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The rescue effort gets underway in Nepal city center.

All roads lead to Nepal

A teacher and a student felt exactly the same impulse when an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015: Do something, now.

January 17, 2017

By Mark Cox

The devastation caused by Nepal's earthquake was on an apocalyptic scale.

In a matter of seconds, entire villages were leveled and whole communities wiped out. Nine thousand people died. Half a million homes were destroyed. Three million people were made instantly homeless, more than a million of them with no access to food. Thousands of children were orphaned. Countless people were trapped in the rubble with little hope of escape.

But there was one positive. Radical improvements in communications, transport and planning in recent years have transformed disaster response. Within hours, a full-scale response and recovery effort was underway.

Thousands of miles away in Colorado, Aaron Brown – an associate professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver – watched the TV coverage and wondered what he could possibly do to help from so far away. But that wasn’t a problem for Amir Raj Thapa (an alumni of the same University). He was right in the thick of it.


Amir’s story: Eye of the storm

When the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake erupted beneath Nepal on April 25, 2015, Amir was at home with his pregnant wife and elderly parents.

He recalled: “The entire room suddenly started shaking hard and we heard a massive roaring sound, as if a thousand horses were galloping toward us. Then the shaking grew even worse, and you could hear people crying and panicking outside.

“My mom was thrown to the ground and fell on the stairs. Soon, the entire house was lurching really badly. I thought it was the end – all of us were crying and hugging. Then slowly, the shaking became weaker so we rushed outside to an open field.”

It had been a massive disaster – and a subsequent series of aftershocks only compounded the sense of terror. But rather than submit to the enormity of it all, Amir sprang into action (As an environmental science graduate, he was well-equipped to offer practical help). Almost immediately, he volunteered with an American NGO called International Medical Corps and threw himself into the recovery effort.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in 2015.

Dangerous work

In those first few weeks, Amir helped build 798 temporary toilets across the worst-affected districts. He also developed a Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) program and provided hygiene education for hundreds of children, women and older people.

There was very real danger in the work. Early on, Amir and three colleagues were flown in to a remote mountain village at the epicenter of the quake, which had been completely leveled. After distributing vital supplies, Amir and his crew worked all day to construct 24 latrines before settling in their tents for the night (Their helicopter wouldn’t return until daybreak).

But that night a fierce storm brought hail the size of golf balls and flash flooding, and left the terrified team scrambling for safety as their tents, gear and food were washed over the side of the mountain. Scared and exhausted, they sought refuge with the villagers for the remainder of the night.

Still, there was one bright spot: By the morning, every latrine they had installed was still intact.Alumnus Amir Raj Thapa traveled to Nepal to help with earthquake relief.

Facebook fame

And so it continued: The 15-hour days grinded on, the work seemed unending. Then something remarkable happened. Amir was working away in the shadows when he was noticed by a visiting Facebook team, which was raising money for International Medical Corps.

Before long, he was starring in a fundraising video (complete with an introduction by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) that told the whole story of the earthquake through his eyes, and in heart-rending detail.

The picture it painted, of a concerned family man doing his best and finding hope in impossible circumstances, made for powerful viewing. The video quickly garnered 7.5 million views and Facebook members donated $15 million. As Amir looked on, amazed, his own story literally translated into millions of dollars to help the country he loved so much.

Many months have now passed since the earthquake, but Amir has not slowed down. These days, he works with the Chaudhary Foundation, which runs an extensive reconstruction and rehabilitation program throughout Nepal.

Amir says: “We have already built 2,520 temporary shelters and 38 community schools – and I’m leading a number of other programs to help vulnerable and marginalized communities. It is such an inspiring job.”

Learning curve

You might wonder where the incredible drive for Amir’s humanitarian work comes from, but he doesn’t: “Unquestionably, I believe the values and principles I was taught while a student at MSU Denver enabled me to become the person I am today.”

Amir subscribes to the view that “education maketh the man.” And one Denver memory, in particular, stands out.

Amir recalls: “I remember, at a time when I was happily settled in America, one of my professors suggested I might regret it one day if I didn’t take my education and experience back to Nepal. Back then, I had no intention of returning to my own country and it took me a few years to understand what he meant. But of course he was right; my country needed me.

“When I finally did return, years later, I wrote to thank that professor for showing me the path. It turns out he knew my heart better than I did.”

Aaron’s story: Have good idea, will travel…

While Amir made a big difference by tackling the crisis at its very epicenter, thousands of miles away Aaron Brown was pondering what he might do from his modest lab in Colorado.

As soon as the earthquake hit, Aaron – a specialist in mechanical engineering technology – had figured there must be some way he could use his particular skill set to help. Gathering his students together, they quickly hit on a genius two-pronged plan. First: Design a water filter that could be made from everyday items, then create how-to pamphlets that would show survivors in Nepal how to construct such items themselves.

Getting access to clean drinking water is always a major challenge following natural disasters, and without it, waterborne diseases such as cholera can run amok. Aaron recalls: “We knew that if we could teach people to build these filters with stuff that was easily accessible to them, it could have an extraordinary impact.”

And so it proved. The team’s water filter pamphlets were distributed in Nepal through a network of local contacts and a local university – and the last Aaron heard, they were being used on the ground effectively and successfully.

Aaron Brown is associate professor in MSU Denver's Department of Mechanical Engineering Technology.

Smoke alert

But the Denver group was just getting started. Their next target? Chimneys.

Indoor air pollution has long been a serious problem in Nepal simply because many homes don’t have a chimney. Families cooking in tiny, unventilated houses inevitably breathe in a lot of smoke and lung disease rates are high.

But now, with so many homes destroyed and needing to be rebuilt, Aaron’s project team spotted an opportunity to transform the local population’s future health prospects.

They came up with a chimney design that was easy to construct, but effective and strong. And once more, they created a pamphlet that could be distributed in Nepal to help families rebuilding their homes.

This second project even came with an extra cherry on top. When Aaron presented a paper on the chimney design at a humanitarian technology conference, lots of other disaster relief agencies were smitten and asked him to share the project plans. His idea, it turned out, had legs.

Now Aaron is excited for its future potential: “Hopefully, it will be used in other places in the future to help even more people.”

Many homes in Nepal were devastated by the earthquake.

Design for life

The Nepal project has also had a big impact on another group of people: Aaron’s own students.

The professor recalls, “This work helped them realize that engineering isn’t just about designing fancy widgets. It showed them that real-life applications of technology, designed specifically to help people in need, can make a huge difference.”

It also reinforced a key point that Aaron always stresses to his students – understanding the needs of the culture they’re trying to help. As he puts it: “You can’t just throw tech at people; that doesn’t work.”

Many of the students have now made career choices based on their humanitarian work – the ultimate validation of their learning experience. As Aaron says, “It has been a real game-changer for them.”

And while the lecturer is pleased that a new generation of skilled students is preparing to continue his work, he’s not surprised – because nobody knows better than him how satisfying it can be.

In his words: “Think about it. It’s not hard to give yourself that extra little push to do a good job when you know your work will have a life-changing impact on people’s lives thousands of miles away.

“For anyone, that’s got to be a huge motivation.”

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