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With Will and Strong Backs, a Quake-hit Nepal Village Rebuilds

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A door of a collapsed house stands in a village in Solukhumbu district, near Mount Everest in Nepal, following the massive quake that hit the country in April of last year. Reuters

DHAP, Nepal – When an earthquake last year flattened this mountain village in central Nepal, killing 114 people, destroying homes and ripping apart a crucial irrigation system, many residents thought their only option was to leave, permanently.
“When everything got damaged, people thought this place was not where they could live the rest of their lives,” remembers Seesir Waiba, a community leader. But nearly a year later, as much of Nepal faces delays and struggles in rebuilding after the devastating April quake, the 200 families of Dhap are back in their fields and in temporary homes.
Using their own hard work, a small government handout, and some basic technical support and donated materials, they have rebuilt homes for every family and irrigation channels sufficient to reach 60 percent of their land.
What kept them from giving up on Dhap was, largely, a quick decision by community leaders that the village had the capacity to recover, and growing belief by initially deeply skeptical community members that the leaders might be right.
“I called a meeting of all the village elders and we decided to create temporary shelters for each family out of the debris – stones and timber – and later restore the irrigation system,” said Mr. Waiba, president of local Water Users’ Association.
What was clear, he said, is that for most people in their community, migrating away to look for work in Kathmandu “would be worse” than working hard to stay.
“Our village is like a home and every household is like a family member,” explained Ganga Chapagain, a school teacher and the only woman among the village’s leadership. “Where else could we get this brotherhood?”
When the earthquake shocked Nepal last April 25, it killed more than 9,000 people, injured tens of thousands more, destroyed about 730,000 structures and wiped out everything from roads to water supply systems. Since then, recovery has been a struggle. Reconstruction is still in early stages, with much of $4.4 billion pledged by donors only slowly arriving and making its way to people.
According to Dipak Gyawali, Nepal’s former water resources minister and a leading political economist, getting aid money into use takes time in any emergency, and not all pledges are met. But weak delivery has also been a problem for Nepal’s post-conflict government, he said. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) took six months to form and its head was appointed only late last December, he said.
The agency still lacks manpower to function as effectively as needed, and even immediate relief funds have not yet been fully delivered, he said.
In Dhap, the earthquake split open the land and landslides destroyed homes and irrigation canals feeding the community’s 130 hectares (320 acres) of rice, wheat, potato and mustard fields.
Without anywhere to live, villagers were taken to makeshift camps in Kathmandu and in other district headquarters. There, some decided against moving back to the village, saying there was nothing to live for. “We thought, ‘What we can do there when our homes and farms are entirely devastated?’” remembers Jeet Bahadur, one of the villagers.
But Mr. Waiba and other community leaders pointed out that their village had plenty of skilled labor and manpower to rebuild. In about a month, as the aftershocks died away, they decided to return and try.
“So all of us worked together and created the temporary shelters for all the families. The government later provided 15,000 Nepali rupees ($138) to each family for buying tin sheets” for roofing, Waiba said.
“Later, we shifted our focus to irrigation canals which were snapped by huge landslides at many places. It did not only demand hard labor for removing the landslides manually, but also raising [embankments] at various places for providing support to the banks of the canals,” he said. According to Mr. Waiba, it took the farmers about seven weeks to restore irrigation to about 60 percent of their farmland. “We left the 40 percent as such because taking water to this area could trigger more landslides. But it doesn’t mean this land is fallow. There we grow crops such as millet, which don’t require [irrigation] water,” Mr. Waiba said.
Prachanda Pradhan, whose Nepalese organization, the Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems Promotion Trust, provided technical support to the Dhap farmers on the irrigation rebuilding, said such small-scale irrigation systems are crucial to many farmers in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, helping protect jobs and food supplies.
“Small irrigation systems are not small at all in terms of their total impact on the national economy, agrarian relations, and ecological adaptability and resilience,” Mr. Pradhan said. He said Nepal’s hill and mountain regions contain thousands of the systems, and many suffered damage, “though not the way the Dhap area has suffered.”
Mr. Pradhan praised the resilience of Dhap farmers, saying they did well not to simply wait for the government to bail them out of the crisis. “When we went to their area, we admired their social capital and decided to facilitate their rebuilding process,” he said. Besides technical support, his organization provided some pipes to connect gaps in irrigation canals and plastic to help plug cracks in the system, he said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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