Saturday, February 11, 2012
The mudslide story
Last week I was talking with one of the project drivers and he mentioned that his wife had taken the kids and moved out of the house. He explained that she did this because she no longer felt safe in the home he had built for them there. The reason she felt unsafe was because less than 3 weeks ago a mudslide completely destroyed their neighbors’ house. Some of the damage had since been cleaned up, but a mess still remained. I asked the driver, whom I will call Dave, what needed to be done, and he said he was spending every spare minute trying to shovel dirt so that his home would be safe again. This sounded simple enough, so I told him I would come over on the weekend with my shovel and help him.
The weekend came and kaka and I grabbed shovels (he didn’t have much choice in the matter!) and went to Dave’s house. My enthusiasm about actually having some practical work to do was quickly let down when we approached Dave’s house and saw him 150 ft up the hillside that towered over his house. He was up there working away with a shovel, trying to shovel dirt down from the whole hillside. It wasn’t until I took a walk around the house that I could even see what he was trying to do. His house was nested right at the base of the hill, in fact, to build it years ago his elders had cut into the hillside with shovels, and used that dirt to build the walls for their houses. They are so close to the looming hill that clearly, any shift in the hillside would send soil into their yard. This was exactly what had happened to the house behind Dave’s, which was now destroyed.
As I was inspecting the rubble of Dave’s neighbor’s house, he came and quietly told the story of what had happened in the night a couple weeks ago. He woke in the middle of a rainy night to a thunderous sound. He ran outside and realized the sound was coming from just behind his house. Running there with a light he saw that the whole hillside was covering his neighbors’ house. He quickly shoveled dirt away from a window and dove into the house. He saw the top of a baby crib, peeking out of the dirt that had caved in from a window, and he dug through the dirt and lifted the baby out of it. He handed the baby out the window to another rescuer, and continued looking for other people. At that moment he heard another thunderous sound, and another wave of mud showered down, filling the room until he was up to his neck. He realized that there was no way he could save anyone else, and he just had to get out. Minutes after he climbed out, the house collapsed under the weight of the mud. The father and mother of the small baby were killed, and she was 5 months pregnant. Also lost in the mudslide was all the livestock: sheep, cows, chickens, goats, all crushed under the mud.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, there was little help or consolation. The government contributed a 3-day contract for 2 dumptrucks and 1 excavator to clean up the damage, but in 3 days they had only cleaned up the house, the dead livestock were still buried under their collapsed buildings. The community did the standard funeral, burial, wake, and mourning, and that was that. Another tragedy in their midst; nothing out of the ordinary.
Dave’s story complete, and my own heart torn, I now have to decide: what do I do? He points to the hill and explains that his plan is to “lighten the load” of the face of the hill, so that if (when) it falls, it will not do as much damage. He admits it’s a feeble attempt, but doesn’t know what else he can do. He also shows me that there is a little area left in his yard where he could build a new room to move his family into, so that they could sleep 5 meters further from the hill. He asked for relief money to build this room, because his wife agrees to return and live in a room there, but not in the one 5 meters closer to the hill. I’m pretty sure that those 5 meters will not make much difference in his family’s safety. So what was I going to do?
I decided to do what I came to do: spend the morning shoveling with my driver Dave. I wasn’t sure that we were going to accomplish much, but if taking a shovel with him would at least provide a sense of solidarity for him, I would do it. So the three of us climbed the hill, about 150 ft up, and began to dig, one shovel at a time. On the very front edge of the hill it was easy to shove the dirt down, tumbling all the way to the wall separating the base of the hill from his yard. Dave’s goal, however, was to shovel from the edge, to 2-3 meters back from it. Soon it became apparent that each shovel full of dirt would have to be scooped and handled not once or even twice, but probably 8 or more times, in order to send it down to the bottom of the hill. I began to estimate that there was at least 500 cubic yards of dirt to move in this fashion. For this morning, however, I tried to put these calculations out of my mind and just put my back into the task of joining this friend in the only action he could think about in order to bring his family back to a safe home.
As I shoveled the morning away with Dave, he repeatedly urged me to commit relief money to him, either from the project or personally, so that he could build the new room 5 meters further from the hill. I told him early on, and reminded him later, that I would not make any promises or decisions today, I needed time to consider this matter carefully. Is that a disappointing response? Sorry if you think I blew it, but I just couldn’t act until I had carefully thought this through. On one hand, Dave’s request for helping building a new room was small and attainable, but would it provide protection? On the other hand, Dave’s effort in shoveling the entire mountainside was insurmountable, and yet it seemed like the better way to look. So how could I help him to move the mountain, without discouraging him by not helping him build a new room?
When I got home later in the day, I went to work making phone calls to other organizations to ask for help. There is still big aid money available in our region this year because of the insecurity and the drought, and one of the priorities is disaster-affected people. So I called my friend who is the head of one of the UN organizations and co-chair of the Protection cluster. I told him I had a disaster risk reduction project for him, and it could save the lives of 70 people. He was interested, and asked me to draft him a proposal that he could take to the Protection cluster to push it further. That finished, I went on to call another contact with USAID who personally advises the governor on the projects he should take up for public goodwill and improving governance. I told him about the situation, and we talked about it a bit. It seemed that this contact was not as easy to persuade, because he stood behind the government’s suggestion that these families just move away from the hill. I urged my contact to consider that houses do not sit vacant, drifters would quickly move in to the empty, unsafe houses. I also urged him to see that while the government’s reactive response in cleaning up the demolished house was one kind of help, what was really needed was a proactive government that would help people get away from imminent environment danger, and then put legislation in place so that people would not build on land like this. He agreed that we could meet and talk about this more, so an appointment was made.
It’s too early to say what will come from my advocacy efforts to bigger organizations. I hope that there will be a release of funding and an organization that is willing to manage a project where 20-30 men are hired to shovel the hill, and an excavator works from the bottom of the hill to move the dirt they shovel down. If they do this, and leave it on a pitch that cannot be built on, but will not slide onto the houses below, this would be the best solution for this village (aside from moving).
Unfortunately, sometimes advocacy takes time to get a response, and practical minded fellows like Dave want a quicker response. When Dave didn’t get the relief from me to build his new room, he called other foreigners he knew and asked them. Somehow these foreigners learned I had been more directly involved and asked my opinion of the situation. It was hard, but I had to say that I thought it was better if Dave did not build the new room, but rather continued to stay with his wife at her brother’s house, because it’s a safer place for them to be while it’s still rainy season.
Before giving the suggestion that Dave leave the area rather than build a new room, I had some discussions with my CDP team about Dave’s situation, and this was informative. As it turned out, our CDP facilitators had met with Dave just last summer, when he was digging at the base of the hill, in order to build a guestroom. When they learned what he was doing, they urged him not to build a room there, because it was so close to the mountain, and was vulnerable to landslides. Dave shrugged off their advice, saying, “this is the only land I have, I have to build here.” Somehow, this information only made this situation harder for me to wade through. It would have been easier, as a foreigner, to be naïve of that background story, and then just respond out of compassion and quickly answer his request now for a new room. Since I had asked about the background, I was no longer naïve, and I had to deal with the fact that this victim I wanted to save had himself to blame as anyone else!
It’s useless to say, “you should have listened to our CDP facilitators when they advised you not to build here.” But isn’t it also useless to respond to Dave in a way that makes his choices seem without consequence? What do you think, what can be done for Dave that would also have positive impact on the community around him?