flying over the worst-affected areas recently, I spotted six plumes of dust rising from the ground in just one hour. Landslides have always plagued Nepal but with the earth unsettled by the earthquake and aftershocks, they are more frequent. The monsoon upon us, and more villages are at risk of being cut off or hit by slides. Much agricultural land has been lost, and almost 70 per cent of households in the mountain areas face poor or borderline food consumption.

The first emergency may be over, but the work is only beginning. Shelters must be rebuilt, livelihoods must be restored, and crops must be planted and harvested. Otherwise, what is now a difficult food situation will get worse. On 25 June, exactly two months since the first earthquake, high-level representatives of donor countries meet in Kathmandu at the invitation of the Government of Nepal. It’s important that donors continue their generous effort beyond the relief phase, allowing the millions of survivors to recover and rebuild their lives.

We at WFP have already started distributing cash to thousands of families with access to markets, helping them restart agricultural activities and build temporary shelters, while revitalising the local economy. Many more will benefit from this program in the coming months. We have hired thousands of porters, who had lost their jobs because of the abrupt end of the trekking season, to bring food to the most inaccessible villages. As they climb, they restore vital economic trails that had been blocked by landslides. Our logistics services are also being used by the wider humanitarian community to reach communities in need.

As I reflect on the last two months of emergency relief efforts, and look towards this next phase of recovery, I know that WFP will work tirelessly with the government and people of Nepal to help rebuild this magnificent country.

Richard Ragan is Emergency Coordinator for the World Food Programme in Nepal.

Read also:

Rebuilding ourselves, Editorial

Subcontracting kindness, Emily Troutman

Operation Mountain Express, Kunda Dixit

It's all logistics, Kunda Dixit

WFP starts high-altitude operation

Back to the earth after the quake, Sonia Awale

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