RedR Member Khemraj Upadhyaya is currently the Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor for HelpAge International based in Kathmandu. He is working for the wellbeing of older people affected by the Nepal Earthquakes, and involved in response, planning and rehabilitation initiatives together with helping to reduce the psychosocial effects of the earthquakes. He has worked in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and London for organisations such as DFID and Action Aid. In this interview, Khemraj comments on the rebuilding process after an earthquake, and explains how his work is helping senior Nepalese citizens in rural communities be more resilient in the face of the next disaster.
I’m from the highland area of Nepal, where there’s a lot of poverty. The conditions are difficult, with a lot of snowfall, landslides, and flooding. Experiencing this throughout my childhood made me think about how to help all these people, which is how I became involved in aid work.
I enjoy seeing the changes people experience because of my work. If the local government builds a house, they’ll put the government’s name on the house. But when I built houses with Action Aid, we facilitated placing [the inhabitant’s] name in their language on their wall saying it’s their house, and they felt honoured by that ownership.
A Nepalese earthquake survivor © HelpAge International
On the morning of the 25th April I had an appointment with a friend at 11. I was planning to go out, then suddenly the fourth floor [Khemraj was on the fourth floor of his building] started shaking and we didn’t know what was going on. I was holding my wife and her parents. For a whole week afterwards, we were not fully thinking about anybody else.
I called a friend of mine, a member of RedR India who works for UNICEF, and we met up and worked out what we could do together. We started exchanging ideas at an individual level, not an organisational level. We hugged each other when we met because we had survived - he was walking next to the white tower (Dharahara) in Kathmandu and after it fell in the earthquake he couldn’t cross the debris. If he had been 100m from where he was he may not have survived.
Immediately after an earthquake, local people are devastated and have very little. For three weeks after the earthquake I was worrying about my family in every aftershock. It makes staying focussed in a meeting difficult if your mind is always elsewhere. We need international humanitarian staff in that period; they’re really helpful whilst the locals are panicking. But now they’re less helpful because they don’t know the people or the language. After a certain time, local people must have a role in leading recovery operations, even if we’re still struggling. When the locals can do this, we do it faster and better.
Now we are in the early recovery phase after the earthquake, the biggest need is for shelter. In Nepal, in the highlands, there’ll be snow soon, so we can’t put old people and children under a tin sheet in the cold. Shelter alone is not enough; it needs to be suited to the conditions. Before the earthquake, houses had stone walls and a fire place, but stone-and-mortar walls are not recommended now because they’re not stable long term. At the same time, if the walls are too thin, they don’t protect from the cold. I’m struggling to find a quick solution for the buildings which were destroyed. We need to build back better, and look to the long term - so if there is another disaster it will last. Every single activity needs to improve on what was there before, so we’re not in the same situation again.
Cash distribution at Gorkha, where HelpAge distributed 7,500 rupees per family to suit the diverse needs of the community © HelpAge International
The community has diverse needs, so we [HelpAge International] did struggle with thinking how we could help. If people have money, they can buy according to their needs, so we gave 7,500 rupees each to 10,000 families. We did post-distribution monitoring and people told us they had bought medicine, food, clothes, or building materials. We made sure beforehand that local markets were functioning, otherwise giving money is no use at all. But in this case, it was the best thing we could have done.
HelpAge is currently working on the Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction (IDRR) programme, which focusses on how to engage older people in emergencies. We’re facilitating vulnerability and capacity assessment with the Older People Associations (OPAs) in villages. They discuss how to mitigate and overcome vulnerabilities in the local context. The government has also been facilitating Disaster Management Plan (DMP) which will do risk and hazard mapping, and prepare a comprehensive local village development plan. We’re working to include the OPA’s input in the government’s DMP, which works at a local, district, and national level, so the community-led planning project could feed into national planning. In two years’ time we will be able to see how, through local and national levels, the government can implement and resource it.
We’ve found that the knowledge and resources needed to overcome older people’s specific vulnerabilities come from the older people themselves. We asked them how they wanted to improve their facilities and their treatment, and from that we generated messages for each department. For example, at the health centre, just saying ‘you need to have medicines and facilities for older people’ doesn’t mean anything. Saying ‘you need medicine for diabetes and blood pressure’ is more effective. This kind of advice can only come from the older people themselves.
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