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Letters from the Field

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Solar[edit]

Improving the lives of rural village communities in Nepal[edit]

Brad Hiller
March to June, 2007


For those unfamiliar with Nepal, it is a small landlocked country in Central Asia. It is often referred to as the ‘roof’ of the world as it contains 8 of 10 of the world’s highest mountain peaks, including the highest of them all, Mount Everest. Although the landscape is dominated by the Himalayan Mountain Range, which spans the country from east to west, in the south it comprises significant areas of fertile, humid grasslands, savannahs and forests, known collectively as the Terai. The country is best-known for its tourism, wild-life and cultural richness. However, in recent times Nepal has experienced significant political and civil instability, much of which seems to have stemmed from the disillusioned rural poor struggling for greater provision of basic infrastructure and services. This lack of basic facilities was highly evident in the remote Humla Province, where I was posted for 2.5 months.
Brad Hiller installing solar lights in a village home

The Humla Province is located in the extreme north-west of Nepal, close to the Tibet Autonomous Region. It has recently been identified as the second-poorest of the 75 provinces in Nepal, which itself has been referred to as the poorest country in Asia. Essentially, Humla is accessible only by light aircraft, as it is reportedly 16-days hike from the nearest vehicle road. This isolation, coupled with just 1% of the province containing arable land, leads to enormous challenges for the locals and any organisations working in the region. One organisation taking on that challenge is that to which I was seconded; a local non-government organisation called Rural Integrated Development Services Nepal (RIDS-Nepal). RIDS-Nepal, as the name suggests, has adopted an integrated approach to improving the lives of remote rural village communities. RIDS-Nepal began with a four-pronged program targeting the essentials of water source / supply; sanitation; smokeless indoor stoves and indoor lighting. The success of the base program has led to recent expansion into other areas such as non-formal education; nutrition; health posts; greenhouses and solar dryers. RIDS-Nepal’s success can be largely attributed to its pragmatic approach to problem-solving and its philosophy to develop appropriate solutions in the appropriate context to address local problems. This has been coupled with the establishment, and ongoing maintenance, of sound relationships with local village communities and a good record of delivering effective projects and programs in a timely manner despite a myriad of challenges.

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Villagers carrying their solar modules
I was very fortunate to become involved in a number of different aspects of RIDS-Nepal’s projects. I initially participated in research activities based at Kathmandu University before venturing into field activities based out of the High Altitude Research Station (HARS) in the Humla Province. In conjunction with local staff, we conducted a range of field investigations on areas ranging from water source / supply and indoor air pollution to waste management and lighting installation. We also conducted surveys and gathered data for inclusion in an Australian National University dissertation and other nutritional studies. We coordinated capacity building at the research station through the development of project management templates and program measurement templates; informal classes and training workshops. Although my time was limited, I believe that we were able to achieve some immediate tangible results as well as helping to lay the foundations for longer term success.

There were countless challenges associated with the Humla posting, ranging from eating only 2 meals per day (the same food for breakfast and dinner) and sleeping in village stables, to hiking for up to 8 hours per day in addition to conducting work activities. However, the occasional struggles were always compensated by the spectacular Himalayan landscape and the enduring friendliness and hospitality of the local people. The seasonal nomadic nature of life in the region, due to weather conditions and traditional trading practices, and the co-existence of Hindu Nepalis and Buddhist Tibetans, were also rare occurrences to observe.

I was very grateful for the opportunity to firstly observe (and participate) in village-life, and then, with an appreciation of the confronting issues, try to promote and apply the concepts of sustainable development on a localised scale. There were certainly many intertwined economic, social (and cultural) and environmental components which needed to be considered and incorporated into any solutions that were proposed to the villagers.

A constant source of inspiration for me during my posting was that despite extreme poverty and profound daily hardship, the people of the Humla Province were generally happy and eager to become involved in the projects we were helping to facilitate. They were very willing to learn and wanted to contribute to the bettering of their communities.

I was honoured to represent EWB Australia, which is a vibrant, proactive organisation engaging in projects that are making a ‘real difference’ at the community level, both in Australia and overseas, and who also provide their volunteers great support and guidance. For anyone looking for a unique experience and an opportunity to contribute to communities in need, and all with an organisation that transcends political and commercial boundaries, EWB Australia may be for you!

Kind Regards, Brad Hiller

Dukka Sukka: Sorrow and Joy in the Kathmandu Valley[edit]

Ken Walpole
February to July, 2008

08-March-2008

On the 8th February 2008 I left Australia to live in Nepal, working full-time as a volunteer. I'm being sponsored by Engineers Without Borders to work for an NGO

called Remote Integrated Development Services (RIDS Nepal) as an Electrical and Renewable Energy Engineer. It is a six-month posting, based in Kathmandu, working on projects that provide basic services to people living in the remote northwestern province of Humla.

Welcome to the first episode of an email series on Kenny's life in Nepal. A story of a journey away and within, where grim trials reveal sublime peace, and the Himalaya are ever watchful....

"I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within" - Lillian Smith

As I walked down my home street destined for far away lands, this simple act, oft reduced to monotony from routine and repetition, was now an experience almost beyond description. Frangipanni trees wept scented blossom onto the hot black tar road. The sky was open, alive and impossibly blue, whisperings of adventure floating on gentle breezes. Memories of people and places swirled and melted into bittersweet nostalgia: life and its nature of constant change. To accept this gracefully is an art not easy to master. So as the physical journey started, so too did a spiritual one.

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Stupa at Swayambhu stands in silent Samadhi
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Buddhist statues on the way to Swayambhu
Moving at unimaginable speed yet apparently in motionless suspension, the aircraft covered almost 10,000 km in roughly the time it takes to solve a good jigsaw puzzle. We passed through several time zones, gained four extra hours to the day, a new world appeared overnight and yet, somehow, it all seemed to take too long.

As we got close to Kathmandu, the great Himalaya slowly came intoview, a giant snow capped wall of mountains blanketed across the horizon. Standing icons to the majestic beauty of nature, simultaneously ominous and benevolent. I couldn't shake the feeling that they somehow knew of my arrival and the trials that lay ahead. Down in the valley the mountains are hidden behind a wall of haze (yet their presence is not easily forgotten). I'm living in the village of Imadol on the outskirts of Patan, about 40 minutes south of the centre of Kathmandu. The hospitality of my colleague and host Muni (and his family) is truly outstanding. It's impossible to imagine a warmer welcome to the city's coldest season.

Winter is not easily forgotten as our place has no heating, no running water, and electricity is routinely disconnected for at least 8 hours a day. To add to this, and despite taking every possible precaution, I succumbed to food poisoning after less than a week in country.

These so-called hardships are nothing compared to what many people living in Humla endure. Of the 75 provinces in Nepal, Humla has been classed as one of the poorest. It has been ranked at 74th in regard to poverty, deprivation and (lack of) development. With such a perspective, complaining about my meagre sufferings seems ridiculous.

At RIDS Nepal I will be working on several research and development projects like providing running water for Kholsi village. The aim is to provide potable water for drinking and warm water for bathing. The power source is a pico hydro system. There is also a monitoring system that will collect data on the installation to assist with future deployments. I'm also getting involved in solar PV innovations that seek to reduce cost by using the expensive panels more effectively. The workload is intensive, so far including a combination of language training, research, design and testing. The staff at RIDS are a wonderful bunch of people and fun to work with professional relationships quickly growing into friendships.

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22-Feb-08, Kathmandu: Kenny, Alexji and Muniji doing a basic solar PV test
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Bananas on the run - a fruit store on wheels
In a city thick with smog and prone to major fuel shortages, cycling is obviously the best transport option. (In a world facing serious climate change and peak oil concerns, the same could be said for any city). A facemask and unwavering concentration are essential for the Kathmandu cyclist. Many roads don't have footpaths, and in the older parts of town, streets are barely two meters wide. Pedestrians and vehicles weave around each other in a chaotic multidirectional flow. Motorbikes, cars and trucks send out ear-bursting horn blasts to announce: their presence, intent to overtake, progress of the overtake, or just for something to do.

I've had a few precious hours to do some sight seeing and the iconic Swayambhu temple complex was a good place to start. Countless prayer flags lay painted across the sky, their blessings blowing in the breeze. The peaceful atmosphere somehow undisturbed by excited tourists and badly behaved resident monkeys. The central stupa stood silently in full acceptance of the surrounding din, as if in demonstration of a refined state of Samadhi.

This week, final preparations are being made for the journey to Simikot, Humla. We leave on the 8th March and will be away for about 3-5 weeks. Humla is in a high mountain valley in the Inner Himalaya and shares a border with Tibet. It is, arguably, one of the most remote places in the world. There are no roads or grid power, few shops, no Internet and (unless it's an emergency) no practical way of making contact.

On the eve of what will be yet another adventure, I find myself wondering why I keep getting into such situations. Once, my motivations were wanderlust and the hope of finding some sort of metaphorical treasure in a unique experience. Now, I am more interested in giving service where it is so desperately needed. I feel privileged to have arrived at this opportunity and intend to contribute as much as I can with my humble set of skills and experience. Treasure (metaphorical or otherwise) will just have to wait.

Kenny

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A game of marbles, the best way to pass the time in Durbar Square

Some photos from the last few weeks can be found here:
http://picasaweb.google.com.au/kenwalpole/KennyInNepalEpisodeOne

For more information on the organisations and their programmes, see the following:
RIDS Nepal: http://www.rids-nepal.org/
Engineers Without Borders: http://www.ewb.org.au/