The international community has been quick to respond to last Saturday’s massive earthquake in Nepal. However, as Julien Bettler of Norlha, the Swiss Himalayan support NGO, reminds us, it is vital not to forget those populations in remote rural areas who have yet to receive any aid at all. Furthermore, Alpine know-how can help make a crucial difference.
When a massive earthquake of at least 7.6 on the Richter scale struck the Kashmir Region of the Himalayas affecting Pakistan, India and Afghanistan on October 8, 2005, over 70,000 people died. Entire towns and villages, mainly in Pakistan, were wiped out leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. While last Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal may have inflicted fewer casualties, countless communities in the countryside are believed to have suffered with the collapse of up to 80 per cent of houses, farms, schools, clinics and temples.
The Kashmir disaster almost a decade ago offers sober lessons for responding effectively to the Nepal earthquake in the days and weeks ahead.
For one, numerous remote mountain communities in Pakistan had to wait weeks before help arrived. With the much-publicized news of Pakistan and American army helicopters being used to ferry in relief lending the impression that help was on its way, the reality proved far different. Survivors, whose villages were cut off with roads and bridges wrecked, would have been better off taking matters into their own hands by carrying their wounded to safety. Barely 12 days after the Kashmir disaster, then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had to make an urgent appeal reminding the international community that medical relief, food, clean water and shelter were still desperately needed.
Given the difficult nature of the Himalayas, we fear similar problems for Nepal’s more isolated communities. As often happens, the main towns, notably Kathmandu, are the first to be served. This is understandable given the size of population, but also communications access. It is a different matter for poor rural populations.
Not unlike the Pakistani case, Nepal’s mountain villagers are digging themselves out unaided. As past disasters have shown, local people often have only but themselves and their own resources to rely on during the initial emergency period. With the Nepal earthquake, the epicentre was in Lamjung district, a particularly remote part of the country. We are only just starting to receive reliable information on how these people are faring.
Norlha, a Swiss NGO based in Lausanne, is seeking to respond with efficient targeted relief, largely the result of the broad experience that it has gained from bringing development to outlying parts of the Himalayas. Unfortunately, the bulk of its projects are in zones where the epicentre struck the hardest. Indeed, most structures have collapsed with severe injury and loss of life. These resilient communities are now burying their dead and treating the many wounded, mainly on their own.
We know this part of Nepal well. We have been providing community support, empowerment of women, and innovative high-altitude agriculture to these parts for a number of years. Some of what we are doing has been gleaned from Switzerland’s own mountain know-how given that both the Himalayas and the Alps share many of the same challenges, such as water conservation and how to curb soil erosion.
For the moment, however, Nepal’s rural needs are both multiple and urgent: bandages, splints, body bags, tents, blankets, clean water, basic rations. Plus porters who can help access villages that may lie up to five hours trek from the nearest road, but have yet to be reached.
As with other aid organizations, Norlha has issued an emergency appeal. But ours is very specific. We ask for your support to reach these outlying communities with initial outside assistance. We know that the news will be bad once we reach them and the conditions dreadful. What we wish to avoid is leaving these victims to the same fate that was inflicted on the Kashmir survivors for whom help came too late.
At the same time, even at this emergency stage, we need to look to the future. Villages must first deal with their immediate needs, but then focus on the longer-term. This means restoring basic community services, plus helping people with the establishment of crucial income-generating projects.
We at Norlha are acutely aware of the potential for solidarity between the Swiss, French, Italian, Austrian and German populations of the Alps and those of the Himalayas. We share many of the same problems, whether environmental, transportation or agricultural, not to speak of melting glaciers. In fact not so long ago, remote Alpine populations were as poor as those in the Himalayas. Many of the solutions we have found here are transferable. For now, however, we need to help those most in need.
Julien Bettler is director of Norlha. For further information and your support, please see www.norlha.org.