From tremors to torrents, aid workers in Nepal fear the worst

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Emergency response teams say the monsoon will make the logistics of distributing aid more difficult as well as increase the risk of disease outbreak

For three weeks Banu Lama and her unnamed baby boy have been sheltering from early monsoon showers under plastic sheets on a mountainside in Nepal.

With little money and food, she worries about her baby. “I was only just pregnant, I’m a new mother, I need food,” she says. “But what can I do?”

The wide-eyed 21-year-old is among hundreds of thousands who’ve been living without a roof over their heads ever since the landlocked Himalayan country was wracked by earthquakes. The initial 7.8 magnitude quake on 25 April destroyed houses, health facilities, schools and roads. Now more than a month later and the death toll has risen over 8,600, with more than half a million houses deemed wrecked.

Lama’s little boy was only a few weeks old when the first tremor struck. She was staying at a relative’s house in Kathmandu at the time, having travelled there to give birth.

“We felt everything shaking and ran outside of the house,” she says. While her home in Dolakha was still standing when she returned, it shook to pieces on 12 May when a 7.3 magnitude aftershock rocked the country, hitting her home district the hardest.

Now Lama sits by the roadside, near her makeshift plastic home, waiting for aid workers to bring emergency supplies of rice and oil.

The Nepalese government and NGOs have been frantically trying to get supplies to affected villages in the 14 hardest hit districts, using professional climbers, helicopters and porters to tackle the mountainous terrain – with some75,000 people living high up in the Himalayas near the border of China, beyond even where helicopters can land.

The challenge to reach the most isolated people is expected to get even harder during monsoon season, when steep mountainsides destabilised by tremors are expected to break apart with landslides, tracks washing away, flooding and many more villages getting cut off.

“Straight after the monsoon is the winter, so it’s snowy and cold, equally bad conditions for people to be sleeping out in,” says Caroline Anning, from NGO Save The Children’s emergency response team.

“We’ve got the initial tarpaulins out,” Anning says. “But now it’s how do we get people the resources, whether that’s the materials or money to shore them up and make them waterproof and warm for the monsoon.”

Aside from making the logistics of distributing aid far more difficult, aid workers fear monsoon will heighten the risk of disease outbreaks. “Nepal has regular small cholera outbreaks, they have them most years actually, which they’re able to keep under control pretty well,” Anning says. “But in these kind of conditions with so many people sleeping out, with so many sewerage networks destroyed, with so little clean water, it could spread really, really fast.” Mothers and newborns will be among those most vulnerable to getting sick, she adds.

Aid workers are also concerned about human traffickers preying on affected communities, with a United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report noting that, “cross border movement requires close monitoring”.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is mapping earthquake damage, including not just destroyed buildings and infrastructure, but mountains shaken up by tremors that are now at risk of landslides.

“What we foresee is when the rainy season comes there will be more landslides because of the earthquake, and then there might be more dams which will cause floods and inundation issues downstream,” says Dr Eklabya Sharma, ICIMOD Director Programme Operations. “Six rivers are blocked in different places [by landslides already] but water is passing through, so it’s not a big issue now,” he says. “But in the rainy season, if there are more landslides, it will become a bigger risk.”

The Nepalese government is planning to relocate those living in risky areas to temporary resettlement camps. But most people want to camp by their broken homes, and remain among the communities they know.

“We talked to some of the families and they say that they prefer to stay near their houses,” says Devanna de la Puente, a protection advisor for the United Nations Populations Fund. “Being a single mother at the side of the road might be more of a risk, but at the same time you cannot force them, they want to be there.”

Nepal’s government has estimated the overall damage at $10 billion, nearly half of its gross domestic product (GDP) of $19.2 billion. It’s calling for donors to contribute to its $2 billion earthquake reconstruction fund.

Full-scale rebuilding is not expected to start until the end of the year, after monsoon-soaked soils dry out. Aid workers predict it could take up to five years to complete.

Meanwhile, a UN appeal for $423 million to cover relief efforts for the first three months is underfunded, with only $US102 million received by 29 May.

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s resident coordinator for Nepal, says development workers are racing against time to reach victims before the rains arrive.

“If we don’t act quickly, the implications will be severe,” says McGoldrick. “We can only expect misery, a crippling loss of dignity and the real potential for more deaths especially in the rural and remote areas”.

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