This article was originally published in the Oxford Public Health Journal August 2016 edition by our colleagues over at emBOLDen Alliances. If you are interested in learning more about using local networks in humanitarian disasters please join us for two courses taught by emBOLDen Alliances in our Sustainable Community Development Certificate with a specialization in Humanitarian Assistance.
On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter in the Gorkha District of Nepal caused severe destruction in 14 of the country’s 75 districts. Two weeks later, on 12 May, another quake of 7.3 magnitude hit with a more eastern epicenter, and worsened the humanitarian situation. According to the United Nations Dispatch, the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks affected approximately 5.6 million people, killed 8,891 people and displaced approximately 2.8 million.
Within days of the earthquake, relief flooded into the country and an estimated 100 international search and rescue and medical teams immediately dispatched to provide emergency relief and to help prepare for recovery. As the earthquakes affected predominantly remote mountain villages, rescue and humanitarian operations took place in extremely challenging terrain. Local knowledge and networks were critical in minimizing further death and damage and maximizing delivery of life-saving resources.
This is the story of several exemplary Nepalese who acted immediately to help their fellow citizens. Their response assisted countless individuals and invaluably directed international aid efforts.
The day of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal, Ang Tshering Lama, owner of Ang’s Himalayan Adventures, was about to launch off on a river trip on the Trisuli River about three and a half hours from Kathmandu, when everything around him began to shake, rocks started to fall from the cliffs above, and brown clouds of dirt filled the air. The earthquake continued for a seemingly long time with continuous aftershocks. He immediately packed up his crew and clients and rushed back to Kathmandu. On the drive back, Ang and his rafting crew had to clear through landslides as the massive destruction caused by the earthquake became clearer. “It was dark at night, there was no electricity, it was just with the lights of the car, but I could see [the destruction].”
Recovery in Kathmandu
Ang arrived in Kathmandu at 1:30AM, and after ensuring that his mother, who had been alone in his apartment, was okay, he quickly realized that although none of his neighbors were hurt, no one had eaten. Ang had been expecting a big earthquake to come at some point and had kept a store of emergency food. He fed 15-25 people that night with Wai Wai (Nepalese noodles) that he cooked on his camping stove. As a mountaineering guide, he had extra tents and parachutes to use as shelter for those who had lost their homes or were too frightened to sleep inside due to the many aftershocks. He felt scared at times, but he tried to stay calm. “ I couldn’t stand seeing the plight, I knew I needed to help.”
To the Mountains
In the days after the earthquake, money for relief efforts began trickling in to Ang. Previous clients and Nepali friends living abroad started to send money to him and said: “Go. Your people need your help.” Then more and more people started sending money, and in Ang’s words, “then, we went big.”
Sherap Sherpa, owner of Wild Tracks, also knew that he had to get to the mountains to help his fellow villagers. Sherap lives in Kathmandu, but he is from a small village of 26 households 148km north from Kathmandu, near the Tibetan border. He tried calling his family for five days after the earthquake. When he was finally able to get through, he learned that everyone in his small village was fine, but many people had lost their homes and were in need of medication and daily essentials. Sherap started by going to the local market in Kathmandu where he bought 20 tarpaulins, rice, cooking oil, and plastic containers for water. However, he had no idea how to transport the supplies as the roads were buried, and it was impossible to even hike to the village. Then he received a call from a friend who flies for Dragon Air who said that his friend who worked for Search and Rescue Technical Rescue (SRTR) in China was flying into Kathmandu to help. Could Sherap meet them at the airport?
Meanwhile, Ang’s response effort was also quickly escalating. He started to work closely with his good friend from Nepal Kayak Club and within a week after the earthquake hit, he had started to make trips out to Sindhupalchok District with other outdoor trekking guides to bring food and supplies. “We had this whole team of kayakers, rafting guides, mountaineers, so we blended in. If we had to climb a mountain, we did it.” Through his connections with the mountaineering world, he connected with Person 2 Person 4 Nepal, a national grassroots movement and with emBOLDen Alliances, a non-profit based out of Colorado, to transport duffle bags filled with temporary shelter and supplies up to remote villages in the mountains. They called themselves the “Grassroots Gorillas”.
Then Ang received a call from Ming Serpa, a Nepali American Nurse associated with a Nepali-American Nursing Association who said that her organization wanted to send four nurses from the United States. With those nurses as well as local Nepali nurses, Ang and his team of mountaineers and river guides, traveled to 15-20 villages in Sindhupalchok, where they provided medical care, distributed food and supplies and trained villagers on proper hygiene. This work required traveling to very remote villages, negotiating challenging terrain, and executing helicopter evacuations of wounded patients. But, for Ang and the Nepalese medical team, they took these obstacles in stride with focus and determination.
Meanwhile, Sherap was headed for the districts of Nuwakot, Sindhupalchok and Rasuwa with SRTR. Through SRTR, Sherap met another international relief organization that he assisted with medication and supply deliveries. While assisting this organization and coordinating with several other international organizations, Sherap was also able to deliver the first round of aid to his own village and its two neighboring villages using helicopter and road transportation.
Sherap also helped to build temporary learning centers in Syabru Bensi of Rasuwa District in-coordination with Head Master Madhav Lamichhane of Shri Shyame Wangphel Secondary School. With help from another international organization, he brought tents to setup a temporary hostel for 40 resident kids in the same school, setup clean drinking water facility for the kids, and provide solar rechargeable lamps. Without Sherap to guide these international resources appropriately, the school children may have suffered waiting or may never have been reached.
Both Ang and Sherap work in the tourist guiding industry and have a deep understanding of the complexities of Nepali culture and language. Their knowledge and skill helped them to respond to the April earthquake with flexibility and speed. “For westerners, it’s hard, because they have to do a lot of logistics, they have to do the research first, and that takes time you know. Whereas I go on word of mouth from people whom I know and trust: ‘This many people are killed, this many are injured and this is all gone’. Then we say: ‘Okay we are coming,’ and this is how we do it. We don’t have to have a team go and do all of that scrutiny first…you know, write it down, evaluate the situation, etc. We knew that everything was gone, everyone’s homes are gone,” explained Ang. He continued: “In Nepal, it is not like America, it’s through word of mouth. ‘Do you need our help? Okay, we are coming’.”
Jiban Ghimire who also worked very hard with Ang on the Person 2 Person 4 Nepal effort, agreed: “I would say [that a] bigger organization has bigger issues [which] means red tape. But we had smooth supply [chain] without any disturbance. To be honest, I was very fortunate as [a] Nepali to support my people on behalf of our team whom we worked together without borders & boundary twenty four-seven.”
Because of their work in the tourism industry, all of these men had contacts in and direct knowledge of the affected areas. For Sherap, he would call hotel owners that he knew from motorcycle tours and ask them what they ne
eded, how badly people were affected, and if there was an accessible road for them to get there. He would then post that information on Facebook to let others know. Within the next three to four days, he would get supplies from friends in India, who were also a part of his same motorcycle club, Friends of Royal Enfield (FORE), and he would be off to the villages in need with the supplies and with Nepali members of his club.
Understanding of the culture and language of Nepal also played a huge role in their nimble response. According to the 2011 Nepalese Census, 123 languages are spoken in Nepal. Sherap speaks 9 of these, helping him to communicate quickly with those in need. Additionally, knowledge of the complex caste system in Nepal helped Sherap and his friends identify priority towns, know with whom to speak within communities, and identify those who may be voiceless. For example, when Ang learned from his local connections that a delivery of rice had been given to a household that already had significant stockpiles, he had the rice recalled and given to a household that had none. Most agencies may have just walked away, checking the household off their distribution list off, but here, local insight directed this limited resource most appropriately.
Both men are still working on projects in affected areas. Sherap and his motorcycle club are working to rebuild a health center in Dubachour. The previous health center was devastated in the earthquake, and after speaking with the locals, it was clear that they wanted a primary care center. They already had the land and an agreement signed with the Ministry of Health, however due to the current political crisis and boarder blockade from India, his team cannot get supplies across the boarder to build the center. Sherap also plans to work with an international relief effort to bring in engineers from Macau and rebuild 27 homes in Thalo village of Sindupalchok.
Ang too is hindered by the current political crisis. He is working in Sindhupalchok to rebuild a school and has all of the materials ready, but due to the fuel blockade, he cannot yet transport the materials.
Both men were motivated by a great need to help their fellow countrymen: “I couldn’t stand seeing people suffering, I tell you…I am not religious, [but] for me, religion is helping people [laughs]. At the end of the day, it gives me good sleep,” says Ang. For Sherap, he feels that if we don’t help, no one else will. He feels the government is practically hopeless in Nepal. “We have to help, because these our people, they belong to our country…if we don’t help them, who will?”
Local knowledge, generosity, local language and culture, and deep-seated compassion are priceless in any situation, and particularly during disasters. Ang, Sherap, and Jiban were able to spring into action the moment the earthquake hit using their connections and knowledge to understand where the most affected areas were and what was needed. They mobilized resources from clients and partners around the world to effectively and efficiently deliver aid to those most in need.
As a final word of caution for the next disaster, Jiban states: “We have to have basic supplies ready to move first [during an emergency]. You guys should collect money rather sending unusable stuffs. I found [that overall from everything I saw come in], 35% of relief goods coming from USA could not be used. [It seemed that] some people were just clearing out their garage.”
P4N and emBOLDen Alliances’ Nepal response.Emily Lawrence, Ang Tshering Lama, Sherap Sherpa, Jiban Ghimire, Liesl Clark, Julie Hull, Jake Norton, Bill, Rohs, Matt Murray, Patti Bonnet, Neena Jain, and ALL of the scores of individuals who contributed.
Photo credits: Person2Person4Nepal, emBOLDen Alliances, Sherap Sherpa