Nepal earthquake 6 months on: The race to rebuild before winter

Have you ever wondered how the tassels are made on the ends of those soft pashmina shawls? Well meet Rita Mijar, a Nepal earthquake survivor, who skilfully twists each tassel before tying each one with a knot. She gets paid just 6 rupees (less than 4p) per pashmina and can do 10-15 shawls a day, earning her family as little as 90 rupees (58p) a day.

Rita's home was destroyed in the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. Photo: Ian Bray/OxfamRita is a mother of three daughters and lives in the village of Lamatar about an hour’s drive outside Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu. Rita is married to Suraj, a cobbler by trade. Six months ago Nepal was rocked by a powerful earthquake and Rita and Suraj’s lives were turned upside down. Their home and Suraj’s small shop was destroyed and with it so was their livelihood.

They managed to dig out of the collapsed shop some of Suraj’s stock of shoes he had made and his shoe molds. His sewing machine was also salvaged but it needs repairing before he can use it.

Like everyone in Lamatar Rita, Suraj and family had to sleep out in the open for many weeks after the earthquake. They eventually managed to build a temporary home out of corrugated sheeting and bamboo provided by a local aid organisation Oxfam supports. They also got food, blankets and sleeping mats, along with hygiene essentials such as soap.

The family was doing nicely before the earthquake. Suraj is a good cobbler and has trained many others in his trade. He specialises in making shoes for school children and he had good contracts with the local colleges. He would make eight to 10 shoes in a day and earn 500-700 rupees ($4.60-$6.50) clear profit. By Western standards this is not very much, but in Lamatar a little goes a long way.

Suraj’s home and shop were destroyed in the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, and them his livelihood. Photo: Ian Bray/OxfamSuraj is unsure when he can restart his shoe making business. The shop needs rebuilding but so does his house. He thinks if he can rebuild his house first he would be able to run his business from there.  But he has another problem. He is in debt to the tune of 300,000 rupees ($2,775) and the money lender is asking for repayment.

People owe him money as well. Though not a rich man, nor even one who is comfortably off, Suraj used to offer credit to customers who were short of cash when they bought shoes from his shop. He says he is owed 50-60,000 Rupees ($460-$550) from numerous customers. He has been to see some of them to ask for payment. Like his family they are also earthquake survivors and he says that having seen the conditions they are living in he hasn’t the heart to ask for the money.

To get his business up and running he says he would need 2-300,000 rupees ($1,850-$2,775). Even if he didn’t have his current debt the chances of getting a new loan is slim because since the earthquake the money lenders have tighten up their conditions and are asking for surety on loans. All Suraj and Rita have as surety is a broken down house.

In the meantime they make ends meet on Rita’s tassel twisting and Suraj getting work in Lamatar helping to construct temporary buildings. A local organisation is helping the villagers rebuild and Suraj has managed to get fairly regular contract work with them. It is also harvest time for the rice crop so there could be work in the fields and the chance to earn 300 rupees a day if they are lucky.

Rita and Suraj are not alone. Nearly everyone in the village is finding it difficult to make ends meet. They have survived the earthquake and have been given temporary shelter thanks to the generous donations people gave to the Nepal earthquake appeal. They have managed to get so far but they are a long way from any sense of recovery. There is also another potential disaster looming.

Winter is not far off. Those houses made of corrugated sheeting have kept them safe through summer but offer little protection against the cold. People in the village are already worried and complain that they don’t have thick blankets and clothes to ward off the worse of a harsh Himalayan winter. 

There needs to be a massive effort to get winter aid to people before the chill winds come down from the mountains. But before this can happen there is a hurdle to overcome.

Nepal is currently in the grip of a fuel crisis due to political conflicts in the south of the country which are choking off the flow of fuel across the border from India. Moving vast amount of aid around the country will rely heavily on a regular supply of fuel and while the fuel crisis continues, the winter aid effort will be stymied.

Sorting the political difference in the south needs to be resolved urgently if earthquake survivors are to avoid what could be a second disaster.

Since the immediate emergency phase of Oxfam's response, we have been able to reach over 445,000 people with clean water, sanitation, shelter and emergency food support, in seven districts, with a special focus on giving targeted support to women.

This entry posted by Ian Bray, Oxfam Humanitarian Press Officer, on 25 October 2015.

Photo: Over two thirds of the houses in the village of Burunchili, Kathmandu, were destroyed by the earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015. Here, Palsang, 4, plays in the ruins of one of them. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

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