Rebuilding post-earthquake Nepal with the strength of its volunteers

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To date, UNV Nepal has placed close to 100 volunteers in medium and long-term assignments requiring engineering and risk reduction expertise in the affected districts.

It’s been a year since Nepal was struck by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that wreaked havoc across 31 of its 75 districts. I remember watching the news in stunned silence in the Philippines; terrifying images of people running away and structures collapsing like Lego pieces onto the streets of Kathmandu. As I would learn much later, the earthquake killed at least 8,790 people and flattened hundreds of thousands of houses, including important historical buildings. This was something which Nepal had not seen in over 80 years.

A year since, Nepal finds itself still rebuilding – a colossal task given the extent of the damage, and yet one that necessitates swift action so that people can start anew as soon as possible. As an advocate of volunteerism and staunch believer in what volunteers can give selflessly to meet development objectives, I am pleased that authorities in Nepal have indicated plans of mobilizing 100,000 volunteers for post-earthquake reconstruction. The pronouncement is welcome recognition of the value that voluteers – ordinary women and men who go out of their way to contribute their skills and expertise – can bring into this process of rebuilding.

Truth be told, volunteer networks have been contributing a great deal since day one after the earthquake, as seen in the multi-faceted work of different volunteer-involving organizations (VIO). In a period of a year since that fateful day, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has engaged close to 8,000 local volunteers in first aid, food distribution, delivery of psycho-social services and emergency shelter assistance. For its part, UNV has partnered with UNDP to carry out large-scale demolition and clearing operations in sites with earthquake-damaged infrastructure, and in advancing disaster risk reduction among local governments.

To date, UNV Nepal has placed close to 100 volunteers in medium and long-term assignments requiring engineering and risk reduction expertise in the affected districts. Many of the volunteers are women and youth. The volunteers have so far worked alongside community residents in safely demolishing 3,462 private structures and 207 public buildings such as schools, hospitals, temples, community buildings and offices destroyed by the tremor, to prevent these condemned  stuctures from posing a hazard to people’s safety.

Globally, there are many examples where volunteers have exemplified solidarity in difficult situations. When my own country – the Philippines – hit international headlines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013, I witnessed how volunteers could become a sizeable force behind government as it sought to fulfill its mandate and deliver services to the people affected by the typhoon. The Department of Social Welfare and Development in the Philippines recounts that it rallied a total of 114,801 volunteers to assemble life-saving food packs for the families affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

Against this backdrop of extensive volunteer engagement in disaster-stricken countries, I encourage policy makers and programme implementers in government, civil society and international organizations to study ways by which volunteerism can be institutionalized and mainstreamed into disaster programmes, as some governments and organizations have already done in different parts of the globe. It can fortify programme interventions and strategies as the world faces increasingly destructive natural disasters and climate change, and foster deeper collaboration between states and their citizens.

The road to full recovery in post-earthquake Nepal is by no means a simple one. The Post-Disaster Needs Assessment released last year has estimated the damages and losses occasioned by the earthquake at over US $7 billion, across important sectors such as housing, education, agriculture and tourism.

Taking into account what the earthquake volunteers in Nepal have accomplished so far, and the vast difference volunteers made in comparable times in the Philippines, I am excited to see what the 100,000 volunteers of the Nepalese government can contribute to its reconstruction program.

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