The pilot of the red and blue helicopter flew over the village of Laprak. Once, twice, three times. The town was there below us, chaotic heaps of stone, wood, mud, and metal sheets, but no one lived here. The pilot looked for his passengers, but there was no sign of them. On the third pass he flew away from the town, heading up the steep hillside, finally passing over row upon row of colorful tarp-covered shelters. The pilot explained that they now call this Laprak 2 - a camp of several thousand people.
The old Laprak is dead - a ghost town now. The normal sounds of life coming from the old village homes and narrow streets have changed. Listen and you will hear the sound of hammers and saws as former residents dismantle what is left of their homes, packing up what they can carry on their backs to climb the steep trail to Laprak 2, their new home, 600 meters above the lifeless village.
It took less than a minute to reduce the village of more than 600 houses and buildings to rubble. Miraculously, only 18 people died out of 4,300 residents.
The living gathered what they could and began walking for two hours up the steep hill to Gupsi Dada at 2,700 metres, a piece of empty flat land, safe from landslides and falling buildings. Essentially, the residents have permanently evacuated their home. They will never live in their village again. Many who had somewhere to go hiked out. The ones who stayed walked down to their village daily to collect what they could salvage in the shattered houses in the weeks following the earthquake – household goods, wood planks, bamboo matting – and walk the two-hours back.
Slowly they have built shelters and are getting organised, figuring out how to make this new life work for now. In the three weeks following the earthquake, they have received some aid from the government in the form of food and tarpaulins, but it’s not enough.
The new location is reminiscent of a refugee camp from the air with long rows of shelters covered with bright orange and blue tarps. Although it’s different from a refugee camp – this is a close community, like family, all pulling together to survive a single life-changing tragedy - the dangers to health are similar.
Richard Welch, the regional director of the small NGO, Ugandan Water Project, explained. 'Any time you have that many people living in those kind of close quarters, if one case of cholera happens there, everyone will get cholera. The big risk is that people are not overly concerned about their water sources, and it’s at that point, when you have major shifts into camp style living, that water-borne diseases break out.'
In nearby Pokhari, a community suffering a similar fate as Laprak, widespread bloody diarrhoea broke out in the camp, particularly affecting the children. So far Laprak has been fortunate with only a few cases of diarrhoea, but the dangers are present. Water is gathered from spring-fed areas, but runs in small streams above ground in many places. Initially, with no latrines, the only option was open defecation. Add rain to wash everything downhill, and the water sources will be seriously compromised. With the monsoon season just a few weeks away, the rain is inevitable.
Richard came to Nepal with David Pearson from the NGO I Thirst International. They brought 1,025 Sawyer water filters, widely used around the world in relief emergencies. Each filter has a million gallon guarantee and a 10-year lifespan. Their plan was to deliver the filters and buckets to communities where the water sources had been contaminated, or are in danger of being compromised.
“They’re small, they’re quick, they’re light, easy to move around, and they’re simple to use. It attaches to a bucket. Realistically one filter can cover 30 people, but you can do more. It has a flow rate that’s high enough that you can have 50 people using one,” Richard explained. The filter will catch any bacteria, protozoa, cholera, typhoid, and amoebic dysentery.
When there is no other way
The MAF-coordinated helicopters are available for use when access to communities is cut off. The earthquake caused a landslide that blocked the road to Laprak. The only way in was to walk a treacherously dangerous trail.
David and Richard rode in a truck for several days on rough roads to reach a staging area for their materials, along with another NGO, Water Missions International, who came with a large chlorination unit bound for Pokhari where the spring had been contaminated causing an outbreak of bloody diarrhoea.
MAF coordinated the flights, which included landing at the staging area, then multiple flights to take the pipes and water filtration system to Pokhari, and 150 buckets and filters to Laprak. David and Richard stayed in Laprak for most of the day to check the camp and village water systems, and teach the village leaders how to use the bucket and filters, including information on why it was important and how they should be distributed. They made the long trek down the mountain to see the remains of the village. The devastation was shocking.
'Their whole culture, everything has been shaken to the core,' David says, 'and they’re in the middle of an emergency. They’re pulling together, so sharing isn't an issue. The 150 filters will cover this community.'
The roads that have been blocked across Nepal by landslides are slowly being cleared but the road to Laprak had not yet open three weeks after the earthquake.
'We couldn't have got there without MAF, absolutely. We were informed emphatically that the road is very dangerous,' David explained. 'There’s even a huge landslide where we staged the helicopter. When the monsoons come there will be a lot more landslides and mudslides. That’s a huge reason why everyone is trying to get up before the monsoons.'
'Water Missions International, the organization we were able to assist to getting their stuff up, they had no tangible way of getting their resources to Pokhari without MAF,' Richard says. 'It’s a three-hour hike and you’re dealing with a substantial amount of weight and size. That material was flown there. Without MAF, we wouldn't have gone to this community. Just wouldn't have. Couldn't have.'
Although this community appears strong and focused on making the best of it through their tragedy, they still need help in areas they cannot fully control. Through the use of the MAF coordinated helicopters, and the generosity and skills of David and Richard, they at least need not worry that their drinking water is safe.