Nepal earthquake: volunteering in the disaster zone

12 September 2016

In April 2015, the 7.6 magnitude Gorkha earthquake triggered the evacuation of volunteers based in Nepal on assignment with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program.

A handful of volunteers had skills which were in high demand following the disaster. Michael Tolhurst and Thomas de Leon were two of those volunteers who decided to stay and help.

Civil engineer Michael Tolhurst had only been in the country a few weeks when the earthquake hit. He was working in information management on assignment with the Nepal Government's Department of Water Supply and Sewerage (DWSS) in Kathmandu.

"We met people who had lost family and whose houses were damaged, and we started hearing about the extent of the damage. I wanted to help out, and I felt that my skills would be useful in the humanitarian response effort," Michael says.

He refocused his role with the WASH Cluster (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene), led by the DWSS with support from UNICEF and other NGOs, to collect and check case data from agencies in the field.

"I produced statistics, graphs and maps to help plan the relief effort and monitor our progress – this helped all the aid agencies identify areas which needed the most assistance, and where we were going well," Michael says.

"I also helped train local staff to improve their data management skills, and their use of Excel and geographic information systems."

Structural engineer Thomas de Leon was also on assignment in Kathmandu with the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) at the time of the earthquake. Like Michael, his circumstances quickly convinced him to stay and help.

"I had already been trained for building damage assessment, search and rescue and first aid as part of my induction when I started at NSET a few months earlier," Thomas says.

"When the earthquake happened, there were obviously a lot of people needing help and I was in a position where I could help them, as well as having no family responsibilities myself compared to my colleagues – so I never really considered leaving."

Thomas conducted rapid damage assessments of critical buildings around the Kathmandu valley. He focused on hospitals before moving to government infrastructure, banks and residential buildings.

"In the mornings we would go to the NSET office and each get paired up with another engineer. We would get a list of buildings that needed to be inspected and contact details. We would then go out and do a rapid damage assessment of the buildings. This involved looking at the existing building type, building quality, design, and then looking at all the cracks and their locations, and determining whether the building was safe for occupancy," Thomas explains.

However, Thomas could only help as much as humanly possible. The public visibility of his job meant managing some confrontations with locals.

"I remember a lot of desperate people. Anywhere we went  we would quickly get a crowd assembling to see what we were doing, then dragging us off to do one more job, and then one more, so eventually you have to say you've got a schedule to keep and people waiting at other sites," Thomas recalls.

Michael similarly recalls challenges with coordination between the different organisations working on the ground in Nepal.

"Clear and accurate information, communication, and logistical problems were all great hurdles through the whole process – it was particularly difficult with different levels of Government, the UN and all the NGOs trying to work with all the problems that arose," Michael says.

On the other hand, the aftermath of the disaster was hallmarked by strong displays of local resilience, which Michael felt inspired by.

"Despite all the challenges, many Nepalis were looking to help each other out, often before any official response could be organised. In the first few days following the earthquake, our neighbours were taking food and supplies to their village outside Kathmandu," he says.

"It was heartening seeing the community look to rebuild."

Michael Tolhurst was involved in the WASH Cluster response for around eight months and prepared a DWSS staff member to continue in the information management role so that he was able to resume his original assignment.

Thomas de Leon returned to his original assignment with NSET one month after the earthquake, once NSET had trained a large number of volunteer and municipal engineers to carry out building assessments.

Thomas de Leon (far right) inspecting residential buildings in east Kathmandu with Dipak Saud, Kuber Bogati and Laxmi Bhatta (L-R)

Last Updated: 12 September 2016
Michael Tolhurst cycling through Kathmandu with his wife Jacquie, who worked with the UN for two months after the earthquake