Following the April 2015 Nepal earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people, Maya Devi Neupane, president of the United Women’s Savings and Credit Cooperative, said her Kaule community on the Phyukhri Ridge “felt orphaned, abandoned.”
She continued, “The earthquake destroyed our homes and our [Women’s Cooperative] building. We had to take shelter in the plastic greenhouse ‘tunnels’ where we had begun a tomato-growing project.”
Neupane shared stories of the devastation during an April 11-15 campus visit, when she and seven other Phyukhri Ridge community members met with the new Cornell-Nepal Earthquake Recovery Partnership (CNERP) graduate student group. CNERP volunteers are partnering with Nepali specialists to assist with recovery efforts and are led by Kathryn March, professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies program, and core faculty member of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA).
CNERP’s efforts are being coordinated through March’s spring semester class, Peoples and Cultures of the Himalayas. “This course was specifically redesigned to permit professional master’s students involved in CNERP to get credit for their work on this pilot program, as well as to gain the in-depth cultural and historical understanding of the region which is essential for effective community-partnership-based reconstruction and development programming,” said March.
The Nepali contingent’s visit was planned as a series of consultations with CNERP members, which include CIPA and city and regional planning graduate students concentrated on five teams: rebuilding homes, income generation, domestic water and sanitation, health and health facilities, and schools and education.
“This visit has been very valuable,” said Neupane. “Normally we are very proud to be able to do so many things on our own. We have not come begging. Talking and working with the students and faculty at Cornell, we are seeking help only to do the things we cannot do by ourselves.”
Said March: “The primary goal of the consultations was to explore ways in which the communities on Phyukhri Ridge can organize themselves to define and manage their earthquake recovery. We’re striving to work with existing community organizations as much as possible, while remaining committed to ensuring that everyone on the ridge is included and benefits equitably.”
Helping to lead Cornell’s engagement are CIPA Director Sharon Tennyson and David Tipping, MPA ’16, who coordinated a campus response as March visited the region last fall. Tipping gathered March’s feedback from the field and organized workshops with former United Nations’ professionals and other experts in disaster relief and recovery.
“CIPA has worked on a number of post-disaster recovery efforts over the years,” said Tennyson. “Eleven years following Hurricane Katrina, our CIPA-NOLA student group and students from CIPA’s Public Service Exchange continue to offer consulting services to the 9th Ward [in New Orleans]. We also had student teams working with NGOs and community members on rebuilding efforts in Port-au-Prince and other areas for several years following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.”
CNERP President Jennifer Nerby, MPA ’17, whose team is focused on private home reconstruction, said meeting with the Nepal group provided “a much clearer understanding of the financial and material resources of the community and what families have done so far to recover from the earthquake.”
For March, CNERP’s work is intensely personal. She has studied anthropology, social change and gender in Nepal for more than 40 years, working closely with Phyukhri Ridge residents since 1975.
“CNERP builds on Cornell’s long history of involvement in Nepal to put Cornell’s international and agricultural development experience to work supporting local community initiatives to rebuild homes, schools and infrastructure as well as to continue supporting and expanding rural income generation,” said March.
March envisions CNERP as a long-term program for Cornell student engagement. Several students are planning internships and site visits over the summer, and this fall CNERP leaders hope to pilot several reconstruction projects and raise international awareness for new and innovative models of disaster recovery.
“On their own initiative, without even knowing us, these Cornell students have already accomplished so much,” said Hari Maya Tamang, a Nepali community leader. “I feel inspired.”
Lisa Jervey Lennox is CIPA assistant director for external relations.
This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.