A map, a photograph and a chance encounter in the Nepal Himalaya

18 June 2018
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CIDT’s Rachel Slater reflects on a surprising fieldwork experience in Humla, Nepal, during a recent visit as part of the project ‘Review of policies, systems and programs in social protection and shock response for adaptive social protection’

Nepal social protection projectWe’ve walked for about 90 minutes along a gravel track from where are staying – a small town perched on a steep slope, nestled below the triangular peak of Chhote Kang and with a perilous drop off to the mightly Karnali River below. We are there to interview people about their experiences of disasters – especially drought and landslides in this remote part of Nepal – and are trying to work out whether we could ‘piggyback’ disaster response funding on existing systems like social security to get money out to households in need as quickly and efficiently as possible.

We climb ladders – old tree trunks with notches cut out of them for steps – to the roof of a villager’s house, and settle down on a tarpaulin as the house owner calls across the village for her neighbours to join us.  I gaze across the valley at snow covered ridge, for a moment wishing I was here trekking rather than working.  I pull out my map, wondering what route I could take up to the highest point and then something remarkable happens.  The house owner snatches the map from me excitedly and exclaims ‘that’s me!’

Nepal social protection projectIt takes me a while to understand but it turns out our respondent is one of four women in the photograph on the front of the map. We try and work out the odds – that we visited this village, in this rural municipality, in this one of 75 districts in Nepal.  They are long odds indeed.  The photo was taken maybe five years ago as Nepal sought to open up tourism in Humla district to trekkers. Anita, our Nepali research partner, and I immediately change the plan for the interview.  We ask how much has changed in the last five years: weather; access to services – especially children’s education; and whether making a living is getting easier or harder.  There’s a recognition that ‘all good things don’t always go together’, for example, more children are attending school but that means there’s no-one available to tend buffalo, goats, and zhos / zhomos (yaks bred with cows) so less manure for people’s fields. But the overwhelming story is of changes to climate: less snow and more drought (the barley and wheat around the village are about two months behind in their development); and unpredictable weather including devastating hailstorms that destroyed crops three years ago.

As we return to our guest house later in the day we follow the road newly constructed as part of a programme to guarantee households 30 days of paid work each year.  And although we are still struggling walking at this altitude we have renewed energy for our work.  Given what we have heard about the climate-related disasters that people in Humla are increasingly facing, our attempts to use social protection to support disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery seem all the more important.  All this thanks to our change encounter over a map and a photograph in Nepal’s remote Himalaya.