When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal on April 25, organizations from around the world mobilized to deal with tangible needs: shelter, food, water. Four months after the earthquake, the ground continues to tremble with aftershocks and the monsoon season unleashes frequent landslides. But despite these challenges, Nepal is slowly moving from the emergency stage to the recovery stage, and Israeli charity workers are on hand to help.
“Now, people are thinking in the long-term of a year or two, where in the beginning people were just thinking a week ahead,” explained Eliran Douenias, an Israeli fellow with the Joint Distribution Committee based in Kathmandu.
The capital of Kathmandu was largely untouched in the earthquake, but the real devastation is in the rural areas, where entire villages were flattened. The villages where aid organizations need to work are sprinkled across mountaintops in areas that take days to reach even during the best of times.
The April 25 earthquake, followed by another strong quake on May 12, destroyed already shaky infrastructure and triggered landslides. Then the rainy season started in June. Travel is nearly impossible during the summer monsoon, since unpaved roads become difficult to navigate and even jeeps cannot get through.
The JDC, a Jewish American group, is one of a number of Israeli organizations working long-term in Nepal. Others include humanitarian aid groups Natan and IsrAid, which both deal with emotional rehabilitation. Tevel B’Tzedek, which has worked in Nepal for years uniting Israeli and Nepali staff with rural development projects, has adapted their work to include disaster and trauma relief.
Brain of the heart, brain of the mind
“I think about a month ago, you could start sensing that the international NGOs have left as well as the organizations that came for initial aid at the beginning,” said Dounias. The organizations that stay for the recovery effort have different objectives than immediate aid, including creating programs that are more sustainable, he said.
UN Women highlighted the fact that rape and violence against women often rise after natural disasters, making psychosocial work even more essential. Living in tents with family members who were abusive before the earthquake can further endanger women and children as they are living in even closer quarters under greater stress.
One Israel-based charity, Natan – International Human Aid, has moved into the emotional rehabilitation stage by putting the emphasis of their work on “train the trainer.” “TTT,” as the method is known in the acronym-happy world of international development, requires building connections with local Nepali leaders, giving them tools and knowledge, and helping them adapt that information for their own communities with the appropriate cultural adjustments.
“We don’t want it to be that the white person is coming and saying ‘this is how to do it,’” explained Yoav Ben Bassat, a volunteer with Natan who returned just a few weeks ago from a mission to Nepal.
Ben Bassat, who worked in Nepal five years ago with Tevel B’Tzedek, noted that there’s also a lot of Buddhist influence to the local emotional rehabilitation work.
“What we learn about trauma in the West is different from trauma in the East and especially different from trauma in the third world,” Ben Bassat explained. “In the West, when we talk about trauma, we talk about emotions and cognition. When they talk about it, they talk about the brain of the heart and the brain of the mind.”
“In the West, when someone is in trauma, you measure their recovery by how much someone can return to their routine,” said Ben Bassat. “In the West, after a trauma, it’s acceptable that the person maybe doesn’t go back to work, that he’s in depression, or laying in bed. You don’t see that in Nepal, in the third world. They don’t have the luxury to do this. They also have a lot more strength from inside their communities.”
From physical to psychological
Like many other organizations, the first two missions that Natan sent to Nepal had mostly doctors and nurses, to provide medical support. Their third and fourth mission also included art therapists and social workers, who partnered with local village leaders to train them to recognize signs of emotional trauma and child development.
During one of their missions Natan worked with volunteers from Hapoel Tel Aviv who played soccer with the local children while Natan’s professionals led the workshops for teachers.
After the monsoon season arrived and travel became impossible, Natan’s fifth mission concentrated its efforts in Kathmandu, working with large organizations like college programs for psychology and social work and the police.
This is where the “training the trainers” methodology comes into fruition. Ben Bassat said that the most recent mission featured a three-day retreat for local leaders and professionals outside of Kathmandu. Nepali community leaders who had taken part in previous training sessions from Natan led many of the sessions.
Response, Recovery, Development
Eventually, rehabilitation efforts led by international NGOs will naturally begin to flow into the last stage of disaster response — development. Some villages are already trying to envision things like a community harvest storage and weighing area, which would allow farmers to create a cooperative and command a better price at the markets rather than selling individually to Kathmandu, Ben Bassat explained.
In addition to the psychological support, the other major effort as Nepal enters the recovery stage is housing, both semi-permanent and permanent structures for the coming years. The JDC is cooperating with engineers from the Indian charity All India Disaster Mitigation Institute to study the villages and advise residents not to build in areas that are especially prone to landslides.
One major problem is that construction cannot take place during the monsoon season, so all of the plans are on hold until the rains end at the end of September.
AIDMI is advising residents to use the same traditional methods of wooden frames with bricks to rebuild their new permanent homes. However, they recommend that the locals use longer support beams, as well as masonry on the cornerstones to improve stability during future quakes.
The engineers are also trying to encourage residents to salvage construction materials from their destroyed houses, a challenge as the wood must be protected from the monsoon rains. There are a limited number of tin roofs and tarps available in Nepal, which are needed for providing shelter to people.
But building these semi-permanent and permanent homes takes time, and families need protection now from the monsoon season, which runs from June to September.
The Nepali government provided 1500 rupees, or approximately $150, to each family for a temporary structure, according to Douenias of the JDC. This usually means a sheet of corrugated tin or tarpaulin for every five people in the family.
The temporary structures have no floors, and any belongings the family has managed to salvage from their homes are piled in the middle. Douenias added that the tarpaulins are generally holding up even in the strong rains, providing a temporary solution, but it won’t last much longer than the current season.
Aftershocks disrupt progress
According to the UN, the humanitarian community still needs to assist 1.4 million people with food and another 1 million people with livelihoods support. More than 2.5 million people need safe drinking water and sanitation.
Aid groups are also struggling to get Nepalis back into the regular routine of life. School resumed for most children in June, about six weeks after the first earthquake struck. Reuters reported that more than 32,000 classrooms were destroyed, so many children are learning in temporary structures.
JDC has focused its efforts on helping high school students in 10th grade prepare for their matriculation exams so they can continue on to higher education.
But the ground continues to shake with aftershocks, making any progress feel unstable. “Just a few days ago in Kathmandu we felt a 4.4 magnitude aftershock, so this is also one of the things making people kind of nervous,” said Dounias. “A few weeks ago, a landslide killed 35 people near Pukhara. A while ago they discovered 20 more bodies [in the Langtang area near Everest who were killed in the initial earthquake].”
One issue that all organizations are dealing with now is the lack of resources. “After the first month, the donations stop. I see that with my organization also,” said Ben Bassat. “Maybe it fell off the daily agenda and it’s less sexy because people are thinking about the next things. But even before the earthquake, Nepal was one of the poorest countries in the world. This pushes them dozens of years back.”
Ben Bassat also urged tourists to consider returning to the country. “Nepal is a safe place to go for tourism, and they need tourists because that’s their economy,” he said. Kathmandu has plenty of infrastructure to host tourists, and the other areas need visitors in order to bounce back economically.
Rebuilding the hope for the future
Ben Bassat said that he does not expect Natan to work in Nepal forever. Instead, he hopes to bring tools like emotional trauma therapy so Nepali leaders can build their own resources and eventually operate on their own.
International organizations, like those from Israel, can offer tools, but aid workers agree that ultimately, the resilience must come from the survivors. Many Nepalis have already started rebuilding, making bamboo temporary structures for themselves and their animals.
“They continued to work in the fields,” said Ben Bassat. “[August] is traditionally the hardest part of the agricultural year, when they’re fixing the terraces. There’s no school and the whole family works to rebuild the terraces.”
Ben-Bassat was encouraged to see the Nepalese working hard to lay the groundwork for future harvests. He said that after the second earthquake on May 12, many of the farmers felt hopeless.
“We were hearing things from local farmers like ‘we have no reason to fix our terraces, there will be another earthquake and it will swallow us,” he said.
“But they did go out, and they planted.”