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Illness, Hunger Close in on Earthquake Survivors in Nepal

July 30, 2015

A truck full of relief items is offloaded at a distribution site for people from remote villages.

Following Nepal's massive April 25 and May 12 earthquakes, villagers who have lost their homes are spending hours lugging corrugated metal sheets up mountains to protect their families against torrential rains. Given what precedes the mountain treks and what follows, trudging for two days up muddy trails with the unwieldy sheet metal may be the easiest part of survival.

Preceding the treks can be near riotous competition for the coveted corrugated iron. After arriving at remote villages, they must then find a way, despite the absence of other structural materials, to utilize the sheet metal to shelter hungry family members. Three months after the first 7.8-magnitude quake, food aid remains a high priority. Lacking food and clean water, adults are increasingly despondent, and children frightened, as hunger and intestinal illness grow each day, indigenous missionaries report.

The government's lack of assessment and coordination continues to impede distribution of relief aid, especially in remote villages. Indigenous ministries that already have distribution channels in place, the necessary permits and the cultural understanding and contacts to provide aid have been critical in keeping the unhoused sheltered and fed, said Christian Aid Mission's South Asia Director, Sarla.

She returned last week from a visit to victims and ministries Christian Aid assists in Nepal.

"There are a lot of NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] in Kathmandu right now trying to bring help, but the lack of coordination and assessment – where and who has lost what and how much, and who really needs to get help – has not really been done properly," she said. "So everybody is waiting for something to happen."

The indigenous Christian organizations, by contrast, have been distributing rice, salt, soya bean, noodles, cereals and other items to people who are struggling to protect themselves from monsoon rains. A team from one of the indigenous ministries had the means and the knowledge to conduct a two-week assessment of needs in one area, and local missionaries had the contacts and established governmental relations to glide through red tape and get relief to victims, Sarla said.

"We are sending funds to local agencies that are already aware of these issues – they know how to go about it, they know what needs to be done to get to a village, they know how to get the permits you need, they know who to call in the village, they know how to make these assessments," she said. "They are in much better position than somebody going from the outside and trying to find some local connections here."

In the official distribution process, the government is requiring villagers to bring proof of damages. The victims do not have cameras or any other means for providing such evidence of need, Sarla said. They have to rely on officials to come to their villages to make assessments, and no one in remote areas knows when that might happen.

Meantime, landslides have continued to rock affected districts, and there are tremors nearly every day, some as strong as 5.5 on the Richter scale, she said. The official death toll from the earthquakes, including May 12's 7.3-magnitude aftershock, is more than 9,000, with more casualties yet to be discovered.

Desperate villagers have become panicked at distribution of limited amounts of aid. In a remote area of Makwanpur District, a ministry team found about 200 families from various villages in need, including 52 families who had lost everything – homes, crops and livestock. A team from the indigenous ministry showed up at a distribution site with a truck full of corrugated sheet metal in the pouring rain.

"There were people from 200 families, and they were saying 'Now, my house is not down entirely down, but it's unlivable; we can't live there,'" Sarla said. "There was this tension, I thought we were looking at a riot of some sort, and the cops had come to make sure that everything went well."

The police also took copies of the distribution permits the ministry had obtained. The team then faced the challenge of providing metal sheets to 52 families and appeasing the rest, besides knowing the people well enough to know who might be sneaking in extra family representatives to try to get additional aid.

The road to recovery will be a long one for survivors of Nepal's earthquakes.

"There were some loud voices coming out," Sarla said, "and then the ministry leader said, 'Look, we have food for everybody. All 200 families are going to get the food. But the tin sheets, we are going to have to prioritize. We'll give it the 52 first.' So he had to negotiate, using his cultural skills to say, 'Look, these are your neighbors, you know, so don't go asking about someone getting something and you not getting it.' There was a lot of local knowledge and cultural nuance needed to actually implement and carry out this distribution."

Representatives from the 52 families then rolled up their long sheets of corrugated metal, loaded them onto their backs and began the climb back on washed-out donkey trails. Representatives had come from one village as far as nine hours away by foot. The closest village was four hours away.

The indigenous missionaries plan to trek up to those same villages with the message of Christ's salvation after those who have lost everything have regained their lives and livelihood.

Among 10 ministries that Christian Aid supports, leaders report 35 church buildings have been destroyed. If they receive funding, the indigenous leaders plan to rebuild church buildings before houses, as the government will be obligated to provide at least some help to citizens in need of new homes but none for places of worship. Church buildings are also important for providing community services, and in villages where worship in homes would arouse suspicion if not hostility, they serve as an acceptable place for worship.

"Christians are lining up for government assistance to families, but we don't know whether it will be sufficient or not," Sarla said.

Those who have lost their homes are taking cover under tarps, metal sheets, damaged school buildings or are staying with relatives and friends whose homes are still standing.

The indigenous ministries have worked ceaselessly to bring help. One native Christian worker reported that his organization was able to secure a helicopter from United Vision Nepal and distribute more than 270 tents, along with food. Before a church pastor identified only as Caleb reached the area, Nepalese soldiers had distributed some relief items, but villagers ended up fighting over the limited offering, the native missionary said.

"Later Caleb went with two army and security policemen, and this time when people saw Caleb, everyone came near him and cried with him," the missionary said. "While he was distributing things to them, some people brought drinks for him, some brought bread, and whatever they had, they brought for him. There was no fighting, a very peaceful environment. Caleb shared with us that the army and police were very much surprised, and later they started to salute him."


SC: MIR