It's six months since a massive earthquake struck Nepal, affecting more than eight million people. Oxfam has been on the ground from the beginning, providing humanitarian assistance, reaching nearly 450,000 people to date. Here Jon Hanson reflects on how our staff in Nepal, together with local partners and volunteers, overcame access challenges to reach remote mountain communities.
Gorkha district is situated in the middle of Nepal, a five hour drive from the capital Kathmandu that takes you through sweeping green paddy fields and along narrow mountain roads, slowly revealing the spectacular view of the Himalayas. It was here, close to a small village called Laprak, where the epicenter of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake which struck Nepal on the 25th April, 2015, could be found. The UN reported that 90% of all buildings in Gorkha were either damaged or destroyed.
As Sunda Ghale (right), a resident of Baprak village describes, the people in his village were very aware of what to do in an earthquake, and those who could quickly found open ground: "It was a sunny day, a normal day, when the earthquake happened; it was shaking violently so we quickly ran out of the house to the open space and from there all we could see were buildings collapsing, covering the area with huge clouds of dust and mud."
The people who live here are tough, as you have to be when you live 2,800 metres above sea level and are cut off from major towns and roads. Local able-bodied men helped to rescue and support those who had sustained injuries. They also foraged for food stocks in damaged buildings, and arranged any remaining tarpaulin sheets for shelter. However, these remote communities urgently needed better provision for shelter, food, and water and sanitation.
Oxfam's Shelter response
Oxfam began to assess needs in Gorkha district immediately after the earthquake, often hiking for hours to reach affected villages, and, we were able to respond in the first few weeks following the disaster. Shelter was the most pressing need as the monsoon season was fast approaching, bringing with it the threat of landslides and flooding.
Shelter and Non Food Item (NFI) kits, containing items such as tarpaulin, solar lamps, household water filters, fleece blankets, kitchen sets and large foam sheets, were designed following consultation with the community about their needs. The kits are culturally appropriate and enable families to construct temporary shelter (to have insulation, protection and increased comfort whilst sleeping on the ground), to cook, have light and charge their mobile phones.
The importance of local partners
We were faced with the same access challenges in the remote areas as the communities were, so we had to think creatively. Whilst helicopters were used to distribute hygiene kits and food in some parts of Nepal, the shelter kits were too large and there were not enough helicopters available. So, Oxfam teams,
with the help of our local partners, drew on local knowledge and experience to transport goods in to the most remote areas. Porters were hired to hike, in some cases one to two days, to carry materials to distribution points. Mule trains were hired to carry heavy goods, and tractors were found to cross rivers and to take goods past the point where the roads stopped.
"Oxfam came to help us just a few days after the earthquake when we were living under the open sky. Our house had turned to rubble and the aftershocks were constantly coming so we could not salvage anything from the rubble." (Kanchi Sunar, Ward no. 7, Gumda, Gorkha)
Through this approach we set up distributions at the heart of most communities, and working through our partners we mobisilised beneficiaries to ensure they knew when and where to collect relief items. But for one area, access was so difficult that this was impossible. Instead a distribution point was set up at the furthest
point which could be reached by mule and tractor, and a message was sent out to the community through word of mouth and local radio, telling people where to come to collect supplies. Those who came to the distribution point received food, water and payment for any expenses for their travel, and some people carried back extra supplies for relatives who were unable to make the journey.
The operation was only possible because of Oxfam's relationships with local partner organisations. They provided advice about how to distribute in the challenging environment and had established networks of staff and volunteers in place to disseminate information widely.
Through this flexible approach, Oxfam has been able to reach 14,239 households with Shelter NFI kits, 18,349 households received grain bags for grain storage, 4,789 people have access to improved sanitation through latrine construction and 3,200 individuals have benefitted from the construction of handwashing stations.
Looking to the future
Although the monsoon season is now over, Nepal's winter is fast approaching and the delivery of supplies to help communities cope with the weather conditions in the mountains is a key concern. Oxfam is aiming to reach 11,855 households across the seven districts it works in, and will build on the experience of the last six months, working closely with local partners and communities to understand and adapt programming to fit the local context.
Sunda Ghale, a resident of Baprak village
Tractors bringing Shelter NFI materials to the distribution point at Takumaj Lakuribot, May 2015.
Relief materials being taken to Laprak with the support of porters in May, 2015.
Credit: Sam Spickett / Oxfam