Nepal 2006: Clean water and disaster awareness are lifesavers

Since 2006, Mission East has worked to develop remote mountain communities in western Nepal. The poverty-stricken population has found new opportunities and hope for the future. A permanent presence in the country also enables Mission East to respond quickly to disaster situations.

By Line Højland, Communications Officer

Just before noon on Saturday 25 April 2015, Nepal was struck by the worst earthquake for decades. Within a few seconds, entire villages and centuries-old buildings were turned into rubble by the powerful tremors, measuring 7,8 on the Richter scale. More than 8,700 people lost their lives, and 2,8 million became homeless.

During the first few hours after the earthquake, Mission East staff in Kathmandu, Copenhagen and Brussels had already taken action: They needed to check out the affected areas, raise money, and buy hygiene kits and tarpaulins. They had to coordinate the relief effort with the UN and local authorities. A week after the devastating earthquake, Mission East, together with partner organisations and local volunteers, distributed the first tarpaulins, hygiene kits and jerrycans to families in the severely affected Sindhupalchowk District.

Two factors enabled Mission East to respond quickly to the earthquake in Nepal: A long-standing presence in the country and a close partnership with the experienced emergency aid organisation, Medair, through the Integral Alliance. Medair’s expertise in quick emergency response and Mission East’s in-depth knowledge of Nepalese local communities made it possible for the two organisations to help 8,480 families with shelter and protection against disease, thanks to tarpaulins, water purifying tablets and latrines.

A tough life

Mission East has worked in Nepal through partners since 1997 with an emphasis on agricultural development and education. The organisation was aware that the population in the remote mountain areas in the western part of the country were living tough and isolated lives in extreme poverty. In December 2006, a small Mission East team traveled to the village of Dhainakot on a mountain slope in the Mugu District near Karnali to find out how Mission East could help. The journey was taken on foot and lasted several days. The small expedition encountered horrifying conditions.

“When we approached the village, we saw traces of diarrhea on the footpaths, and there were flies everywhere,” Graeme Glover of Mission East said. It turned out that the population did not have enough food for the whole year, and the children were visibly malnourished and suffered from intestinal worms.

One little girl in particular attracted Graeme’s attention. “Despite the cold temperatures, she had bare feet. Her nose was running. From her harsh manner towards others, and the harsh way she was treated herself, I could see that life was bad for her. Her parents were not alive anymore, and she lived with her grandparents who quite obviously did not want her. At their advanced age, they had sufficient problems feeding themselves,” he said.

Diarrhea costs lives

Wherever Mission East staff went, they met others in similar situations as the little girl: Poor, malnourished children who suffered from constant diarrhea and other simple illnesses that could be treated or prevented. But the local population did not know how to do this, and almost ten per cent of the children died before the age of five.

Mission East decided to establish projects in the Humla and Mugu Districts focusing on health and hygiene. The villagers were taught how dangerous it was to leave human feces in the fields and on footpaths instead of in latrines. They were taught to wash their hands after going to the latrine. And systems for clean drinking water were established, meaning that children and adults no longer had to drink from dirty streams that were also used by cows and goats.

Soon, child mortality dropped dramatically, and the previously unwell villagers became more energetic. “We can see a huge difference in our village since we had clean water and latrines. Before, there was a lot of diarrhea, fever and disease, but now there is much less of that,” Kahliha Bahadur Padara, a social worker in Duli village, said in 2010. Previously, the village had lost at least eight or ten children per year, but since the introduction of clean drinking water eight months earlier, not one single child had died.

Avoid the rubble!

Another big problem in the mountains of Nepal are recurring natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and mud slides. While they are rarely as devastating as the major earthquake in 2015, they do cost hundreds of lives every year. They also ruin houses and crops. In an area where people depend 100 per cent on the crops they can grow themselves, one ruined harvest may prove fatal.

With the right knowledge, the worst consequences of disasters are preventable. Houses need not be built on slopes where there is considerable risk of mud slides. And if disaster occurs, one needs to react in the most sensible way possible. If there is an earthquake, hurrying outside as most people would is not necessarily the smartest thing to do. A lot of rubble can hit you before you reach safety. Instead, one should seek shelter under a table or another stable object to avoid being crushed underneath a collapsed building.

Safe classrooms

To spread this knowledge around the villages, Mission East has established disaster management groups. Members receive first aid training and in turn they train the rest of the village. Local school children are also trained as they are the future:

“For example, we have now realised that our blackboards were standing in our classrooms without being secured. Now we have fastened them to the walls, making our classrooms safer,” Bharat Bam, a tenth grader from Shanighat and chairman of the school’s youth club, said. He received training in disaster management in 2014.

But back to the earthquake in 2015. Western Nepal where Mission East carries out its work, was scarcely affected. The districts around the capital Kathmandu were, and many people lost their lives. After focusing on securing immediate survival, Mission East has started raising awareness of disaster preparedness in the affected areas to better equip the population to deal with future earthquakes and other natural disasters. 

The original Danish language version of this article was published in a special edition of the Mission East magazine to commemorate the organisation's 25-year Jubilee in November 2016.


Now Pundor has time for her homework

”My mother has changed a lot since she joined the reading group,” 13-year old Pundor Lama said. She is the daughter of Tungja Lama who has participated in one of Mission East’s reading groups for women in the area. Apart from numbers and letters, Tungja has learnt about the rights of herself and her daughter. Tungja is now more aware of her daughter’s homework and gives her more time to study. “Before, I had to help cooking, doing laundry and tending the fields. Now my mother tells me to read instead,” Pundor said and continued: “My teacher says that I have improved a lot, and he is very happy about my progress. I like going to school, I especially enjoy physics,” she said with a smile. Pundor dreams of studying to become a nurse in Kathmandu. “Then I can return to the mountains and help people,” she said.