Archive for the Nepal Category

About 10 minutes ago, we experienced a sizeable quake here in Kathmandu. Our house swayed and we made our way fairly quickly down the stairs and out into the yard. Gabe did stop at the door to ask if he should bring a cricket bat. (He thought that the reason we were hustling him out of the house was because of robbers trying to get in.) But other than that we were quickly out in the yard.

I know the advice is generally to squat, hold and cover, but building standards being what they are in Kathmandu we’ve made the decision as a family that we will try to get out from wherever we are if we’re close enough to an exit.

The power went down for a few minutes and in the dark we could feel the earth rolling beneath our feet. Trees in the garden swayed.

I haven’t heard of any damage yet, nor heard what size quake it was. Though our landlord said it is the biggest quake he has felt in Kathmandu for 22 years.

It is a very unsettling feeling to be reminded that the solid earth on which we stand is moving. And sometimes with an abrupt violence.

Update: It seems that we were feeling this quake: a 6.8 Richter scale tremor centred on Sikkim in N-E India.

Update: Three people have been reported dead in Kathmandu after a wall collapsed on them, with two other deaths reported in another district. The article also reports 6 deaths in Sikkim.

Update: The latest reports say that 36 people have died (most of them in India, but a few also in Nepal and Tibet) as a result of the earthquake. The toll could go higher as debris is cleared.

Takes a small step forward.

Maoists hand over the keys to some of their arms containers.

… and Nepal’s second-ever Maoist Head-of-Government is Dr Baburam Bhattarai.

He’s got a few jobs on his to-do list. There is a Constituent Assembly mandate to extend again. Former combatants waiting to be rehabilitated. A Constitution still to be written. A less than thriving economy to be revived. And he has to contend with a real deficit of trust in politicians and public institutions.

So, congratulations Dr Bhattarai. Here’s hoping that you and the other Nepali lawmakers can move some of those to-do items into the done file.

Note 1: Melting glaciers and catastrophic floods

Around two months ago, a glacial lake in Humla District in the Midwestern mountains of Nepal, burst its moraine dam, causing flash flooding downstream, destroying homes and productive farmland.

Recent studies have shown that increasing temperatures have caused most Himalayan glaciers to melt at an accelerating rate and the resulting glacial lakes (pdf) are expanding rapidly. The occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods (pdf), as they are known, seems to have been accelerating in the last few decades.

The farmers of Halji village have virtually no responsibility for the additional heat-trapping greenhouse gases human beings are pumping into the atmosphere at increasing rates. But they are reaping the whirlwind that others have sown.

Note 2: Increased uncertainty making hard lives even harder

Farmer in Doti, Far Western Nepal

A while ago, we spoke with farmers from Doti, a hill district in Nepal’s Far West about their experiences of the weather and climate. One farmer, Dal Bahadur Balayer, described how a piece of traditional knowledge that had once underpinned livelihoods in his village had been rendered useless by a changing climate.

A local tree, the paiyu (a kind of jungle cherry) was known for blossoming in autumn. Farmers in the area had relied on this signal, as an indicator of the imminent arrival of winter rains, to plant the wheat crop. In recent years, the paiyu, in response to changing temperatures, has begun blossoming earlier and earlier. Farmers now have no way of knowing when to plant the wheat, as it can be more than a month between the paiyu’s flowering and the rain.

Rainfall has never been certain. But with one less tool for managing risk taken away, hard lives have been made even harder. For subsistence farmers in Doti, there is little room to manoeuvre, no way to hedge their bets, and no fall-back option to buy food if crops fail.

Another group of vulnerable people being rendered more vulnerable by the choices of others.

Kamala BK (not her real name) is HIV positive.

Her husband died about six years ago, although she didn’t know at the time that AIDS was the cause.

After marriage the couple had worked in India, but Kamala returned periodically to the family home in Doti, a hill district in Nepal’s far west. During one of their long separations, her husband became infected with HIV and, in turn, infected his wife when they were reunited.

 Kamala’s story, sadly, is far from a being unique in Doti, which has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate of any district in Nepal.

There are common elements to the stories of all the HIV positive women I spoke to there.

Food insecurity and lack of employment opportunities. Migration to nearby India. Unavoidable periods of estrangement between husbands and wives. Lack of knowledge about HIV and how it is transmitted. Increasing periods of ill health and physical incapacity. Lack of access to affordable and reliable medical information and health care.

UMN has been supporting community work among people living with HIV and AIDS in Doti for several years now. Things like skills training, medical advice, and improved access to health care. This year, we also worked to inform local communities about their rights under Nepal’s local governance laws, and help them participate in the local government planning and budget formation process. The result was a new sense of empowerment for the women living with HIV and AIDS, and a budget allocation to support them.

On paper at least, Nepal’s local governance law (Eng. pdf) is extremely inclusive and mandates the participation of every local settlement in drawing up plans and priorities for funding from the Village Development Council (VDC) or District budget.

Of course, implementation is everything; many communities are not aware of their rights under this law and local planning is often conducted behind closed doors by a handful of administrators and politically-connected people.

This year, though, we worked intensively to raise awareness about the local government budget and how to develop and contribute community proposals for funding. None of the communities had ever participated in this way before and I was excited to see newly empowered communities engaging in the political process in a way that earned the respect and support of the local administrators and political parties.

Through this community advocacy, as well as the roads, water sources, temples, classrooms and irrigation systems that were funded, the VDC budget allocated 26,000 rupees to support women living with HIV and AIDS. It’s a relatively small amount, but Kamala was happy with the result.

I am very happy. Often we can’t work. We can’t eat. Sometimes we are too sick even to take our medication. So the funds will be very helpful to improve our livelihoods and pay for medical care. We haven’t decided yet how we will use the money, but we will take that decision together.

this country
thrust up in spines and knuckles
folded aslant and again folded over:
ankylosing rock and soil
into shark’s-tooth ridges, sheer cliffs torn whole
from a world entirely the wrong way up
and hills that must be stepped and terraced
ropani by aching ropani
for grain and all human things to stand

and worn through – sawn through and scoured
to the marrow of rock
by fine threads of water
making their way from sky to sea
bearing millennial torrents of stone
to litter river-beds like long-forgotten toys
and spearing through sky and soil
in annual deluge –
a dacoit carrying off people and cattle
crops and belongings
whole hillsides

the scars still visible in exposed earth
and haunted eye

(with apologies to my friends on the terai who know there is
more to Nepal than pahad and himal)

Two years ago I wrote about a Kumal community that had been denied water for irrigation by a higher-caste community. This higher-caste community had illegally diverted water away from the Kumals’ irrigation channel about 30 years ago, and the community had been without water for all that time. The original post is here.

I wrote an update to that post about a year later describing the efforts the Kumals had taken to mediate, to organise and to advocate for their right to water. That update is here. I came to the hopeful – but less than totally upbeat – conclusion that,

The Kumals hope that this information will be used to determine a fair allocation of water to each community and guide the engineers when they come to rebuild the two channels. Let’s hope that’s how it works. There are several ways that the Kumals could still be denied justice. The land tallies might be inaccurate or misrepresented. The work on the channels might be delayed. Or it might be done without proper regard to the communities’ needs.

But by continuing to speak up the Kumals are paving the way for change. Not only a change in the irrigation infrastructure available in the village. Nor only the nutrition and health benefits that will come when the water is available. Also a change in the Kumals’ own self-understanding and perception of their place in the world.

So, a year later what news can I share? The Kumals have water flowing through their irrigation channel, and are working on restoring and improving the channel itself. I’m a little bit happy.

I hope to visit the community next month, so will post further news then.

… at the end of a busy week.

Nepal has just moved on from its 7 month old caretaker government, installing its 4th ever Communist Prime Minister. Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) – CPN (UML) – chair, Jhalanath Khanal takes the top job, backed also by the CPN (Maoist). The main task of the government now is to lead the process of writing Nepal’s new Constitution and resolving outstanding issues of the peace process.

There are just 4 months of the interim period left so let’s hope that this government manages to be both stable and active during that time. Since the 2008 elections it has appeared that you could have activity without stability or stability without activity, but not both at once. There are also, however, “trust issues” between the major parties that could make this hard. The second largest party in the Constituent Assembly, Nepali Congress, has decided to move into opposition, rather than join a government of national unity, and many of the smaller parties seem just plain tired of being messed around by the big three.


This week I also forgot to offer my hearty congratulations to the world’s soon-to-be newest nation, Southern Sudan. We happened to be back in Australia during the voting and shared the excitement of our Sudanese friends in the lead up to and during the referendum on independence. Jack de Groot’s thoughtful and prayerful reflections on the challenges ahead are worth reading.


And, finally, the lungs of the world may be developing a serious case of emphysema. Two severe droughts in the Amazon – the first in 2005 and an even more severe one in 2010 – have led to the deaths of billions of trees and may, on initial estimates, lead to the emission of more than 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in coming years as the dead trees rot.

One of the study’s authors said,

Two unusual and extreme droughts occurring within a decade may largely offset the carbon absorbed by intact Amazon forests during that time. If events like this happen more often, the Amazon rainforest would reach a point where it shifts from being a valuable carbon sink slowing climate change, to a major source of greenhouse gases that could speed it up.

Considerable uncertainty remains surrounding the impacts of climate change on the Amazon. This new research adds to a body of evidence suggesting that severe droughts will become more frequent leading to important consequences for Amazonian forests. If greenhouse gas emissions contribute to Amazon droughts that in turn cause forests to release carbon, this feedback loop would be extremely concerning. Put more starkly, current emissions pathways risk playing Russian roulette with the world’s largest rainforest.

So, it may be appropriate to view the Amazon today as a crime scene. And the ghosts that are being unleashed could haunt us for a long time to come.

Well, the blogging hiatus that began with my general laziness and disinclination to write anything about anything much at all and then was extended through our two month leave back in Australia, is over.

Not that there weren’t wonderful and interesting and terrible things happening while we were back in Australia, but what with catching up with family and friends, visiting every park in a 10km radius so the little guys could run around, driving between Sydney, Albury, Melbourne and Bendigo, and speaking at the occasional TEAR, church, or shower function (sure, that last was just me talking to myself…) I just didn’t make the time.

But now we’re back in Nepal. We’re back for one more year, as that seems to be the best answer to the messy and creative compromises of giving as much as we can to work, taking care of diet and health (it’s not as easy to be strictly gluten-free in Nepal as you might think), caring for family and friends and community back home, and all that.

It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s cloudy and smoggy, there’s electricity 12 hours a day in Kathmandu, and it’s a glorious day on God’s good earth.

Two years of dal bhaat. Sometimes spicy, thick and rich, served on fresh rice, sometimes stretched out and watery, with small stones and seeds to crack the teeth among the rice. Always something for small Australian boys to complain about. Always something to give thanks for.

Two years of adjusting to a new soundscape. Bells and conch horns before dawn. Dogs and the neighbour’s rooster at all hours.  The clash and strum and cry of fruit-vendors, and blanket-vendors, and empty-bottle-collectors, and jangling-segment-of-gas-stove vendors. The horns of vehicles, and the ironic hum of the diesel generator that powers the offices of the hydropower company we live next door to.

Two years of new eye-candy (including those hard, bitter candies that you have an aunt who once gave you them and she is nobody’s favourite aunt). The riot of colour that is any group of Nepali women out walking: kurta surwal and scarf sets in lime green and electric pink, floral pastels matched with bold block colours, deep blues and browns and purples, the red saris and bracelets of married women and the red sindur powder in the part of the hair. The pipal trees and streetside shrines decked with string and streaked with years of vermillion and rice and the petals of flowers, every morning further smeared with an unceasing devotion. The ugliness of new apartments and the ramshackle wood-and-brick beauty of Newari terraces with low doorways to collect the forehead, and tight turns of stairways for knees and elbows. Piles of sometime-to-be-collected garbage by the roadside and at the chowks. The extravagant hills and mountains that crowd in close – the whole country outrageously rucked and folded and raised up.

Two years of struggling, and loving to struggle, and being too tired to struggle, to express ourselves in a language not our own, or to make ourselves known to people we’ve only just met. Of missing the people who know us without us having to say a word, and missing green and spacious places. Of receiving invitations into people’s homes and lives. Of singing new (to us) songs to the Lord. Of wondering who we are, and finding out something new in answer.

Two years of knowing ourselves to be part of something beautiful. Occasionally bureaucratic, sometimes boring, or even too-too-busy. But conversations, and training, and meetings, and classes, and workshops, and rallies, and writing, and reporting, and travel, and chia, that somehow add up to something that might just contribute to restoring people’s dignity, or holding authorities accountable, or inviting children into their own futures.

Two years of serving because that’s what life is for.

* While, strictly speaking, it has not been two years of an uninterrupted supply of any one thing, these are some of the things that have lodged themselves deep in our cells.