Ex-St. John’s student finds rewarding work in earthquake hit Nepal

@StJohnsMarlb Friday 21 December is not only the last day of term, with carols in the atrium from 08:15, but also the… https://t.co/PZdoYXAwAZ

With my sixth form studies at St John’s Marlborough behind me, I decided to take a year out before starting a geography degree this autumn.  Keen to broaden my horizons, I was fortunate to be selected as a volunteer for Raleigh International Citizenship Service (ICS).

Digging a pond

Alastair Dodd (in black & white shirt) and villagers digging a new plastic lined pond

Team photo: volunteers and villagers

Team photo: volunteers and villagers

After training in London, I soon arrived in Kathmandu.  I was excited to join the livelihoods diversification project in the Gorkha region of Nepal – and surprised to find villagers using similar biogas production methods to those I had left behind in Wiltshire.

The aims of this ongoing project include raising awareness of local economic practices and environmental risks in rural areas while encouraging communities’ self-reliance and sustainability by increasing the range and effectiveness of their income sources.

At the welcoming fourteen household village of Sau Guan I found myself living alongside ten other enthusiastic UK volunteers and three committed Nepalese volunteers aged between 18 and 25.

Sau Guan is 1,271 metres above sea-level and still shows signs of devastation from the 2015 Gorkha earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter Scale.  Most homes required rebuilding and only a bell, a sign and a pile of bricks remains of the temple.

My friendly host family was Jitmon, a farmer, his wife, two of their young grandchildren and various relatives.  Jitmon had built a single roomed hut of cement walls and floor with a corrugated iron roof for visiting volunteers that I shared with Ronan.  We had an outside tap and made a shower next to the village water source.

Jitmon & Raleigh Volunteers

Jitmon & Raleigh volunteers outside the residence – Alastair is on the left

The team was split into five committees: Infrastructure, Community Development, Awareness Raising, Training and Enterprise.  Throughout our ten weeks there the Nepalese volunteers worked harmoniously with us on the many events and projects that we planned together.

The daily work was arduous yet also very fulfilling.  Starting between 5am and 8 am, an hour’s meal break was taken during the intense midday heat of the monsoon season.  We ate the same staple food of white rice and vegetable dhal every day of our placement.

While sharing skills and knowledge, our team introduced polytunnel construction and implemented soil testing to improve crop yields. Through effective leadership and improving time management we could build two polytunnels each day from locally grown bamboo bent into arches covered with tied wide plastic sheeting.

Polytunnel under construction

A polytunnel under construction….

Polytunnel in use

…and one already growing plants from seeds provided by Raleigh

The growth rate of crops in the polytunnel is improved primarily by shelter from the heavy monsoon rainfall which would otherwise drown and destroy plants. Secondly the curved roof of the structure provides a heat sink which helps maintain a warmer more consistent environment for increased crop yields.

The villagers grew maize and, as part of a new business enterprise, started to grow tomatoes, cabbages and cauliflowers using seeds provided by Raleigh International.

The six-days-a-week working schedule and constant pressure of completing all the given tasks, really pushed me to perform as part of an efficient team.  Due to the instantly rewarding nature of this work I never felt overly stressed or burnt-out.

This Raleigh ICS project focused on educating the villagers and surrounding communities.  Training and development meetings were held targeting all age ranges from sessions with the local school and youth club, to enlisting potential village mentors from the most successful and respected village members.

We aimed to strengthen the existing working groups including the Women’s Group, and held business innovation classes to reduce the trend of young people migrating to the city.

Nepalese volunteer leads session

One of the young Nepalese volunteers leading a session at the school

I was inspired by the determination, resourcefulness and self-reliance of the Nepalese villagers. Waste was recycled to meet energy requirements more sustainably.  Human and animal waste was collected and, using household digesters, was converted into methane – chemically the same as domestic gas in the UK.

This biogas fuelled the villagers’ cooking and electricity generation – reducing dependence and costs of reliance on outside commercial energy providers. Consequently, more resources could be directed towards the costs of farming and household equipment.

In the UK we are taking a similar approach towards renewable energy production. For example, this year UK Bromham Biogas built an anaerobic digester plant in North Wiltshire.  This plant is much larger than village plants in Nepal and is more efficient – transferring energy into the national gas grid.

The plant was approved despite organised opposition coordinated by the Save Bromham Group due to concerns about the visual impact and potential for unpleasant smells in the surroundings.

Farmers in Britain are making progress by funding biogas generators for sustainability and cost reductions on their farms.  Stowell Farm, near Pewsey, has run a plant since 2012.  Energy is produced from cattle slurry and other agricultural wastes, and a bi-product is used as a soil fertiliser.

I was surprised to discover that two such disparate communities in such different environments as subsistence farming in Nepal and high-tech farms in Wiltshire, are moving towards the same renewable energy sources.

Looking back at my ten weeks living in the remote Himalayan foothill village of Sau Guan, I will always remember it as the first time I felt that I was making a meaningful impact in the developing world.

View the photo gallery.

Alastair Dodd, Marlborough News online

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