The region of Sindhuli is densely riddled with rivers; each and every monsoon season their streams fed with water, dangerously swelling the water levels.
In the most remote corners of Sindhuli, ranging waters constitute a life-threatening problem every year. Lack of proper bridges and wobbly temporary structures paralyze the community life during the rainy season, posing a serious risk to those who needed to cross the river banks on a daily basis. In the field surveys, school children were indicated as the most vulnerable group of beneficiaries in this context, forced to cross the rivers daily without proper infrastructure in place.
The district of Hariharpurgadhi, where the Village Infrastructure Improvement Project (VIIP) under Nepal Earthquake Recovery Program (NERP) focused its primary efforts on the bridge construction, can only be reached by a 4 wheeler vehicle in a dry season, taking a few hours of drive on a withered riverbed. During the monsoon, getting to the villages requires an 8-hour hike in unfavourable weather conditions. Extremely difficult access and remoteness of Hariharpurgadhi made its people suffer most during the earthquake, as the majority of the donors, including the government, lacked the capacity to intervene in the region. Caritas Nepal decided to fill in the gap on the landscape and support the communities in restoring dignified livelihoods.
The river crossing at the border of Simaltar’s wards 3 and 7 lies on one of the most attended travel routes in the area. The particular spot used to cause a lot of trouble for the local people, who gather here on a warm January morning to talk about the impact the newly constructed infrastructure has made on their lives.
“Now we can enjoy our way to school. And walking here with our friends,” says a group of children sitting at the stairs of Simaltar bridge. Back in the day, the school children would face massive problems trying to cross the river in the summer season. If the current went up, it would sometimes take them hours of waiting for the water levels to go down again. “In the past, I would get very tired walking to school every day,” says an 11-year-old Bimala. A way to school that used to be even a 4-hour passage now takes only 20 minutes: “Now we can reach school on time and feel safe,” she smiles.
A group of women echoes the children’s testimonies: “We were afraid to send our children to school, there was such a high risk of an accident…” Akaa Maya Moktan (59) says that even though her children are grownups, so the problem does not concern her anymore, she feared for her own safety: “I am old. I was often afraid that crossing the raging river would cost me life,” she points at a watermill the women need to come to 5-6 times a week carrying heavy grain loads. “Back in the day, every crossing was a challenge. There were times we could not make it at all and had to return back to the village with all the bundles.” With the new bridge, neither walking at night, none in the rainy season is a reason to fear anymore.
Chitra Bahadur Yonjan (29), leader of the grassroots committee responsible for the construction works says:
“When Caritas Nepal came to the area with the cash-for-work programme, people formed a committee to collectively request the new bridge. Caritas helped us to get the building permit from the ward.”
“Just to make you understand, the nearest market, a bus stop and a medical centre are all located at 1.5-hour walking distance from our village,” he explains. Chitra also remembers an accident that happened years ago, when the waters swept away two people trying to cross the river, stepping a wobbling temporary footbridge. One of them died on the spot.
Yonjan shared that the community greatly enjoyed working with Caritas; the only challenge they faced was the transportation of goods. “There is a shortage of sand and concrete. And iron is very heavy.” We walked up towards the transportation path he mentioned on our way back after the interview, which made us understand the struggle he talked about even better – even without a heavy load, the way proved to be particularly challenging.
“22 people worked for 15-16 days to make this happen,” says Chitra. “We are grateful to Caritas as we feel you have done a lot for us.”
“It is a blessing to be able to stay with one’s family,” says Him Bahadur Syangtan (30) one of the beneficiaries of cash-for-work programme employed at the Chisapani bridge construction site.
Syangtan was forced to regularly leave home working away as hired labour to be able to support his family of ten: elderly parents, his wife and their six children. Having little land on his own, with no alternative employment options in rural Chisapani, there was no other way he could follow back then: “I wanted to stay together with my wife and parents, but then, who would feed us all?” he asks rhetorically.
The 2015 earthquake shook the foundations of many Chisapani families to the very ground. Following the distribution of immediate relief materials, Caritas Nepal came in with the cash-for-work project, engaging the local people at the construction sites. “My family received relief materials right after the earthquake. But it is Caritas Nepal’s cash-for-work component that benefited me and my family the most,” states Syangtan.
Syangtan got employed as a skilled labourer at the construction of the Chisapani bridge along with 20 other villagers. “I was really glad to earn money constructing the bridge in our village, doing something beneficial for my own people. But I wasn’t sure what to do with the money. I thought of spending it on the basic household needs. But Caritas Nepal’s staff advised me to make an agricultural purchase. So I bought 2 goats for 10,000 Nepalese rupees I had earned,” he explains. Thanks to the successful investment, Him has become a proud owner of a growing heard of goats worth 30,000 Nepalese rupees at the moment of the interview.
“If it was not for the income I earned with Caritas Nepal’s cash-for-work programme a year ago, I would be gone far away from home, working in some other village. But now I’m able to live with my family while making money with my livestock. I now hope to learn some more about the modern breeding techniques to further grow my goat business,” says Him Syangtan with a smile.
“This bridge was a priority for us,” explains Dheduwa Khola from Tallo Dhewa’s local construction committee. “Two girls died here, 4 years ago. We had to make sure that students crossing the river to get to school every day were ensured safe passage.” As far as the collective memory goes, four people are remembered to have lost their lives trying to get through the raging waters in Tallo Dhewa.
The cash-for-work beneficiaries gathered at the meeting with us claims that even without the payment provided by Caritas Nepal’s programme they would still strive to make things happen. “We do not want to sound lofty, but we were really proud to help. We did it for kids and for a wider community. What brings you bigger satisfaction than helping your neighbour?”
The solid wooden bridge connects Tallo Dhewa’s wards 7 and 8. 13 people working at the construction site for 25 days were chosen among the poorest community members, those who could not even afford to purchase the very basic food items. “We believe our work benefited everyone, most specifically the children and the elderly,” says the workers. “Everybody feels safe now. And for us personally! The money allowed us to purchase some basic items to support our own households.”