Friday, 15 May 2015


Nepal's second earthquake this week on 12th May took many people by surprise. We had not had an aftershock for several days so everyone was starting to relax, thinking the worst was over. 

With emergency funding to support us, I am now involved in assessing the needs of schools is 8 VDCs (Village Development Committees) in the worst hit areas of Lamjung District, mostly to the south and near the border with Gorkha.  I was out in the hills with Anju, a Nepali colleague from Global Action Nepal, visiting all the schools in Bharte, one VDC, to photograph and assess the damage to each one, so that those that were badly damaged and could no longer hold classes should have early relief and lessons could resume.

Cracks to roof supports
During the past two days we had visited five schools, whose damage was not too severe, mostly cracks in walls caused by small shifts in the ground, or surface plaster falling off in large chunks.  However we had seen bigger cracks in some walls and one classroom where the gable wall was looking very unstable, having moved about 4 centimetres outward and a substantial part of it fallen in. I advised the headteacher that the room should not be used.

We were walking up a steep rough track, cut into the hillside on the way to the school.  I did not notice the earth shaking to start with, as I was contemplating what we had seen so far, and concentrating on walking uphill fast to reach the next school. To me it didn't feel that bad - more like another of the milder shocks we have been having regularly since 25th April. (I believe there have been around 100 aftershocks – the latest at 5.5 was this morning whilst I was eating breakfast!) 

A man from a house beside the track came rushing out, telling us about the new earthquake and to be careful.  We then met students in uniform hurrying home from school along the path. They had been sent home because of the quake. When we reached the school five minutes later the students had all gone and the teachers were locking up ready to leave. They all looked shocked and unsure what to do. Many were phoning their families to check their safety.

The surrounding wall for the school had collapsed in places.
One teacher bravely took me quickly to see the damaged in classrooms and library. I took photos and filled in the report form once back outside again and away from the building. I also inspected the toilets, and observed that the girls toilet wall was badly cracked. I took more photographs to add to our report. A second shock made us rush into the open space between the school buildings for safety. I certainly felt that one!

Cracked toilet wall

When we were sure the shaking had stopped, I went back into the girls toilets, to see if this new shock had made things worse. It definitely had! The external wall was badly cracked, an internal wall was badly bowed and the concrete lintel over the toilet doors looked decidedly unstable.

When I spoke to the assistant principal, I told him the toilets were not safe for the girls to use. This will be a big problem as girls will not be prepared to use the boys toilet, so many will not attend school until this is repaired or rebuilt. As the school is high on a ridge, cement for rebuilding will need to be carried there. During our three days in this area we saw several trains of mules loaded with bags of cement, two per mule, making their way uphill.

Everyone from the village was sitting outside afraid to go back into their houses. Many stayed there for much of the afternoon. 
People sheltering by the temple.
We had stayed the night before at the house of a kind female teachers from the secondary school, and had been treated like honoured guests. The house was built on the hillside in the traditional style using stone set with mud as cement. These are the houses which have suffered so much damage in the earthquake as they are not strong. A neighbouring house had collapsed during the first quake, and everyone was busy helping with the rebuilding. I noticed they were now using concrete pillars with iron reinforcement this time, to give the new house strength.

Building a new stronger house

For safety that night we slept in the nearby health post building, along with another family, all of us on the floor.  This new building is a much stronger structure than the traditional stone and mud houses of the village. In the middle of the night came another tremor. Everybody scrambled to get up but luckily the shaking quickly stopped and we returned to bed.

Fortunately, damage to most schools we have seen has not been too severe. However damage to the classrooms walls at one primary school meant that lessons were being taught outside, which will not be an option once the monsoon arrives.  We are hoping to get some emergency funding for this school to provide a ‘Temporary Learning Space’ so students can at least be taught undercover.

The kindness of the people I have met has been a special feature of my travels this week. Everywhere we went we received smiles and greetings. Complete strangers have given us water, tea, snacks, fruit and even a daal bhat meal. Village people have left their work to lead us through the forest paths or villages to the schools we were searching. Thank you to everyone who has helped us at this difficult time in such a friendly way.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Aftermath - a week later.

It is now over a week since the devastating earthquake shook Nepal.  A week experiencing a whole range of emotions; terror, relief, thankfulness, hope, despair, horror, pity and helplessness to name but a few.

Most people will have heard about the earthquake and seen the dramatic photographs of Kathmandu on the world’s media. The devastation in some areas is horrific! Thousands have been killed, with the toll still rising and many more injured in the worst hit areas.  Unknown numbers have been left homeless as their houses have been damaged or destroyed by the powerful shaking.  Some remote communities needing aid have yet to be reached and this is proving difficult due to routes blocked by landslides.  Often there is no vehicle access to these communities, so aid has to be carried in or delivered by helicopter.

Kathmandu is a capital city with more than a million living there.  To put it into perspective many were unhurt and their homes not badly damaged. Sadly many poorer families from the city will be the ones worst affected by this tragedy as they frequently lived in overcrowded houses, often a family in one room. Their homes tended to be in older, less strongly-built houses, and were often the ones that collapsed in the quake.  In some areas the houses were build very close to each other, and many storeys high.  There would have been a domino effect when they collapsed. These poor families badly need aid as they have not the finance or resources to replace what they have lost.

Since the ‘great’ quake, as it is now being called, there have been many aftershocks, even a small one just before 12 o’clock on Saturday, exactly a week since the first. Fortunately most of these aftershocks have been slight and over time they have become weaker and less frequent. However people are still scared and sudden vibrations or loud noises cause people to move quickly, ready to evacuate the building. Nobody wants to be caught inside a collapsing building!

Fortunately, the town of Besisahar where I live, despite being quite close to the epicenter, has not been much damaged and the district has few casualties.  However, in the rural villages nearby, many of the traditionally built houses, constructed of wood, stones, bamboo and mud plaster, have not withstood the shaking well, and are cracked or damaged. Some have had walls break and crumble or lean-to walls collapse. However there is not the blanket destruction of homes that has affected other districts, where reports talk of every house in the village being flattened.

Life in the town is returning to normal. Many of the shops in the main street are open for business and people are going about their daily lives. There is plenty of fresh food on sale, much of it grown locally and brought down to the town in baskets (dokho) carried on the back. Buses are running, shops are taking deliveries, builders are continuing the constructions and women working on the terraced fields. At the Global Action Nepal office all my colleagues were working most days last week to complete the end of month financial reports.

Schools have been officially closed last week, much to the delight of the students. Many have been playing outside, the terrors of last Saturday forgotten.  Shlok, a ten year old boy living near me, normally attends boarding school in Kathmandu. He and his brother were lucky to get on a bus leaving the city on Monday, before the big rush to leave really took off.  They are now enjoying the safety of home, and an unexpected holiday, and will stay until the situation improves in Kathmandu.

A phone call to check on each of the schools and communities that we are working, with on the Sisters for Sisters project, has reassured us that nine schools have sustained little damaged, and hopefully will be open and working next week after the official period of mourning ends.  I look forward to my next visits to these schools. Three schools, our most southerly and nearest to the epicentre, have more damage and will need repairs before their students can attend again.

There is much movement around the country at this time.  Many long distance buses are crowded with people who live or work away from home, and are anxious to return to their families and homes, to see for themselves the effect of the earthquake and do what they can to help.

As VSO volunteers, we have all been offered repatriation to our home countries. Those from the worst affected areas have been encouraged to go, if there was no further useful work they could accomplish. I feel quite safe in Besisahar, with clean water, sanitation, food and electricity not being affected, so have decided to remain and continue the work I am doing.   I have offered to be involved in any quake related initiatives, should that be appropriate, and I know VSO Nepal staff are working to make plans for this at present.

Now the country needs to get back to some semblance of normality as soon as is possible. In the meantime, a sincere “Thank you” to everyone who has donated money, either for rescue, relief or rebuilding.  Your donations are very much needed to help this very poor nation at this time.  Thank You.