Fri, Sep 25, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Nepal quake survivors strive to keep nation’s lifelines open

By Ammu Kannampilly  /  AFP, BIGU, Nepal

Her back hunched over, Nepalese villager Sanchimaya Thami strained to make the last stretch of a five-hour trek to deliver critical relief supplies to other victims of April’s devastating earthquake.

The 36-year-old is one of about 10,000 survivors of the disaster hired as porters to bring food, medicines and shelter materials to remote Himalayan villages cut off by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit on April 25, killing nearly 8,900 people.

“I used to be a farmer, but now I have no farm, it’s all gone,” Thami said, as she recounted the impact of the quake and massive aftershock that followed in May, which wiped out her village of Bigu in northeastern Dolakha District.

“We had no food to eat, we had nowhere to live — it took about a week before help arrived,” Thami said as she dropped off a 30kg sack of lentils for her fellow villagers.

The disaster destroyed roads and trails, leaving villages like Bigu cut-off from vital supplies and creating a “logistical nightmare” for aid agencies, said Stephen Anderson, emergency coordinator of the World Food Programme (WFP), which is funding the scheme.

“This is some of the most challenging terrain WFP has operated in globally,” Anderson said.

“We desperately needed to access villages where choppers couldn’t land either because of the steep terrain or the weather ... we were facing an emergency,” he said.

MOUNTAINEERS’ LESSONS

While the agency struggled to find a way out of the crisis, a small team of Nepalese and foreign mountaineers made their way to the earthquake hypocenter in Gorkha District.

Argentine mountaineer Damian Benegas was on Mount Everest, planning to summit the world’s highest peak for a sixth time, when the disaster struck, triggering a deadly avalanche.

The 46-year-old climber arrived unscathed in Kathmandu six days later and traveled on to Gorkha, determined to help.

He considered hiring a helicopter to run air drops, but was deterred by the cost, which ran into thousands of dollars.

“We realized that we needed to approach this whole thing creatively. As mountaineers, we rely hugely on porters to move supplies and I thought we could do the same here, move more goods for a fraction of the cost of a chopper,” he said.

Over the next few days, the volunteers and villagers lifted rocks and cleared away debris in a bid to open up blocked mountain paths and begin the delivery of tents, blankets, food and water provided by non-profit organizations.

By the time the WFP suggested expanding the program to cover other districts, Benegas and his fellow climbers had paid wages to around 1,000 villagers in Gorkha.

ECONOMIC LIFELINE

Today, the operation is responsible for delivering aid to 40,000 earthquake victims, with climbers like Benegas assessing trails while Nepal’s mountaineering and trekking associations organize porters’ insurance and payments.

With April’s earthquake hitting just weeks before the monsoon season, frequent downpours and rain-triggered landslides pose serious challenges to the porters’ work, Benegas said.

“We fix a trail, then it rains and all our work is washed away, the trail simply disappears,” he said.

The earthquake-hit trails were critical economic lifelines, connecting villagers with schools, medical facilities and markets.

Furthermore, in a country which has seen tourism take a nosedive since the disaster, officials say trail repair might hold the key to Nepal’s recovery.

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