What’s left behind: Life six months after Nepal’s earthquake
Bhavanath Timalsina is a 60-year-old farmer who lives in the small village of Patlekhet, around 40 kilometers from Kathmandu in Nepal.
Accessible only on foot and located in the midst of a lush green landscape, this tiny hamlet can be accessed after a 30 minute uphill trek.
While his wife Sonakumari picks fresh guavas to offer us, Timalsina shows us the cracks that run across the walls of his two-storey mud house forming all kinds of patterns. These cracks are a reminder of the two big earthquakes that Nepal suffered six months ago, in April and May. Over 8,500 people died while thousands were injured.
Fear looms large
Months later, people haven’t been able to shake off the fear. In the five villages of Kavrepalanchowk district that we visited, not even a single family preferred spending their nights inside their mud houses.
“We cook and eat inside our houses but sleep in our temporary shelters,” says Timalsina pointing to the small tin shed he set up right across his house. The government has provided 15,000 Nepalese rupees as compensation so far, but villagers have spent much more, sometimes twice the amount that they have received.
Timalsina isn’t alone. Brothers, Niranjan and Vivek Gautam, have placed their cots in a similar shed next to their mud house, which also houses their livestock. In another village, Darimtar, Subba Bahadur Nepal takes his family to the shelter at nightfall. His aged mother, however, stays in the mud house as the sheds have no toilets or water supply.
The number of internally displaced still remains significantly higher than the record when people who still live outside their houses out of fear are taken into consideration. Roma Sapkota, is another such displaced individual in the village of Darimtar. Situated on one side of the hill slope, Sapkota’s house looks as if it might fall any moment. “We couldn’t even save our crops after the earthquake. It is still inside our house, on the first floor, rotting. Whatever we could salvage is out in the open where rodents feast on it,” she says.
According to the National Emergency Operation Centre, the earthquake destroyed 602,257 houses. 285,099 houses were damaged. The earthquake was also responsible for displacing approximately 2.8 million people, as reported by the United Nations. Even livestock damage across Nepal amounted to over 53,000.
Rural Nepal is dotted with houses typically made with a mixture of mud, cow dung and rice husk. Although built on a broad base, the mud houses cannot compare with structures made of concrete. Kavrepalanchowk, the district of which Patlekhet is a part, is one of the worst earthquake-affected areas. But people like Timalsina can’t even think of building a pucca house. “We can build these mud houses ourselves. We don’t need to buy any material or spend on labour,” he says.
Farming practices in the hilly regions of Nepal have traditionally involved growing crops like maize or paddy along with some vegetables. The rural population subsists on mostly paddy and maize, and vegetables are taken to the market for some additional income. Just like in India, April or Baisakh is the harvest season for people in Nepal. But when the earthquake destroyed the mud houses, it also damaged a large portion of harvested crops stored in the houses.
After losing their houses and crops to the earthquake, many had no option but to migrate to other places to look for work. Nepali international migration is relatively new, and dates back to the early 1990s, which saw the beginning of the Nepalese civil war and the end of the monarchy.
“We don’t grow a lot of commercial crops, so our income from farm produce is very low,” says Rajkumar Timalsina, whose brother migrated to Malaysia over a year ago. “If we want to send our children to decent schools, to get healthcare and to build concrete houses, we have find to work outside. Many people are doing so.”
For better prospects
According to Rajkumar, every house in the village has sent at least one male person to work abroad. The extended family of Rajkumar and Bhavanath, have seen five of their male family members leaving the country in search of work.
The Nepalese usually migrate to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, other gulf countries and India, where they mostly work as labourers. However, male out-migration has imposed an additional workload on the women who are left behind, notes the 2013-14 Labour Migration report by the Nepal government.
International migration from Nepal has increased over the years. An estimated 1,500 Nepalese people leave the country every single day.
According to the Department of Foreign Employment around 500,000 Nepalese migrants, including women, moved to different countries last year.
National Institute of Development Studies estimates that currently 2.2 million Nepalese work abroad, about 10% of the population.
Organizations like International Organization for Migration Nepal and the UN believe that, with a population displaced by the earthquake, migration would have increased this year.
According to the migration report, the annual remittance contribution to Nepal’s GDP has also been increasing since 2011. It represented a 25.7% share in 2012-13 and a 29.1% share during the first eight months of 2013-14. According to government estimates, the incidence of poverty would jump from 19.3% to 35.3% if remittances stopped.
Nepal is an economy which has traditionally seen people migrating from rural areas where agricultural work is restricted. People also come down from the hills looking for arable land, which in turn is expensive. Natural disasters, changing rainfall patterns and depleting water resources have made agriculture dependent farmers even more desperate.
Concerned about the role of environmental drivers of migration in Nepal, the National Adaptation Plan for Action (NAPA) focuses on the in-situ adaptation options: agriculture and food security, water resources and energy and climate-induced disasters.
Adapting to change
Despite the grim situation, a few do have something to cheer about. Bimla Pajghai, a farmer from Patlekhet, is one of them. Her small crop yield of bitter gourd has given a better return this year, partly because she experimented with methods like mulching and partly because of better market rate this year. Mulching, a traditional practice where the planted seed is covered with straws, prevents moisture hence compensates for the lack of water in the soil.
“Water is a major concern in the district of Kavrepalanchowk. In fact, it is one of the worst affected areas when it comes to water availability,” says Laxmi Dutt Bhatta, ecosystems management specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). “Lack of water availability has an adverse impact on crop production, directly impacting the income of a farmer.”
Krishna Bahadur Dhungana, an 85-year-old resident of Darimtar village, interestingly was two years old when the last big earthquake struck Nepal. Dhungana says that he has seen the weather patterns change a lot in the past few years. Rainfall is becoming more erratic and unpredictable. He also feels that a number of plant varieties have increased, which are usually associated with warmer regions.
Bhatta’s organisation through local organisations like Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Developmen(CEAPRED) has been creating awareness to implement “climate smart” practices among eight villages in the Kavrepalanchowk district. Bimla, who earned 10-15% more for her vegetables this year credits the success to the implementation of the methods that she learnt from the programme.
According to Keshab Datta Joshi, program director of CEAPRED, the solutions to alleviate problems of water shortage and low crop yield is by convincing villagers to manage waste water, grow crop varieties that consume less water and do away with monoculture plantation. Traditional ponds have been replaced by community ponds and plastic ponds which prevent water from getting absorbed by the dry soil.
To increase nutrient content in the soil, compost and cow shed management practices have been put in place. Application of Jholmol, a bio-pesticide and a bio-fertilizer, prepared from cow urine and dung is widely used in the adopted villages.
The pilot projects in the villages will span across three years, during which promoted low cost practices are expected to be adopted by the villagers. However, implementing climate smart practices in all the villages might be challenge. Located in another valley, amidst green swathes of paddy crisscrossed by mountain streams, lies the village of Dhaitar. It is one of the villages which has implemented climate smart practices. But unlike their neighbours, villagers in Darimtar still continue with traditional cultivation practices.
Darimtar is located on the top of a hill and can be reached after a half hour trek from Dhaitar. Not much differentiates Darimtar and Dhaitar, except when you start talking to the villagers living downhill. “People in Dhaitar have prospered by leaps but we haven’t seen much development,” says Govind Prasad Nepal, a resident of Darimtar. “There is low education and a higher rate of unemployment. Youngsters from here migrate to Malaysia or the Gulf, but their children travel to the US or Australia to study.”
A closer look reveals the large gap between the two villages. The village located downhill has access to water from three streams; villagers cultivate on relatively arable lands and have access to concrete roads.
Presence of storage drums from UK Action Aid is evidence that access to roads even helped in providing relief material to the people living downhill.
One villager from Dhaitar proudly points out that for each shoot of grain in the rice plants uphill, three grow in the plants cultivated downhill.
“We understand that the conditions are different in villages located uphill and downhill. Out of our eight projects, we have four in uphill villages and four downhill. So, the projects are not just limited to downhill villages, but also in difficult terrain where we try to device solutions to deal with issues specific to places up the hill,” says Bhatta.
Meanwhile, with better yield and continuous access of water, villagers downhill continue to do better than their neighbours. Climate smart practices might be able to help alleviate the many issues that the changing climate has on the farms but there are scores of places like Dhaitar that will always enjoy a natural advantage. The real challenge is to reduce the gap between the Dhaitars and Darimtars of Nepal.
(The story was done as a part of a training workshop conducted by ICIMOD and GRID-Arendal)