With will and strong backs, a quake-hit village rebuilds without waiting for govt

What kept them from giving up was a decision that the village has capacity to recover

Dhap, March 8

When an earthquake last year flattened this mountain village in central Nepal, killing 114 people, destroying homes and ripping apart a crucial irrigation system, many residents thought their only option was to leave, permanently.

“When everything got damaged, people thought this place was not where they could live the rest of their lives,” remembers Seesir Waiba, a community leader.

But nearly a year later, as much of Nepal faces delays and struggles in rebuilding after the devastating April quake, the 200 families of Dhap are back in their fields and in temporary homes.

Using their own hard work, a small government handout, and some basic technical support and donated materials, they have rebuilt homes for every family and irrigation channels sufficient to reach 60 per cent of their land.

What kept them from giving up on Dhap was, largely, a quick decision by community leaders that the village had the capacity to recover, and growing belief by initially deeply sceptical community members that the leaders might be right.

“I called a meeting of all the village elders and we decided to create temporary shelters for each family out of the debris - stones and timber - and later restore the irrigation system,” said Waiba, president of local Water Users’ Association.

What was clear, he said, is that for most people in their community, migrating away to look for work in Kathmandu “would be worse” than working hard to stay.

“Our village is like a home and every household is like a family member,” explained Ganga Chapagain, a school teacher and the only woman among the village’s leadership. “Where else could we get this brotherhood?”

In Dhap, the earthquake split open the land and landslides destroyed homes and irrigation canals feeding the community’s 130 hectares of rice, wheat, potato and mustard fields.

Without anywhere to live, villagers were taken to makeshift camps in Kathmandu and in other district headquarters. There, some decided against moving back to the village, saying there was nothing to live for.

“We thought, ‘What we can do there when our homes and farms are entirely devastated?’” remembers Jeet Bahadur, one of the villagers.

But Waiba and other community leaders pointed out that their village had plenty of skilled labour and manpower to rebuild. In about a month, as the aftershocks died away, they decided to return and try.

“So all of us worked together and created the temporary shelters for all the families. The government later provided 15,000 Nepali rupees ($138) to each family for buying tin sheets” for roofing, Waiba said.

“Later, we shifted our focus to irrigation canals which were snapped by huge landslides at many places. It did not only demand hard labour for removing the landslides manually, but also raising (embankments) at various places for providing support to the banks of the canals,” he said.

According to Waiba, it took the farmers about seven weeks to restore irrigation to about 60 per cent of their farmland.

“We left the 40 per cent as such because taking water to this area could trigger more landslides. But it doesn’t mean this land is fallow. There we grow crops such as millet, which don’t require (irrigation) water,” Waiba said.

Prachanda Pradhan, whose organisation, the Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems Promotion Trust, provided technical support to the Dhap farmers on the irrigation rebuilding, said such small-scale irrigation systems are crucial to many farmers in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, helping protect jobs and food supplies.

“Small irrigation systems are not small at all in terms of their total impact on the national economy, agrarian relations, and ecological adaptability and resilience,” Pradhan said.

He said Nepal’s hill and mountain regions contain thousands of the systems, and many suffered damage, “though not the way the Dhap area has suffered.”

Pradhan praised the resilience of Dhap farmers, saying they did well not to simply wait for the government to bail them out of the crisis. “When we went to their area, we admired their social capital and decided to facilitate their rebuilding process,” he said.

Besides technical support, his organisation provided some pipes to connect gaps in irrigation canals and plastic to help plug cracks in the system, he said.