On November 3, 2023, a tremor woke me up in my home in Kathmandu. It was around midnight and my immediate instinct was to check the latest media updates to determine the epicenter. As information progressed, it became evident that a strong earthquake of magnitude 6.4 with its epicenter in Jajarkot district had struck Karnali province in western Nepal. This was the largest earthquake since the one that devastated the country in 2015, and the latest in a series of earthquakes that have hit western Nepal in the last year.
The next morning, a Unicef team that was about 65 kilometers from the epicenter left for the affected communities to evaluate the situation and assist the population. To our dismay, the magnitude of the destruction exceeded our initial estimates. The earthquake claimed the lives of 153 people and injured more than 364. Half of the dead and injured were children. More than 61,000 houses were damaged, 26,520 of them completely destroyed. School buildings suffered damage: 142 were completely collapsed and another 343 were partially collapsed; 89 toilets in schools were also partially broken. The tremor also affected health facilities and water supply systems.
When so many children are injured during the earthquake and critical health services, including maternal and neonatal care, are disrupted, risks to children’s health from exposure to harsh winter weather, respiratory infections and waterborne diseases increase. Children are disproportionately affected and are forced to spend nights outdoors in temporary shelters; They desperately need shelter, blankets and warm clothing now that winter is coming. Before the earthquake, there were already high levels of child malnutrition in Karnali province. Now, with the impact on basic services such as health and water, sanitation and hygiene, their nutritional status is likely to deteriorate further.
That’s why, 24 hours after the earthquake, we distributed the first relief supplies, including blankets and tarps. By day four, we had reached more than 21,000 people, including 7,140 children, providing them with hygiene kits, plastic buckets, water purification, more blankets and tents. In addition, three medical tents were installed to provide health care, along with 17 spaces adapted to minors that offered psychosocial and mental health support.
I joined the response efforts in Jajarkot district on the fourth day. When I arrived, I was deeply shocked by the widespread destruction of homes, coupled with the harsh reality that families were forced to spend nights outdoors, either for fear of aftershocks or because their homes had been reduced to ruins. Seeing entire towns reduced to rubble was heartbreaking, and the immediate appearance of orphans added another layer of tragedy. The most affected villages were dispersed, which posed a logistical challenge in getting aid to these populations. The magnitude of the devastation required urgent and strategic efforts to provide relief to affected communities.
The immediate appearance of orphans added another layer of tragedy
Following initial search and rescue, we mapped the most severely affected villages to establish child-friendly spaces to offer psychosocial support, counselling, group healing, recreation and more. And most importantly, so that the little ones can socialize and play while their parents begin the work of rebuilding their lives.
I actively participated in the creation of 11 of these spaces, which are now attended by 6,000 children. Among them, Susmita, a 12-year-old girl who shared with me how she had lived the harrowing experience of the night of the earthquake. Her family’s house collapsed while they were sleeping. She was pulled out of the rubble, fortunately unharmed. Tragically, two of her brothers lost their lives. This heartbreaking story is repeated in numerous affected homes. Despite the trauma, Susmita finds solace in play and stress-relieving activities. For her it is a small but significant step towards normality. She says that she looks forward to the reconstruction of her collapsed school, looking forward to the day when she can resume her education.
From experience we know that in addition to child-friendly spaces, learning spaces with water, sanitation and hygiene facilities are necessary, especially taking into account the damage suffered by school buildings and classrooms. This not only ensures uninterrupted education, but also protects children from the risks they are exposed to when they are unattended, such as abuse and exploitation. Cash assistance to affected families, especially those caring for children and people with disabilities, is also urgently needed to ensure they can begin to rebuild their lives.
The overall recovery from this disaster is a process that will take time, but we will continue to work around the clock on the ground to do so.
And Rono He is head of child protection at Unicef Nepal.
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