What is the Problem, and What Can We Do?

Having arrived in Ward 6 in the dark, it was a little clearer in the morning where we were and what the situation was. Once it was light, we could see that we were in a relatively low section of hill country — a bulging triangle of land between two rivers, that consisted of a wide raised plain of farming land ringed on three sides by a spur of higher ground. The people of Ward 6 live in what I would come to identify as four village-clusters, distributed roughly in a C-shape around the farmland.

What also became clear once it was daylight (especially once we began walking around) was the overwhelming scope of the damage. While there were three essentially undamaged houses near the footbridge over the river we had crossed the night before, and another three that were partly standing but fatally damaged, almost every house in the entire rest of the Ward was simply gone. I did eventually locate one more intact house, and two or three residences that had sustained major damage but still had something recognizable left, but the overwhelming majority of the 65-odd houses and assorted other buildings (most notably the school) were simply piles of rubble.

Perhaps because of the scale of the catastrophe, though, it was clear that Ward 6 had gotten itself to work, and that basically everyone had at least suitable short-term housing of some kind (and wouldn’t have the energy, money, or basic wherewithall to tackle long-term housing until fall or winter, after the rice-planting season). So then the question was, if we weren’t there to do shelter work, what were we going to do?

Bishnu (who had made contact with us) and his mother and their assorted friends had a clear answer: we should work on water. Bishnu brought us to meet and interview Binda, a forcefulĀ and funny widow of about 50, who showed us the ruins of her old house and the nice new tin cottage she had commissioned later, and then who held forth for a good half an hour on the local water crisis. She explained that the spring from which the Ward had previously sourced its drinking water had either dried up or been redirected somewhere by the earthquake, and now the villagers were left without drinking water. She pointed dramatically to the rubber pipe into her courtyard, out of which no water was flowing. We were then all walked around to several more houses, where people explained their lack of access to drinking water.

Yes, drinking water is a problem, we acknowledged. We don’t do anything with drinking water.

It’s no problem, said Bishnu, all we need is some pipe.

How much pipe, and what do you need to do with it?

Oh, about 5km of pipe, preferably metal pipe for the start, to bring water from a waterfall in the middle of the Ward 6 community forest, pipe it through the forest floor, across the river, and into the concrete holding tank. Or better, build us a new, better concrete tank, because the current one has some cracks from the earthquake.

This is not exactly the kind of project Laura’s organization can take on. They have a staff of (I believe) four, and are based in the city of Pokhara, probably 100 miles or more from Dhading. They do not have the budget, staff, or expertise to undertake a huge infrastructure project like this, asĀ Laura and Dil Maya promptly started informing everyone.

Over the first day, then, the plan evolved that the organization should, rather than trying to deliver drinking water to Ward 6 itself, should rather serve in an advocacy position, trying to attract the attention and commitment of some bigger organization. And Laura and Dil Maya made preparations to leave.

But I wanted to stay. Partly, I didn’t especially need to dash off to monitor other projects in Lamjung, and wanted to understand the situation and the problems better, but partly, I had gotten the feeling that there was another problem in Ward 6 — one that wasn’t pitched to us, and that would never make it onto a list of aid to be delivered to the district, but that I could actually myself do something to alleviate.

That problem was that the people of Ward 6 were clearly feeling unacknowledged. They had endured the catastrophic loss of their homes and their normal daily lives (though fortunately no one had lost his/her actual life), and they seemed to need to be recognized. Every time we went some place and stood over someone’s house with them, listened to their experience and admired their efforts to rebuild, people thanked us profusely, just for coming and looking and listening.

This I thought might be the real service I could provide: to sit with people, to witness their suffering and acknowledge their lives. To give them my undivided attention.

So I talked with Laura and Dil Maya and Bishnu, and hit upon the idea that I would stay behind, for as long as I wanted, to learn more about the water situation, but mostly to go on a listening tour, with the goal to visit every house in Ward 6 for long enough to drink tea (which is a key Nepali social custom). I would ask them about their lives and their experiences during the earthquake; I would stand over the wreckage of their houses and condole with them, I would take their photographs and write down their names.

It’s not really “aid” in any traditional sense, but it turned into the Tripureswor Tea Project, which I’ll explain in more depth in my next post.