Rebuilding Nepal

UNICEF's Kent Page speaks from Kathmandu on the challenge to get kids back into schools, reach remote villages, and rebuild a country, following two powerful earthquakes.
By: /
May 29, 2015
A resident tries to climbs down on the debris of her house at a village following Saturday's earthquake in Sindhupalchowk, Nepal, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on Saturday, April 25 — killing an estimated 8,000 people and destroying thousands of homes, businesses and classrooms — New York-based UNICEF senior communications advisor Kent Page found himself not far away, in Manila, Philippines. By Monday, he was on the ground in Kathmandu.

Now, more than one month on, Page is still there, visiting and assessing damaged schools and hospitals, implementing an emergency measles vaccination campaign and above all, speaking with children affected physically and psychosocially by the disaster.

Page, a Canadian who has worked across West and Central Africa, in Afghanistan, Haiti, and the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, was present when a second, 7.3-magnitude quake struck the country on May 12, shaking the ground and rattling spirits all over again.

He spoke to OpenCanada recently from Kathmandu.

What was Nepal like when you first arrived?

We got here late at night. The flight was coming from Delhi and as with many flights that came in the first four or five days, we couldn’t land, we just circled around and around in Kathmandu because there was too much congestion at the airport and probably a bit of chaos. There were lots of search and rescue people, aid organizations, UN personnel like myself, on the plane, and lot of Nepalese who were coming back to try to help out, so it was a mixed bag on the flight.

By the time we got here, it was dark, and it’s been full-on work ever since.

What was the extent of the damage at that time?

I have been out every single day to different parts of Nepal — tomorrow I’m going to Sindhupalchowk, that’s the place where’s there’s been the most casualties and deaths. So I’ve been travelling a lot.

There are parts of Kathmandu you can drive through and it looks like there is nothing wrong with it. And then there are other parts where some of the the most beautiful temples are gone and yet the temple beside the temple that is gone is still standing.

It’s a very complex emergency to respond to because the damage is spread out among 14 most effected districts — I think there are 75 districts in Nepal. So in one village everything is gone and in the next village three buldings are gone but 10 are standing, and in the next village three are standing and 10 are gone and that’s what it’s like. The places that are hardest hit, they really are, they are devastated.

And what are the most urgent needs for those districts, in terms of infrastructure, hospitals, etc.?

In some areas, up to 90 percent of medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed, in the Patan hospital here in Kathmandu, it’s a four-storey building and the third and second floors are empty. All the patients have been brought down to the ground floor so that if there is an earthquake they can be pulled out quickly and safely, and they are just too scared to be up on the second, third or fourth floor. UNICEF has set up tents in the parking lot area, large medical tents where patients are staying and recovering but also where the equipment has been brought down from the third floor and into the tents, so operations are happening around the clock.

A maternity hosptial I was at, it was just like a bomb went off in it, or it looks like a war zone. The delivery room is completley caved in, there’s a woman who was trying to give birth at the time and they were getting ready to extricate the baby and the earthquake came and they rushed her out of the building and sort of immediately thereafter they realized they didn’t need to extricate the baby at all, it was coming out on it’s own. So that was a bit of a good story, but the whole maternity ward and hospital is unuseable. It’s like a bomb went off.

Then there was another place I was at, a rehabilitation centre for disabled children — this really amazing place — we’ve set up a tent there for the kids and their parents to sleep in because the centre has minor damage but the parents and kids just refuse to sleep in the centre itself.

What are the challenges to relief efforts related to Nepal specifically — I’m thinking of monsoon season and the rush to get things done beforehand.

Well, access. Roads in Nepal before the earthquake were not the best. And to get to many of the villages that are up mountainsides, you are literally going along mountain roads that are sort of red-mud dirt and are as sort of wide as your car and if your driver falls asleep, you’re dead because you’re going off the edge of the mountain. Sindhupalchowk, which has the highest number of casualties, you’d have to wind your way up this dirt path for the last five kilometres going up the mountainside to the village, which is sort of on top of the mountain. But when the monsoons come, those roads are impassable. There’s no way to get there. So that’s one challenge.

Getting to even more remote places might require that you use helicopters and there are helicopters going to those places. Those dirt paths, you can get up there in a 4x4 jeep but you certainly couldn’t take an 18-wheeler truck full of supplies up there. So even the amount of supplies you can take up is limited.

When are the monsoons expected?

Normally they come June, July, or first couple of weeks of August. So let’s hope there’s no monsoons at all, that would be a big blessing on one hand, on the other, it’s not [a blessing] because they are good for the crops.

You were in Haiti following the earthquake there in 2010. Were there any lessons learned for relief efforts or strategies for aid agencies following that experience?

Yes, of course. And there will be all these lessons learned from Nepal. One is that aid has to be coordinated and that’s done through clusters systems now, so you have a cluster system for water and sanitation, one for health, one for nutrition, one for job protection, one for education, etc. We don't want to compare crises but the one thing is, in Haiti it was a very urban kind of crisis, the three worst hit places were the biggest cities, so it was very urban and quite concentrated. Here it’s not, it’s urban parts of Kathmandu, and then it’s very remote villages of 20 houses; it’s villages and shops and businesses on top of mountains. Haiti is half an island, Nepal is a bigger country.

I met a girl at a rehabilitation centre, her name is Maya, she’s 10 or 11. She was in Gorkha in the first earthquake, her house fell down around her. Her father carried her for two days on his back, walking, and finally got somewhere where he could get some help. Then she was helicoptered by herself to Kathmandu and taken to this rehabilitation place, where they have surgeons that deal with the kind of injury she had - her foot was amputated.

So can you imagine this 10-year-old girl being carried for two days one her father’s back, and then being put in a helicopter that could only take her. Flown to a city she’s never been to, taken to a hospital that’s 45 minutes away and treated. And she’s lost her left foot and that is awful but what is nice is she is there with her whole family now in the UNICEF tent and she’s getting very, very good care but I mean that girl’s life is changed, for the worse, forever.

And what are the biggest issues in terms of the long-term recovery?

Well one thing is schools aren’t open. They were meant to open on Friday the 15th but then the second earthquake occured on Tuesday the 12th, so now that’s now been postponed until the 31st of May. Many schools are gone, many schools have walls that are gone, others are standing but they have major cracks in them, and some are not touched. Early assessments that UNICEF did with the government showed that there were 24,000 classrooms that are damaged or destroyed to the point that kids are not allowed to go back in them,

So it’s going to be a challenge to get kids back in school because there’s a lot of schools damaged and we’ll start with temporary learning spaces, and we’re going to work with the government to get as many kids as we can back in school on the 31st but it certainly won’t be every child. That’s just not possible.

Other long-term concerns include getting people shelter, their homes back, businesses. I heard about half a million but up to a million people have left Kathmandu to go back to their villages to either find out what happened to their families or fix homes that their families own, so Kathmandu has lost at least half a million people who are out in villages. Businesses are suffering. We went out to a restaurant recently just for a change and we were six peopple and we were the only people in the restaurant. There were six people there to serve us, and you know, they won’t be able to maintain their staff.

Tourism is an important part of Nepal, for the economy and jobs, etc., and there are parts that tourists love to go to that aren’t hit and of course there are no tourists. And so Nepalese people are really suffering on many different fronts.

One thing Nepalese people are saying is, ‘Tell the world that we’re down but we’re not out and we need you, we need tourists. We need people to come and visit Nepal, not as volunteers necessarily — we need people to come here as tourists because a lot of us depend on tourism.’

Tell me about the international community that is on the ground. Does it tend to be neighbours and allies in the region, or is there aid from any surprising places or donors?

India has been here of course, China is also here, Bhutan. I did see that Bhutan, and it’s a small country obviously, they had put up a very good mobile medical operation operation right after the first earthquake, which is very impressive. I saw another similar high-tech Italian hospital. Very high-tech. All in tents but X-rays and surgery and everything.

What is great is you see the world’s community come together to try and help out the people of Nepal, who really desperately need it, and who really, really apppreciate it. They are really nice people, they are really humble. There’s a real affinity for the people in what they’ve been through. Everyone who is here and myself included has a little, tiny feeling of what they’ve gone through, because if you’ve been in an earthquake you’re not going to forget it. It’s a very scary experience, whether you are from Canada or Japan or a villager in Nepal. Of course they are far, far more affected than we are, but it’s a scary thing to go through, it’s very unsettling. 

Any final thoughts on what’s at stake at the moment?

We’re very concerned not only about children’s physical health but also their psychosocio well-being and I can tell you this: Whenever I’m out in these settlements, where people have lost their homes and they are out living under this plastic sheeting and they are exposed to mosquitos or the cold at night, the wind, the rain. And you ask them, ‘How is it living here?’ Well, they don’t like it. And then you ask them, ‘Do you want to go home?’ And they say no, just flat out no.

Why not? ‘Because if we go home, when we sleep at night, the earthquake will come and kill us.’ And that’s very striking because home normally for kids represents protection and safety and love and all these nice things. But kids here are very scared to be at home. The first earthquake happened, people were very shook up but then after two weeks they went ‘Alright, we have to put this behind us.’ They were literally digging themselves out of the rubble and starting to rebuild lives.

And then that second earthquake hit and that creates anxiety. And of course many parents have told their children, ‘Don’t worry you don’t have to be scared, it’s a big earthquake but now it’s over.’ And then that second one hit. And every time you think it’s all behind us, then boom, there’s another aftershock. So for kids, it must be terrifying.