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Natural disasters, by their very nature, don’t distinguish between religious, economic or cultural boundaries. They will happily lay waste to whatever lies in their path, whether it be a remote rural village, a presidential palace or a nuclear power station.

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…It’s what happens next that defines them.

IMG_2451Over the past two decades, I have found myself following Mother Nature’s destructive course around the world. I was in Sri Lanka after the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004 and in Haiti just a few weeks after one of the worst earthquakes in living memory had destroyed Port au Prince, leaving over 200,000 dead and a further 1.5 million people homeless.

Both these rate amongst the top ten deadliest natural disasters of the past 100 years.

Nepal’s two recent earthquakes, by comparison, come quite a way down the list. Their longer lasting effects though will affect far more lives as the weeks and months unfold. Next month sees the arrival of the summer monsoons, when landslides, leeches and heavy rains will inevitably affect the relief efforts and cause even more problems for the thousands left without adequate shelter or the most basic of provisions. The rains will contaminate the water supplies and bring with them water-borne diseases, poor sanitation and intolerable conditions.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in 2005, she was described as one of the deadliest storms in history, causing widespread destruction and loss of life across great swathes of Louisiana, New Orleans and America’s Gulf Coast. The 2011 tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan brought with it nuclear meltdown and damages estimated at over $300 billion dollars. Years later, both Japan and the United States, two of the richest countries on the planet, are still dealing with the aftermath of those destructive forces of nature. What hope then for Nepal?

One of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal’s infrastructure is devastated. Heavily reliant on tourism, her World Heritage sites lie in ruins and her lucrative trekking and climbing routes have been decimated by avalanches and mudslides. Welcome and essential as the current outpourings of sympathy and aid are, I can’t help wondering how long it will be before the world moves on to the next sound bite. It has been five years since the Haiti earthquake and many of the scars still remain amongst the shattered ruins of the country’s capital. At the time of the disaster, the country was swamped by relief agencies. Everyone wanted to get in on the act. Today, the NGOs and the investors have long gone and the tented refugee camps have been replaced by sprawling squatter camps on the outskirts of the city. Many Haitians are in a worse situation now than they were before the earthquake, and this is a country that, at the time, was the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

I remember the day I took this photograph.

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We had been stopped at a road block and I remember asking my driver about the significance of the flags fluttering amongst the twisted wreckage. It seemed incongruous somehow that this one building should stand out amongst a seemingly endless landscape of indiscriminate destruction. He informed me that it had been a maternity hospital. On the day of the earthquake there had been 125 women and children in there.

…They were still inside.

For some reason this one image has always summed up the sheer hopelessness of Haiti’s plight for me. The relief agencies had taken the time to place flags in the rubble, but none of them had had the time or the resources to recover the dead from inside. Over the coming days I was to see far worse sights amongst the slums and refugee camps of Port au Prince, but somehow my thoughts always returned to this one emotive image.

Five years on, it still exerts a powerful hold.

…I just hope Nepal’s story has a happier ending.

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IMG_0109Well, I was sort of hoping that the past three months would culminate in a worldwide apocalypse that would render anymore updates futile. However, in light of a total lack of burning fireballs, biblical plagues or flesh-eating zombies, I am compelled to bring my earthly ramblings up to date.

A wiser man than I once wrote “…Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do”. That is probably still going to be true, no matter what I do, but the last 113 days has taken me from the northern shores of Canada’s Great Slave Lake and through the slums of Sao Paulo, before finally dumping me in a small Nepalese village close to the Indian border. It is a journey that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I have travelled by antiquated aircraft and bone-jarring buses, stood beneath the hypnotic majesty of the Northern Lights and shared an array of potent liquors with everyone from the ‘Snow King’ of Yellowknife to a 90 year old Nepali grandfather in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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What I need to do now is sit down, take a breathe and try to make sense of it all. I may be sometime!…

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Forced labour has taken on many forms over the centuries.The Ancient Greeks called it debt bondage, whilst their Roman counterparts preferred the title of Nexum. During the Middle Ages much of the peasant populations of Europe suffered under the yolk of feudalism, before the arrival of the Black Death created something of a downturn in the labour market. In these more enlightened times debt bondage has, thankfully, been outlawed across much of the planet and the United Nations have seen fit to define it as a form of ‘modern day slavery’ in an attempt to eradicate it completely. However, in 2006 there were still estimated to be over 18 million bonded slaves, struggling to rid themselves of debts that had been passed down through generations of the same family.

The Kamaiya of western Nepal were one such group. As recently as 12 years ago they were still being forced to work as little more than slaves, paying off debts that had been accrued decades before they were even born. Then, in July 2000, the Nepalese government, in an act of charitable benevolence and stunning bureaucratic ineptitude, outlawed the practise and cancelled all their debts. Freed of a lifetime of bonded servitude, these people now found themselves homeless, as their previous landlords evicted them. The government promised resettlement and land, but over a decade later many of them are still suffering intolerable hardships and, in a country where a third of the population live below the poverty line, they remain amongst the poorest people in Nepal. Today, around 20,000 families are still waiting for the land that was promised them and many still live in temporary shelters that are little more than plastic sheeting and rags, held together with bamboo, twine and hope. Most also lack proper sanitation and hundreds of women and children succumb to diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid each year.

Four years ago I went out to western Nepal, to work with the Kamaiya on a project that was funded by Action Aid. They were interesting times. We were camped in a field next to the work site and each morning we would wake to find the entire village encamped on our doorstep waiting for us. They would patiently sit there and watch us wash and eat breakfast, before escorting us en masse to our day’s labours. I remember hearing the news of Obama’s victory in the US Presidential elections whilst sat in a ditch in the foothills of the Himalayas and I recall a particularly humiliating football match that saw us unceremoniously thrashed by an elite squad of barefooted children. It’s strange what sticks in the memory.

In two weeks time I will be heading back out there. It will be interesting to see how much has changed in four years. Action Aid continue to try to work to improve the lives of the Kamaiya, by providing them with secure housing and access to health and education facilities. Obama I fear may well have become a footnote in history by then, but somehow I doubt that the Kamaiya will even register it…they have far more pressing issues to worry about.