On August 18, 2008, tragedy struck along the Koshi, a transboundary river that flows from Nepal to India and then joins the Ganga. For the umpteenth time, the Koshi burst its banks. Still. Residents were not prepared for the flood, Sarita Kumari Giri of Barmajhiya in Saptari District of Eastern Nepal realised.
“The Koshi threatened to enter our settlement west of the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve,” remembers Giri, who took part in rescue and relief in the aftermath of the flood. “We were worried that the river would enter our settlement. Fortunately it did not.”
Ever since, Giri and her friends have been looking for ways to prepare for such disasters. Their chance came in 2015, through a training programme organised by the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research (CSR) with support from The Asia foundation.
In association with two local groups in two countries – Samudayik Sarathi (Nepal) and Gramin Evam Nagar Vikas Parishad (India) – CSR trained local women how to be be prepared t deal with a disaster. The training was held in Saptari and Sunsari of Nepal and Saharsa and Supaul districts of downstream Bihar in India.
“Many reports and documents were analysed for conducting the TNA [training need assessment]… We forget the potential of these women to manage a disaster. If these women get inputs and their capacity gets built they can play significant role in mitigation, coping mechanism, rescue, evacuation and relief with full sincerity…Through training if they understand disaster mitigation and life cycle and other variety of tools to plan for pre and post disaster, they can contribute a lot and it can reduce the effects,” says CSR in one of its reports on the project.
“Although the idea was to train local women representatives, we could not do that in Nepal because we hadn’t had elections,” says Tara Bhandari of Samudayik Sarathi. “That was when we decided to include local women with leadership potential.”
The idea was simple and cost effective. “The Nepal part of the programme had a budget of just Rs 2.4 million. But we knew that even with a small amount, we could leave an impact on the communities,” adds Bhandari.
“It was important that women were selected to take part in the programme,” says Giri. “In places such as the Terai, most of the men have gone out in search of work. During a flood, it is the women who not only bear the brunt of the disaster, but are also in the forefront of disaster response.”
Samudayik Sarathi and CSR started with discussions among local women’s groups in the two districts in Nepal. They asked about water supply in their homes, the setting of their village and resources available, the role of political parties in solving daily problems, and so on. Then some of the women were asked detailed questions on water governance – who decides who gets the water and for what purpose.
These discussions and answers were put together in a training manual for local women with leadership potential. “We decided to focus on disaster preparedness, importance of seasonal calendar and community mapping, among others,” says Bhandari. Seventy women from the two districts were trained.
The most important phase of the project, called handholding, was then launched. Of the 70 women trained, 22 decided that they would organise meetings with local women to teach them about disaster preparedness. These new leaders reached out to 1,250 of the most vulnerable women from Sada, Sardar and Bantar communities on the Nepal side of the Koshi Basin.
And then the project crossed the international border, knowing that people in Bihar faced exactly the same problems.
“Of the 22 trainers, we selected 10 to meet their counterparts in Bihar to discuss common issues they faced,” says Bhandari. According to Samudayik Sarathi, the handholding programme went on till July 2017.
In August 2017, many parts of South Asia – including the banks of the Koshi – were flooded after heavy monsoon rains. Saptari and Sunsari districts of Bihar were among the worst affected. At least 143 people lost their lives in Nepal because of the flood. In South Asia, the number crossed 1,000.
“That was when we saw the true value of our project,” says Bhandari. Not a single casualty was reported in the areas where the handholding programme had been conducted. No one lost vital documents such as citizenship or land registration papers to the floods.
Giri’s work caught the attention of local leaders of the Nepal Communist Party, who nominated her to become a member of the Federal Parliament. “I think the work I did during the flood awareness programme helped me secure the nomination,” she says, adding that women trained under the programme pressed the local government to allocate budget for disaster planning and response. “In the end, they had no option but to listen to what we said.”