INTERVIEW: WJR IN NEPAL – ‘We’re two weeks away from second humanitarian disaster’

INTERVIEW: WJR IN NEPAL – ‘We’re two weeks away from second humanitarian disaster’

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Tents in the capital, offering refuge (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)
Tents in the capital, offering refuge (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)
Devastation in the capital, Kathmandu (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)
Devastation in the capital, Kathmandu (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)

Stephen Oryszczuk (SO) Interviews Josh Simons (JS), senior programmes manager at World Jewish Relief.

SO: It’s the end of the day where you are – what have you done today? 

JS: We’ve actually been driving for the last 12 hours, we’ve not long since arrived and we’ve almost set up our tents. The team are to my right meeting the head of the village. I’m standing on a terraced farm on a mountainside overlooking a valley. I can see maybe 4-5km, the sun is setting over to my left. Everyone at the moment is just preparing dinner, before we get to work tomorrow.

SO: Where are you?

JS: I’m in a village called Sundrawati in Dolakha district, to the north-west of the capital. We’re at 1600m, it’s up in the upland district, a rural farming community. I can see about 200 homes, but I can only see this side of the valley, the village actually extends all the way up to the top of the mountain, over the ridge and then back down the other side, so there could easily be twice that number. Most homes are two storeys. The bottom storey is like a supply area, where they keep their grain stored, and they live on the second floor.

SO: What’s the extent of the damage?

JS: From first impressions it has been is absolutely decimated. The homes are mostly made out of traditional construction, so rocks, then mud brick, plastered together with mud, with tin roofs, and some have a bamboo pole supporting a porch structure off to the side. Almost all of them that I can see have either partially or fully collapsed. The entire village has moved out onto the fields, they’re living under plastic sheeting with not only their entire families but also their goats, their cows, their buffalo, their chickens. Because the homes have collapsed, I can see things strewn all over the place, people have taken the tin roofs off the homes in order to make these temporary structures.

SO: What is it that people need most?

JS: While the earthquake affected many different parts of Nepal, people have been affected differently by the earthquake. For example, it’s different if you’re in an urban environment or a rural environment. In the rural communities, particularly in the uplands like this, damage to homes has been much more severe, because of the construction methods. The impact of the earthquake has affected many more aspects of their lives, so we’re very concerned about safe shelters – the monsoon is only two weeks away. These temporary plastic sheets are insufficient to keep people safe and healthy during the monsoons.

Tents in the capital, offering refuge (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)
Tents in the capital, offering refuge (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)

SO: What are your priorities?

JS: Our first priority is to help them set up safe shelters. Our second priority is hygiene and safe drinking water, because as soon as it starts raining, with these communities all living outside in temporary accommodation, the threat of disease is incredibly high. Over the next two weeks, we’ll try to reach as many of these rural villages as possible, to help them establish safe wash practices, that’s water sanitation and hygiene, to establish safe shelters, and then to begin the recovery process as rapidly as possible

SO: What’s the recovery process? 

JS: In any post-disaster environment there are three steps to the humanitarian action which follows. The first is the rescue mission, which is efforts to save people who, in this case, have been trapped by the earthquake, in the rubble. That rescue mission has now come to an end, it is no longer expected that people will be found alive, so all of the agencies are now transitioning to the second stage, what we call the relief mission, which is to provide the most fundamental humanitarian supplies that somebody needs in order to continue to live for the immediate future, so fresh drinking water, safe hygiene, shelter, these sorts of things. Then we very rapidly want to transition from a relief effort to a recovery effort. Particularly in economically impoverished communities the relief effort can breed dependence, and we don’t want people to get used to having to receive handouts. That’s not a dignified way to live, and it’s not a sustainable way to live. So our primary mission, after we get these shelters set up, is to help people get back onto their feed, to help them restart their livelihoods, and to try to return to as much of a normal life as possible.

SO: How many villages are you hoping to reach on this village?

JS: So far I’ve been to a dozen villages across three districts of Nepal, and in the process of driving there I’ve come across hundreds and hundreds of different villages. In three of the villages I stopped at, I distributed humanitarian aid, which World Jewish Relief had provided. It was food and shelter aid.

devastation - Kathmandu
People of all ages have suffered as a result of the disastrous earthquake. (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief))

SO: Who do you work with out there?

JS: We’re funded by the British Jewish community which, during times of international disaster, responds by making donations to WJR, which we then pass on to local partners, which are based in the country in which we’re operating. So here we’re working with three organisations: the Friends Service Council of Nepal, the Community Self Reliance Centre, and a Jewish organisation called Tevel B’Tzedek, and we provide funds to them for them to work with their own communities.

SO: What else can you provide, other than money?

JS: Nepal is a unique set of circumstances, because many of the agencies here haven’t had disaster resilience training. There are some organisations trained to respond in times of natural disaster, but they’re few and far between. So when you get an organisation like WJR, which has experience responding to crises in West Africa, for Ebola, or in the Phillipines, for Typhoon Haiyan, or for earthquakes in Haiti, or Pakistan, we’re able to use the experience and knowledge we’re gained to help local agencies here respond in a way that’s commensurate with internationally-recognised best practice.  

SO: Is disease the biggest concern at the moment?

JS: I can say that the feeling has changed in Nepal over the last week. In the first few days after the earthquake you could see that everyone was still in shock. You could see them walking around town. The thing I noticed most was the dust, of the tens of thousands of collapsed homes. There was a feeling of depression, of disorientation. They felt dizzy, they weren’t really sure what was going on. Now that people have come to terms with the reality – that the monsoon’s coming and that it’s coming early this year – they know they have to be prepared for it. If we’re not, there will be a second humanitarian disaster.

SO: What can you realistically do between now and then?

JS: We have to use our expertise in building safe shelters, telling communities how to use locally available materials, how to salvage materials from their homes in order to build sound structures able to withstand the winds and rain, to make preparations around safe drinking water, so communities know that their water will remain safe once the flooding starts. That’s the priority for the next two weeks. Then, as we look into the medium-term, there’s a plethora of different actions which we need to take, including getting children back into school, making sure ethnically-marginalised communities get equal access to aid, to make sure the aid is distributed in a transparent way, these kinds of issues.

The head of village, Nepal
The head of village, Nepal (Photo credit Josh Simons/World Jewish Relief)

SO: How are you being received as an aid agency by the Nepalese?

JS: I have to say, my opinion of the Nepali people is exceptionally high. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a country with people as warm and as resilient as Nepalese. They’ve accepted us, at a time of tremendous hardship, with open arms, and without any expectations. They’ve gratefully received whatever we’ve been able to provide and have really learned the lessons we’ve been able to teach. I’ll give you one example. Yesterday, in Rasuwa District, we were touring a community that had been flattened, between 80-100 percent of the homes completely collapsed. This particular village had exceptional food insecurity, in fact we were only able to access it on foot, up into the hills. As the hours ticked by, it came to lunchtime, and we came across a family who were just sitting down for lunch, and although they only had about ten kilos of rice for this family of 15 people, they invited us into their tent and share lunch with them. It was an exceptionally moving experience. These people have no idea when the next aid resupply will come for them. They’re in an incredibly difficult place to reach, and they’re aware of that. But despite that, they wanted to show the hospitality and generosity which Nepalese naturally have, and extend that to us, in recognition of the fact that we’ve come out so far to help them.

SO: Have you typically been the first aid workers they’ve seen?

JS: In the first few days, yes. WJR prioritises remote communities. We feel we can make the biggest impact in communities which are maybe overlooked by other aid agencies. So not only were we the first relief teams in, they hadn’t even seen any other relief teams passing by. I’m happy to say though that, as of about two days ago, the roads are now packed with relief, coming in for India, from China, from everywhere, and it is now starting to reach remote communities. All day long, as we were driving here, we heard helicopters buzzing overhead, literally dropping aid relief to communities which are still inaccessible by road.

SO: What is it that they need the most?

JS: Water is in abundant supply in Nepal, the trick is making sure that that water is safe to drink, so they need either enough fuel to boil the water to make it safe, or they need water purification tablets. Right now though, the most pressing issue is food aid. In many of the rural communities, the grain stores collapsed, and only two days after the earthquake there was rain, which spoiled all of their stores. In other cases, the building has collapsed on the stores, meaning that it’s too dangerous to go in. All this means that until the next grain crop comes in, these communities will be incredibly food insecure. Most villages, I estimate, will have between 5-15 days’ worth of food, and once that runs out, they will be entirely reliant on the aid the international community is able to provide. 

SO: In times of crisis such as this, do you spend only what you raise in funds, or do you just spend what’s needed first?

JS: It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The work of WJR is a bit different. During times of crisis, you have to respond immediately – every hour counts. That’s why WJR sent me to Nepal so quickly after the earthquake, to immediately begin distributions. We are confident of the generosity of the British Jewish community, and we know we can count on them for support for critical aid in times of disaster, so we’re able to commit to partners almost pre-emptively, then in the coming days, weeks and months, when we get a better idea of the full value of the resources we’re able to leverage in our response, we’re able to scale our programmes appropriately.

SO: How long are you out there for Josh?

JS: I’ll spend a day in this village then move on. You need to get a really good feel for the different communities, what their needs are, what they do, what they have, don’t have, what they’re able to supply for themselves, what they need brought in from outside, then as rapidly as possible move on to the next community. That way WJR can impact as widely as possible.

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