Rebuilding one village and school after the Gorkha earthquake, Nepal with Mike Searle

Mike is a Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford focused on understanding the evolution of orogenic systems worldwide. This article follows on from a previous post Mike wrote about the Gorkha Nepal earthquake. You can see Mike’s other posts here.

On 25th April 2015 a moment magnitude (Mw) 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal with its epicentre north of Gorkha. Two aftershocks of Mw 6.6 and 6.7 occurred an hour after the main event and an even larger one of Mw 7.3 occurred 17 days later on 17th May south of Mount Everest. The earthquake initiated at a depth of 15 km and occurred on the north-dipping Main Himalayan thrust, the presently active southern boundary of the Himalaya, where the Indian plate is underthrusting the Himalaya. The rupture propagated eastward for a distance of about 140 km and surface geodetic displacements were measured using radar and InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) data from the European Space Agency Sentinel-1 satellite (Elliott et. al., 2016, Nature Geosciences). Geodetic ground motions showed that the earthquake resulted in uplift of the mountains around Kathmandu of over 1 meter and southward displacement of the rocks beneath by over 2 meters. The High Himalayan peaks actually subsided by 0.6 meters as the hanging-wall of the thrust fault tilted to the north. The most worrying aspect is that the fault did not break to the surface in the Terai region south of Kathmandu, as would be expected during a thrust fault earthquake, meaning that the accumulated strain has not been released. Thus the region south of Kathmandu and to the west of the Gorkha epicentre are in continued seismic danger of another earthquake at any time.

Yarsa, Kashigaon village . The new school is the long brown building left of the village.

Destroyed villages above the Gorkha epicenter after the earthquake.

The 2015 Gorkha earthquake resulted in over 9000 deaths, over 4 million people were made homeless and many ancient Newari temples and buildings collapsed. The World Bank estimated that more than $6.66 billion dollars is needed to rebuild the country. The worst damage occurred in the remote hill villages to the north of Gorkha and in parts of the Kathmandu valley. Some villages, like Laprak and Barpak along the Burhi Gandaki were completely destroyed. The earthquake also resulted in landslides on a massive scale. The worst one known was when an enormous rockfall from the south face of Langtang Lirung (7235 meters) completely buried the village of Langtang, killing everyone and burying houses beneath under more than 20 meters of rock and mud.

Houses destroyed by earthquake, Kashigaon.

For more than 18 years I have been geologizing, trekking and climbing in the Nepal Himalaya, trying to figure out the geological processes that made these wonderful mountains. In the last 10 years I and my students have employed porters from one Nepali village north of Gorkha, Kashigaon, above the Burhi Gandaki valley on the way up to Manaslu. My friend and sirdar, Suka Ghale from Yarsa village in Kashigaon and his band of brothers, cousins, uncles and assorted village mates have always been tremendously hard-working, friendly and loyal. I was due to fly out to Nepal to trek the Modi khola route to Annapurna base camp one week after the earthquake. Suka had arranged for 10 porters from Kashigaon to meet us in Pokhara. After the earthquake I phoned Suka in Pokhara and asked how things were. He replied, still in shock, with the news of all the death and destruction around his village. I told him that we would help in any way we could and asked what was immediately required.

When photos and news from the Gorkha Himalaya and Kathmandu got out I was shocked at the level of destruction. Two villages across the Burhi Gandaki from Kashigaon, Laprak and Barpak, were totally destroyed with hundreds of houses collapsed and numerous deaths. Kashigaon itself was not as bad, but still over 50 houses had collapsed and cracked, the school building had collapsed completely and several people lost their lives. I contacted Suka in Pokhara again and said that we would start raising money to rebuild their village, their school and their lives. First I told him to open a village bank account in Pokhara into which we could pay money direct, without going though agencies or government. Next, I contacted Doug Scott, first Briton to climb Everest and World renown mountaineer, who some 30 years ago set up Community Action Nepal (CAN), a registered UK charity that raises funds for Nepal and had already build over 80 new schools, clinics and porter shelters across Nepal. I asked if we could channel funds through a specified account, specifically for Kashigaon, so that CAN could get the extra government ‘Gift-aid’ on top of donations. Doug and his wife, Trish were both incredibly supportive and helpful throughout.

Appeal poster for Kashigaon reconstruction and school children in the old school.

We started raising funds firstly simply by giving talks on Nepal and the earthquake and setting up charity boxes at meetings. My local pub the ‘Rose and Crown’ on North Parade in Oxford raised money from bar donations, and members of both my department (Earth Sciences) and college (Worcester college) were extremely generous. I gave talks to Nepali societies across southern England and started an on-line donation appeal. Within the first month we had raised about £8000 which I was able to send across to direct through bank transfers. Later, we sent everything raised up to CAN and they paid the moneys direct to the Kashigaon account in Pokhara. In a year since the earthquake we managed to raise over £32,000.

The first priority after the earthquake was to get food, blankets, tents and medicines up to Kashigaon as quickly as possible. Suka, incredibly, managed to persuade two large Indian air force helicopters at Pokhara to fly up to Kashigaon with supplies he had bought locally. The Indian pilots declined to land on the steep ground so they had to push all the gear out to waiting villagers below. Kashigaon is a 10 hour trek up from the roadhead at Arughat bazar in the Burhi Gandaki valley up steep and narrow Himalayan trails. The local villagers were now all sleeping out in the open under tents and tarpaulins. They were understandably afraid of the many continuing earthquake aftershocks. At least by the time the monsoon arrived in July all the villagers had some sort of shelter.

The next priority, at the villagers’ request, was to rebuild the school. Instead of building on same site, we selected a site a bit farther out of the village on a bluff that was not in any danger of landslides, to build a completely new school for 150 kids. We paid for the engineers and planning out of funds as well as all materials, but all the hard labour was supplied by the villagers themselves. After the monsoon ended in October they set to work, hundreds of villagers, young and old, women and men, clearing the land, laying the foundations and stone by stone the new school rose from the jungle. Suka directed operations occasionally making trips back to Pokhara to collect more funds that we paid into their account. We set up a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Kashigaon) with regular updates and photos and I sent off six newsletters with all the latest news, so that donors would know precisely what their money was being spent on.

Kashigaon, Yarsa villagers clearing land for the new school.

Sirdar Suka Ghale overseeing construction of the new school, Yarsa village, Kashigaon.

Finally, in March 2016 the school building was completed, just under a year after the earthquake. It had 5 class rooms, and a teachers’ room with an outside toilet block. I went out to Nepal in April 2016 and after our work in the Annapurna range, trekked up to Kashigaon with Suka and friends to see the school. As we approached the village I could see a line of school kids and villagers all lining the route to welcome us. They put on a great show with the 150 children singing and clapping and cheering as I opened the building. The two head teachers, paid already by the Nepalese government were supplemented by three local Kashigaon-Yarsa teachers and we had sufficient funds left to pay them salaries for a year. This great new building was now fully operating, and 150 local children and 5 teachers all enthusiastic learning English and Nepali, as well as the native Ghale-Gurung language, and science and life skills. The head of the village committee presented me with a home made kukri knife, the badge of the Gorkhas, and asked me to convey heartfelt thanks to everyone who had donated. They even made a marble plaque next to the front entrance with the names of major donor bodies. For me, it was a humbling experience, to be able to give something back to the people and country that has been a major part of my life and work. The experience will forever remain a wonderful memory of these fantastic Nepali people and their amazing mountain homeland. Above all, thanks are due to the many generous donors in Oxford and beyond who have made this dream a reality.

Kashigaon, Yarsa new school completed March 2016.

Mike Searle, Suka Ghale, 2 local lady teachers and Kashigaon Yarsa kids.

School photo outside the new school, Kashigaon, Yarsa, May 2016.

We are still raising money for Kashigaon, Yarsa village, to complete one more classroom for the 16-18 year olds, who presently trek over an hour and half each way to get to school in a neighbouring village, and also to pay teacher salaries. In the next phase we plan to build a small Health center cum clinic in the village. Please send any donations to:

Community Action Nepal (Kashigaon appeal), Stewart Hill Cottage, Hesket Newmarket, Wigton, Cumbia, CA7 8HX, UK. Dougscott25@hotmail.com

Or send any donations to Mike Searle at Dept. Earth Sciences, Oxford University, South Parks road, Oxford OX1 3AN; mikes@earth.ox.ac.uk

Suka Ghale, Mike Searle and 5 teachers, Kashigaon, Yarsa new school, May 2016.

Plaque outside school entrance

Presentation of new school documents to Head teacher Mr. Sharda Shresta Gorkha, May 2016.

Mike Searle and new school at Kashigaon, Yarsa, May 2016.

Doug and Trish Scott, Directors of Community Action Nepal with Suka Ghale and Mike Searle.

Reference

Elliott, J.R., Jolivet, R., Gonzalez, P.J., Avouac, J-P., Hollingsworth, J., Searle, M.P. and Stevens, V.L. 2016. Himalayan megathrust geometry revealed and relation to topography revealed by the Gorkha earthquake. Nature Geoscience, 11th January 2016 doi:10.1038/NGEO2623


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