Jun 10, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE: When International Headlines Disappear

The seismic shifts have subsided, the number of deaths and casualties have plateaued, and international headlines have all but disappeared.... Sadly, the aftermath of the earthquake and over 300 aftershocks as felt by over ¼ of Nepal’s population of 28-million remains a startling reality. The new challenges are both violent and silent and will ultimately affect most vulnerable populations including 1.7 million children, newborns and an estimated 160,000 pregnant women in the affected areas.

Leaving the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu on the 31st of May I looked out the taxi window and began a long journey of starting to work my way through a complex set of emotions. Orange and blue tarps still scattered like patchwork along the streets; mothers crawling out of their tents with crying hungry children in their wake, men sweeping the dusty streets in the early morning light. How lucky (?) I was to be able to just ‘leave’ and return to the UK when so many millions of people have no choice but to face a harsh reality.

The harsh reality is the problems that remain in Nepal which run deeper than the jagged cracks in the walls and far beyond the rubble which still litters the streets in Kathmandu and many rural villages. Whilst there has been much talk about ‘the resilience of the Nepali people’ over the past six weeks, longer term challenges remain that will put this Nepali resilience to the test. Thousands of people continue to eke out their daily lives in extreme poverty under tarps and in tents, fearing more aftershocks and living in frightened anticipation of the next ‘big one’.  In the mud and damp under these tents and tarps, malnutrition, gastrointestinal diseases and the threat of water-borne diseases run rife. Driving past one of Kathmandu’s many humid, steaming ‘tent cities’ and inhaling the humid stench of human waste is proof of this.

For many people each new tectonic twitch heightens the instability and uncertainty. Just last week a 4.4-magnitude tremor shook parts of Kathmandu, sending the birds screeching into the air and the children screaming into the cover of their tarpaulin camps. It was yet another unnecessary reminder of what had happened – and what may yet lie ahead.

There's also the ‘invisible’ silent aftermath - the earthquake’s impact on mental health. Mental health experts say those most vulnerable to developing prolonged mental health conditions are children, the disabled, and the elderly. Sadly, many of these people don’t have access to councillors or professionals to help cope with mental stress and grief. There are countless stories of men, women and children who become paralysed with fear at the sound of loud noises, become overwhelmed by crowds, fear enclosed places, and have a constant ‘earthquake hangover’ – the feeling that the ground is perpetually moving, a temporary inner-ear reaction to the earthquake and constant aftershocks.

The monsoon has started with a vengeance with torrential rains, thunder, lightning and hail. In just four months, between June - September, 85% of Nepal’s annual precipitation of 1,500-3,000mm will fall. Last week in a precursor to the monsoon I watched as the sky grew dark and rolled thick with thunder and lightning. With each almighty crack the building shook from above whilst the aftershocks rumbled the earth from below. I felt well and truly put in my place, with an all too familiar ‘earthquake adrenaline’ pulsing through my veins. The wind began to pick up and across the horizon a flurry of destroyed orange, yellow and blue tents and tarps could be seen flying through the sky. And this was just the beginning. I can’t even begin to imagine the terror of children and families cowering from the elements as their flimsy shelters were ripped from their frames.

The monsoon rains will trigger devastating landslides. Whilst the mountains tremble their slopes become increasingly unstable – all that is needed is water and gravity to complete the vicious cycle. From my brief visit to the Khumbu in mid-May it was clear that the instability of the slopes and the crumbling, deteriorating mountain trails would be hard-hit by the monsoon rains.  Even sections of the well-trodden ‘Everest trail’ such as after Phakding bore visible evidence of instability and landslides. Many relief efforts to hard-hit and remote districts such as Ghorka, Sindhupalchok and Langtang have been thwarted by unstable slopes and devastating landslides. Additionally, the monsoon will also force the country’s few helicopters to be grounded – slowing down the delivery of much needed aid to the vulnerable.

In the departures lounge at the airport I saw another national headline highlighting an issue that stopped me in my tracks – the trafficking of women and children. Tens of thousands of young women from regions devastated by the earthquake in Nepal are being targeted by human traffickers supplying a network of brothels across south Asia. Many children are being picked up and taken abroad by traffickers posing as relief workers. Many ‘tent cities’ are now guarded by police offers stopping any children accompanied by an adult. Over the past few weeks I feel as though I’ve seen humanity at its best – people stepping in, risking their lives, helping those in need… but then I see headlines like this. How can some people be so heartless?

I’ve been back home for over a week now. It’s strange – whilst in Nepal I’d been so immersed in the earthquake relief efforts, the continuous aftershocks, seeing destroyed buildings and the headlines in the local papers, that I hadn’t really imagined or considered life ‘outside’ of the ‘earthquake bubble’. I knew that it would be a shock to reintegrate into ‘normal life’ but I hadn’t really reflected on what aspect would be the most difficult.

I think it’s a feeling of helplessness and trying to balance between getting back into my original, usual ‘work-life routine’ and integrating the experiences of the past 2 months whilst ensuring that, like the international headlines, my efforts don’t taper off and disappear. I guess this is part of defining my ‘new normal’. All the while my Facebook newsfeed remains full of stories and images of friends on the ground in Nepal building temporary shelters like the earthbag homes, distributing tents and tarps, building schools, distributing food and medical supplies and preparing for the monsoon rains. It’s hard to be here because I know how valuable an extra set of hands can be there. Having said that, I also know how many more funds are required and how much continued awareness is needed to support these efforts to help the vulnerable prepare for an uncertain future – their ‘new normal’.

Beyond continued fundraising efforts organised from the UK and Canada, I plan to return to Nepal in the Autumn to continue to help with the rebuilding efforts. Next Spring I will return and continue my expedition on Shishapangma and Cho Oyu. They’re small contributions – mere drops in the ocean – to helping solve the wider problems but do make a difference.  As the saying goes, I believe it was Mother Theresa who said it, whatever you can give, no matter how small will be of great benefit. We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.


Thank you for your continued contributions and donations to the Paldorje Education Foundation - Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund. Whilst the Nepal earthquake headlines may no longer dominate the front pages of international media, the impacts here remain real and omni present. Please continue to donate, to spread the word and give what you can.


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