Earthquake survivors face dangerous winter as Nepal relief runs out of fuel

Earthquake survivors face dangerous winter as Nepal relief runs out of fuel

Submerged in the political wrangling over its new constitution and the furore surrounding the fuel shortage in Nepal lies an imminent, far severe crisis for the thousands of earthquake survivors living in the higher reaches of the Himalayan nation.

Winter is coming and they have no real shelter.

“We are in a race against time to reach 84,000 people with vital supplies before snow sets in,” says Iolanda Jacquemet of the World Food Programme, which leads the United Nations Logistics Cluster, the agency responsible for coordinating relief operations in the country. “Earthquake-affected populations at high altitudes will be cut off from the world in about 3-4 weeks.”

In the last fortnight, across Nepal, earthquake relief has suffered severely. Protests by ethnic groups in the Tarai region near the Indian border over their underrepresentation in Nepal’s newly enacted constitution resulted in a pile-up of supply trucks from India, leading to a severe fuel shortage in the country. The Dashain festival, when most Nepalis travel home to celebrate with families, began yesterday, and has accentuated the need for mobility, placing further pressure on the already squeezed resources available for relief work.

“We have used the last drop of diesel available to distribute food,” says Jacquemet. “Fuel for choppers will expire in one week. We are 30 per cent late on our distributions as of today.”

The situation is particularly serious for those in the hilly, remote areas of Gorkha and Sindhupalchok, where temperatures dip to below zero. Supplies can only reach these communities through a combination of off-road vehicles, porters and mules. WFP has one month’s worth of food relief supplies ready on the ground. But the lack of diesel has meant distributions to some 224,000 people have been severely disrupted, says Jacquemet.

Lily Thapa, Women's Human Rights

Women for Human Rights founder Lily Thapa is concerned her organisation will not be able to finish distributing supplies before the winter sets in. Photo: Patrick Ward

Survivors face the prospect of a winter in open tents in the lower reaches as well. Sudarshan Shrestha from Save the Children spoke of how his organisation had promised goods and supplies to several communities before Dashain, and how that commitment could not be kept. If relief work does not pick up momentum quickly, he says, “we could could end up with a double humanitarian crisis”.

In Chhoprak, a remote village in the Gorkha district, where 1,504 of the 1,531 houses were destroyed by the earthquake, the Nepali NGO Women for Human Rights faces a similar, broken promise. Most households live in temporary shelters without proper windows or doors, and WHR is concerned that supplies such as solar lights, winter clothes and blankets will not get dispersed in time.

“We have distributed 8,000 items over the past two months,” says WHR founder Lily Thapa. “We still have 10,000 more to distribute.”

The fuel crisis has also pushed up the cost of distributing relief for NGOs. “Usually the private vehicles we hire to take goods from Kathmandu to Gorkha cost around NPR 22,000 [approximately £138],” says Bisheshta Shrestha, an aid worker at WHR. “That has doubled right now. Local transport in Gorkha is even more expensive.”

Further, NGOs face the prospect of losing donor support if they do not meet agreed objectives. “If you don’t finish your work within the deadline, you have to find another funding source,” says Ram Hari Adhikari, who works for Mission East, a Danish NGO. “It’s the same story for all the NGOs.”

Adhikari works in Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, building community toilets and hygiene facilities. That work has been hampered by the unavailability of cement, sand, and other construction materials. In addition, the fuel crisis has had severe economic and social impacts on the communities in the district.

In Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, thousands still live in temporary shelters. This is one such camp in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border. Photo: Patrick Ward

In Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, thousands still live in temporary shelters. This is one such camp in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border. Photo: Patrick Ward

“Many people working in the transportation industry are jobless at the moment. Those selling goods which come from India, like milk and vegetables, are also suffering,” Adhikari says. “After the earthquake, schools closed for two months. Now, schools have been disrupted again, so children can’t finish their courses this academic year.”

In the southern plains of the Tarai region too, NGOs are facing issues. Relief has been disrupted by the turbulence caused by the Madhesi and Tharu protesters calling for amendments to Nepal’s new constitution. An EU delegation to Nepal last week issued a statement expressing concern about the effects of the current situation on “the poorest segments of the population, including in the Tarai”. General strikes have crippled everyday life in the Tarai for the past few months; curfews were imposed and many schools suspended classes.

In the past weeks we’ve had to temporarily close operations in six districts, in the interests of the safety of our staff,” says Sudarshan Shrestha. The Nepal Red Cross faced several incidents of vandalism. In one incident, an ambulance was set on fire and an injured patient killed.

The UN Logistics Cluster has now requested the government for priority access to fuel. But Rameshwar Dangal, head of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Disaster Management Division, is doubtful it will be approved immediately.

“We have a huge crisis due to Dashain,” he says. “I think the government will prioritise providing fuel to public transport and private vehicles.”

At this point, like the rest of the nation, aid agencies can only wait for the situation to improve. But time is running out fast. “Even if the situation improved tomorrow,” says Sudarshan Shrestha, “it would take us a week or more to get back on our feet.”

‘Emergencies are always ebbing and flowing and changing, on a moment-to-moment basis’

Nearly six months after the earthquake, relief work is still vital for thousands of Nepalis. Hundreds of families are short of food, a cause for grave concern with the winter approaching, particularly for those living in remote areas.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme is the largest humanitarian organisation dedicated to hunger and food security in the world, and has had a strong presence in Nepal since April. A vital aspect of its operations is finding ways to get food to the people who need it most, often across incredibly inhospitable terrain. WFP says it has supplied food to more than 2 million people in earthquake-affected regions of Nepal, using trucks, tractors and helicopters.

Namita Rao and Ritu Panchal met up with Dorothy Hector, National Coordinator for Remote Access Operations in Nepal, and John Myraunet, National Logistics Cluster Coordinator, at their base in Kathmandu to understand the intricacies of their operations, the constraints they are facing, and the measures they are taking to prepare for the future. Excerpts:

What are your basic roles at WFP in Nepal?

John: Whenever there is a big scale emergency, the WFP activates a cluster system where we take on a leadership role and coordinate with other humanitarian organisations, NGOs, nonprofits and the UN as well as the local government. This structure came about after the 2004 tsunami. So instead of having hundreds of organisations going in at the same time and doing things without coordination, risking unequal distribution of food and wasting food due to profligacy, WFP takes the lead on logistics cluster operations and maximises the geographical spread. In the beginning of an emergency, we get together all the logistics personnel from other humanitarian organisations that are involved in the immediate response to find out the main logistic bottlenecks we are facing. We ask other organisations what their immediate requirement is and then send out help. WFP is mostly the provider of last resort. If there is no other way, we will go in and set up base for all organisations. The response action for the delivery of cargo includes bringing in supplies from the airplanes in batches and storing them at the Humanitarian Staging Area, a common storage area for all the different organisations.

“We’ve been rebuilding trails all over the country and have been using the expertise of mountaineers who climb Annapurna and Everest.”

Dorothy: We came up with the idea of Remote Access Operations to deliver cargo to the farthest villages of the land and to repair trails for transporting cargo. Most people in Nepal live in high mountainous regions. There are no roads and everything is done by trails. After the earthquake, all of the trails were destroyed and the monsoon that came in almost immediately exacerbated the ability of people to move around, as well as to move relief material on ground to the areas that have no access. Helicopters ease the process in such cases, but they are also the most expensive means to do so. We’ve been rebuilding trails all over the country and have been using the expertise of mountaineers who climb Annapurna and Everest. These specialists are very helpful in identifying safety and security issues not only for the humanitarian people involved but also for the locals who live in those areas. We have also gone all the way around using mules, porters and yaks to move the cargo. A lot of pack animals support the high altitude villages and that takes 15 days to deliver from the warehouse all the way up and over a long trek. We recently passed the milestones of 1,000 km of trail and 1,000 tonnes of cargo committed to be moved by RAO.

Dorothy Hector, National Coordinator for Remote Access Operations in Nepal, and John Myraunet, National Logistics Cluster Coordinator, WFP.

Dorothy Hector and John Myraunet. The WFP is working to ensure food and relief supplies reach even the remotest towns and villages in Nepal. Photo: Ritu Panchal

WFP is in its third phase of relief work. Could you explain what that consists of?

D: In the third phase of food delivery, there is no longer general delivery in terms of free food. We have started delivering food for work. The communities have to now carry out a few days’ work a month with our partner organisations in the field to receive the food. There are other areas that we’ve assessed where there is no food need necessarily but there is a need for the ability to purchase things and have buying power. So we’re doing a cash-for-work programme in those areas that are closer to the towns and markets. The work that is assigned to people does not require any advanced skill, just the use of  basic equipment for cleaning off trails, creating access to local clinics and local water points, doing minor works in the village to make their day-to-day life better.

Supplies are loaded up for distribution from the WFP base in Kathmandu.

Supplies are loaded up for distribution from the WFP base in Kathmandu. The need for food in many remote areas is still of high importance, although now it is usually provided in exchange for work. Photo: Ritu Panchal

Have there been any frustrations with the relief work that has been coordinated and do you think it could have been handled better?

D: I think that there is no emergency at anytime, anywhere that doesn’t have frustrations and challenges that need to be worked out. We always learn from mistakes and that’s the important thing, to have the ability to look at what you’ve done and make a list of lessons learnt and implement the necessary changes. There’s no such thing as a perfect solution, especially in a disaster. Emergencies are always ebbing and flowing and changing, on a moment-to-moment basis. Here, during the monsoon, the trails change from minute to minute. While delivering cargo, we might have set up a whole portering operation and say, “Yes, we are going to get your food tomorrow,” and we arrive at the trail and we have all the food ready and the porters are standing there and the next thing you know the monsoon has caused a landslide and we’ve lost the trail. This happened to us a couple of times and we sat there at the end of the road thinking, “Okay, you’re not going to get your food tomorrow.” We then got to work immediately fixing the trail and the food was delivered to them a few weeks later. There are things for which we just have to be flexible and work with everyone we can and not be afraid to say, “Yup, we did that wrong and we’ve got to do it right the next time.”

J: Having proper preparedness and investing in preparedness has been a real good lesson to learn from this one. The state of emergency in Nepal has been used as an example at the global level because we had this Humanitarian Staging Area in place before the emergency and that enabled us to start immediately instead of waiting and using a lot of money on flying all the equipment here. Having had this cluster system in place for a while, we see more and more willingness from the different humanitarian acts to work together. So while before it might have been more individually done, now they’re coming together and are sharing information they have with all of the organisations to give a better response together.

What kind of cooperation have you had from the government?

D: It has been incredible from my experience. John can tell you that in every logistics meeting we have had a government representative. The Ministry of Home Affairs has an office right here and we’ve got a coordinator between the civilian and the humanitarian actors in the military. We’ve got a significant amount of activity and support from them as we are here to help the government of Nepal and not to undermine them in any way. We work with them and we work with their approval in the districts. It’s all about coordinating with them, understanding their needs and making sure that our plans are aligned with what their intentions are so that we are actually acting on their behalf in their areas.

There were reports about the suspension of United Nations Humanitarian Air Service due to shortage of funding. Does this issue still exist?

J: We have started flying again. A few donors have come forward to say that they will continue funding and also, at the donors’ request, we have introduced a cost component for the helicopters, so the NGOs are paying 20 per cent of the cost of the service. It’s a bit hard to say how this will affect certain organisations and their budgets for their operations because it is still very expensive to fly.

D: That’s where Remote Access Operation comes into play because that’s when the porters and the yaks can carry cargo between 30 to 60 kg. It is a lot slower but we can get to most of the locations. There are still places where only helicopters can gain access. We still continue to monitor those areas and advise donors because if there are any trails being repaired by heavy engineering, we would prefer that the areas accessible only by helicopters are given top priority so we can ease the financial burden from those trying to help.

Since the earthquake, have you noticed anything peculiar about the way people function on a day-to-day basis?

D: We weren’t there during the earthquake so we can’t really compare, but one thing I’ve noticed is that we most often forget that government officials and public servants are also affected by the earthquake. There’s been a lot of demanding from the Prime Minister and the ministers and the local representatives to do different things and sometimes we forget that they are a part of the suffering too and not just the beneficiaries in the remote areas. Some of them lost their homes, family members and yet they’re still doing their job for the country. So we always have to keep that in mind as those of us who come in afterwards, that our beneficiaries are not always just the people that are hungry and have lost their homes and fields but also the actual people that we’re working with.

Zinc roofing materials for homes and shelters awaits distribution at the WFP base in Kathmandu.

Zinc roofing materials for homes and shelters awaits distribution at the WFP base in Kathmandu. With winter coming, the need for adequate shelter is vital as many people still have no permanent housing. Photo: Ritu Panchal


“Winter is coming… and nothing that we do is going to change that. We need to ensure that we are planning for it, that we deliver as much as we possibly can.”

What are the challenges that lie ahead?

D: Winter is coming… and nothing that we do is going to change that. We need to ensure that we are planning for it and that we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that we deliver as much as we possibly can. By doing so we will be prepared when the snow falls, especially in the remote areas. People need to be able to access food, stores and shelter that we were able to preposition for them so that the winter isn’t going to be as hard as it could be. That’s what we’re most concerned about today and we are working very hard to ensure that we beat the snow.

There have been reports of another quake that is going to hit Nepal. What are the steps that the organisation is taking to be ready to face it?

J: In a place like Nepal which faces danger of a recurring threat, maintaining a structure like the HSA is something that we will continue doing and that will go into next year. We will also be working very closely with the government to assist them. We will be focusing on building the government’s capacity on emergency response, having equipment, staff that is trained and having processes and procedures in place so that we’re better prepared to respond to emergencies.

What future do you see for Nepal’s recovery?

D: One of the bigger issues in Nepal is infrastructure because logistics uses infrastructure like roads, bridges, trails in order to solve problems. Given the effect of the monsoon post the earthquakes, infrastructure is most damaged and as an engineer I’m going to say that it’s going to take a long time to repair everything. People are repairing the road to China, the road to Sindupalchok and once the rain stops they’re planning to do some major work on the tourist trails so there’s going to be enough work for quite a long time. At the end of the day we need to keep in mind that this is an earthquake zone so you repair something and you might have to come back and do it again. It’s all about the infrastructure.

J: Through the logistic cluster we also have a specific working group looking at access and infrastructure to map out the key bottlenecks and identify if anybody has any projects to open those roads and trails.

D: We had planned to work on a trail in Gorkha only to find out that the monks in the monasteries had already done it. Yesterday, talking to another group we found out that the locals have fixed a major trail that goes through the district we had planned to fix. There is an abundance of wealth of information as well as people willing to do things for themselves and their resilience is incredible. I see the resilience of the people that live in the remote areas and they are an incredible group of people. They know what their lifelines are so they get out there and they’re helping themselves every day. It’s really heart-warming to watch them rebuild their country.

‘They put on a brave face to help other people, but they have private disasters of their own’

“One of the things about disasters is that people tend to forget that those who make the decisions, people in the government and local leaders, have experienced the same disaster too. Their families, their homes have all been affected. Yet they are still out there as public servants, doing their job. They put on a brave face to help other people, but they have private disasters of their own.”

Photo: Ritu Panchal