Áilín Quinlan visits a family in the scenic foothills of the Himalayas where people live in fear of a repeat of the earthquake which devastated this impoverished country just one year ago
The earthquake happened because the Goddess was sad, Ganga Maya Shrestha explained as we sat in the quiet garden of her son’s home in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The tranquillity was misleading, only moments earlier we had frozen as the ground shook under our feet.
For us visitors, that disconcerting tremor was a first-hand experience of the daily threat under which Ganga Maya Shreshta, her family, and the people of Nepal now live — the constant threat of another earthquake similar to the ones which pulverised this impoverished nation just one year ago.
The Shresthas are used to the intermittent rumbling — Ganga Maya’s son Janak, a carpenter, told us after that up to the middle of last January, they were experiencing 15 to 20 such tremors a day in this tiny hamlet of Suri, in the remote Nepali province of Dolakha.
Now, he said, the shakes were coming less often; only on a weekly basis.
As if the devastation around them wasn’t enough — landslides, ruined homes, broken roads — these sinister rumbles are a chilling reminder of the destruction wrought by the two earthquakes which destroyed 14 districts of Nepal in April and May of last year.
For 63-year-old Ganga Maya, there can only be one reason for the disaster.
Angered by the faithlessness of former devotees, the Goddess Kamala devi, she believes, could no longer restrain her fury. And at 11.45am on April 25, 2015, the Kitchen Goddess unleashed her rage.
The earth shook and houses cracked, roads burst open, hillsides collapsed and giant boulders came crashing down the mountain-sides.
This first, violent quake, which had a magnitude of 7.6, was the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since the Nepal-Bihar earthquake in 1934.
It flattened large areas of the picturesque capital, Kathmandu, and caused devastation across this impoverished Himalayan land. But the terror didn’t end there.
Only a few weeks later, on May 12, a second large earthquake shook this rugged mountain land; this one had an intensity of 6.8.
Its epicentre, in the district of Sunkhanai region of Dolakha, was close to the rural province of Suri, where Ganga Maya and her family live. The result – utter devastation with many homes left completely uninhabitable.
Between them, the two earthquakes saw hundreds of thousands of Nepalese left homeless, more than 8,800 people dead, over 23,000 injured and more than 700,000 houses damaged.
Recovery has been slow; one year on from the disaster, whole families are still living in rudimentary sheds and fragile roadside shelters made from bits of timber and coagulated galvanised iron sheets.
In many districts, entire villages were flattened and residents had to move to quickly-erected temporary shelters in which many are still eking out a life of sorts.
“Houses were totally damaged because traditional houses made of stone and timber, were not resilient,” explained Sagar Dahal, a Livelihood Officer from Dolakha.
Dahal works with HURADEC, a local partner organisation of the international charity Christian Aid, which launched a broad programme of aid projects in Nepal following the disaster.
“People are staying in the tin houses (houses made with galvanised iron sheeting). One person died in the winter season because of the cold — the galvanised iron houses are not warm when the altitude is high,” he said, adding that in Nepal some people live up to 2,000 or 3,000 metres above sea level.
“Somehow the people manage to stay going. Some people have tarpaulin roofs over bamboo mats but temperatures can go to minus two or three and in the high altitude areas it can go as low as minus five degrees.”
It is hoped, said Dahal, that a planned government scheme to facilitate the construction of permanent houses will begin in time for the first anniversary of the earthquake.
However, no government scheme could hope to replace the many shattered ancient buildings, temples and statues for which Nepal is famous — and which for generations have formed the backbone of its tourism industry.
In effect, the Nepali economy was flattened — it’s estimated that it will take more than €6.6 billion to re-build it. The country’s tourism sector, which prior to the disaster accounted for some 45% of its economy, is still only slowly recovering.
Severely injured after being hit by a large boulder as her house fell apart during the first quake, Ganga Maya Shrestha was initially unaware of the enormous scale of the destruction.
The intense pain caused by the injury made her black out. She was unconscious for some 48 hours, later discovering that she had been rescued by her son and neighbour:
“I was unconscious and a person came and found me and rescued me. My left leg was badly fractured during the earthquake and the doctors have put an iron rod in it,” she said, recalling that she was at home, absorbed in her round of daily duties when her world imploded shortly before noon.
She was rushed to a treatment centre and, two days after the first earthquake, airlifted by army helicopter to a hospital in Kavre district, near Kathmandu where she stayed for some three months before moving in with her son and his family.
“My house was very badly damaged,” she explains, as she sits in the idyllic surrounds of her son’s garden in picturesque Suri, about 20 kilometres from Tibet.
Home to Nepal’s iconic Red Panda, the area is renowned amongst hikers, tourists and conservationists for its stunning views, picturesque scenery, suspension bridges and lush plant life.
But that’s of little comfort to this anxious 63-year-old, who is still limping heavily and dependent on crutches — and who yearns with all her heart to leave this beautiful, dangerous place forever. She doesn’t feel safe in her son’s house she explained. Although the building was still standing when we visited, it was clearly very badly cracked from the quakes and the subsequent tremors.
Ganga Maya lives in constant fear that another major earthquake or landslide will collapse it entirely, killing them all.
She wants to move to Kathmandu, because she feels her home area is no longer safe.
But, she says, she can’t afford to leave Suri, and nor can Janak (38). Two people died in this area during the first earthquake, while all of the local houses were badly cracked.
In the second, three people died, and some 70% of homes completely collapsed.
“I don’t feel safe here, but we can’t afford to move. There are many tremors,” confides Janak.
Initiatives range from the distribution of building materials and warm clothing to teaching householders how to demolish damaged buildings and construct earthquake-resistant shelters and support with sanitation, health and livestock.
Christian Aid also operates a system of multi-purpose grants worth about €65, to help families buy necessities; galvanised iron sheeting to roof temporary housing. It also helps with the erection of temporary toilets and the installation of water purification systems as well as supporting families to purchase new livestock.
For its part, the government has been distributing grants of 15,000 Nepalese rupees (about €131) in immediate relief to desperate families left homeless by the disaster.
It has also announced plans to implement a programme for the construction of permanent shelters, under which families can avail of low-interest loans of 200,000 Nepalese rupees (about €1,755.)
One of only two carpenters in his area to be chosen by Christian Aid for a special training programme in the construction of earth-quake resistant houses, Janak hopes to eventually set up a new business and carve out a good livelihood in the years to come.
“The training focused on earthquake-resistant construction and how to use the wood to protect from earthquake damage. We were taught about roofing, bracing and laying foundations so now I build earthquake resistant housing,” he explained.
For the moment, his construction work is voluntary but, he said, he will eventually be paid by householders when they get their rebuilding loans through the government.
“Christian Aid got here about three months after the earthquake and trained me in safe-shelter construction.
“It also supported the community with the galvanised iron sheets necessary to build about 300 temporary homes.”
Janak has so far constructed some 18 such temporary shelters and tries hard to make the best of things:
“We lost our wealth, not our lives,” he declares.
For more information or to donate this Christian Aid Week (15-21 May), visit www.christianaid.ieor phone (0) 1 496 7040, or +44 (0) 28 9064 8133.
Case Study: ‘All day I felt the land shaking’
Once, they owned a beautiful three-storey house in a thriving Himalayan village — now a tin-and-timber shelter in the local forest is the only home they know.
The first earthquake damaged the home in which Durga Bahadur Shrestha, 73, and his wife Hari Maya Shrestha, 65, lived all their lives and reared their five children, the majority of whom are now married and living several hours’ drive away in Kathmandu.
But it took the second earthquake to completely destroy it — and many of their neighbours’ houses along with it.
Now this elderly couple and about 57 neighbouring families have been moved to a temporary settlement in the local forest.
Christian Aid provided galvanised iron sheeting for the roofs of the new shelters.
When we arrived, Durga was building an outside kitchen because their living quarters were filling with suffocating smoke from the open fire.
“I was outside the house collecting fodder for the livestock when the earthquake happened,” he recalls.
“Two or three houses near me collapsed. I fell down and hurt my head. All day I felt the land shaking. We went to an open area and spent the night out in our vegetable cultivation plastic tunnel.”
All the buildings in the village were partially damaged by the first earthquake, but the destruction was worse in the second.
The elderly couple were forced to live in their goat-shed for two months until they were able to begin constructing a temporary shelter with the galvanised iron sheets provided by Christian Aid through its local partner, Clean Energy Nepal, in a new settlement further up the mountain.
“Christian Aid helped us to build the shelter and a toilet. They gave us things like blankets, a stove, a tarpaulin, and a sleeping mattress as well as a hammer shovel and nails and a scissors,” Hari Maya revealed.
“I’m very happy with the stove because it takes less fuel to cook. We also got blankets which kept us warm. Up to the time we got the support we stayed in the goat-shed — we spent two months in the goat shed.”
Case Study: ‘I felt that the earth had cracked open’
Last January, 36-year-old Deep Maya B.K. gave birth to her son in a temporary shelter of wood and galvanised iron sheeting.
This is where she now lives with her husband and large family after their home was destroyed in the earthquakes.
Cramped and uncomfortable as it is, the tin-and-wood shelter is a step up from the goat-shed that Deep Maya, (36) her husband Laxman, and their five young daughters occupied in the months after the earthquake.
Although the couple’s tiny three-month-old son slept peacefully in his father’s arms while the couple spoke to us, Deep Maya revealed that the little boy’s five older sisters still suffer nightmares as a result of the havoc caused by the earthquakes.
“My daughters cry and shout out in the night. They think about the earthquake during the night and they think there will be another big earthquake that will kill them,” Deep Maya explains.
The family are Dalits — one of the poorer communities severely affected by the earthquakes in Nepal.
The Dalit community is considered to be beneath the caste system which still holds sway across many Asian countries.
36-year-old Laxman was in the jungle collecting wood when the first earthquake hit.
“I felt that the earth had cracked open. Stones were falling from the mountains,” he recalls.
The family home, which had cost 700,000 Nepalese rupees (about €7,000) to build, was left completely uninhabitable following the second earthquake.
Although most of the houses in this very rural village were badly damaged, says Laxman, he and Deep Maya believe it took between two or three weeks for tarpaulins and food to arrive.
Laxman worries about his ability to build a new permanent family home — their income is very low, he says. However, he adds: “I would like to think that those who supported us in the international response to the earthquake will continue to provide support for the Dalit community. I’m not only asking for help for Dalits, but for help for everyone affected. To ask only for help for Dalits would be selfish.”
Case Study: ‘I was unconscious for an hour’
A strikingly attractive woman in a sky-blue sari and dark jacket, Bed Laxmi Shrestha was attending a Christian Aid-supported hygiene promotion orientation class when we met her.
Her village, a remote hill community in the rural surrounds of Attarpur in the Sindhupalchowk district, several hours’ drive from Kathmandu, boasts beautiful views of the Himalayas, but was badly affected by the earthquake.
The 55-year-old is a widow; her husband died 24 years ago, and her grown-up son and daughter live many hours’ drive away in Kathmandu.
Bed Laxmi lost nearly everything; home, bedding, toilet and, crucially, her water supply. For many weeks after the earthquake she lived under plastic sheeting and trekked for four hours a day to get water.
When we arrived, she was participating in a hygiene class, which has taken place in her village on a weekly basis for several months.
Bed Laxmi , who was at home when the earthquake started, sustained a head injury which left her unconscious.
Even now, a year later, she became visibly upset as she recalled that difficult period:
“I was unconscious for an hour following a head injury because I fell in the rubble and hit my head. My neighbours looked after me.”
With the help of her neighbours she constructed a temporary plastic house in which she lived for two months. All the houses in the village were damaged during the earthquake, and a number collapsed.
Four months after the quake, Bed Laxmi used a galvanised iron sheet donated by Christian Aid to build temporary dwelling with the help of her son, who arrived at the village a week after the earthquake.
She later extended her new living quarters with more sheeting that she bought with the government grant of 15,000 Nepalese rupees (about €131): “I had to leave my house and move into a plastic tunnel where I stayed for a month,” she says.
“I had to walk for four hours to bring back water.”
With the support of Christian Aid, a new water supply scheme has made life easier.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved