U of G Prof. Manish Raizada's Nepal-Based Study Shifts from Research to Disaster Relief
Prof. Manish Raizada, left, and graduate student Kamal Khadka

Three days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, Manish Raizada was still awaiting word.

But even as he held on for news from two remote U of G research study sites near the quake’s epicentre west of the capital of Kathmandu, the plant agriculture professor was shifting from research mode to disaster relief mode.

By Tuesday, the death toll in the Asian country had passed 4,700, and relief workers were focused on immediate needs, including saving lives and providing medical aid, shelter, food and water to survivors.

In his Crop Science office on campus that morning, Raizada was busy trying to figure out how to adjust a months-old food security research project to help rural Nepalese stave off another potential disaster: running out of food.

“We want to prevent a secondary disaster of reduced farm productivity,” he says during a Skype call with project co-ordinator Tejendra Chapagain, who is based at the University of Alberta.

Under the project, the researchers are testing sustainable agriculture kits (SAKs) with about 600 farmers in two villages, with plans to roll out those tools to the wider communities to help improve livelihoods and reduce backbreaking labour for farmers, mostly women.

With communications cut off to the team’s study sites near the city of Pokhara, Raizada feared the worst. One village located up a mountainside lies two hours from the nearest main road.

Referring to houses made of mud-brick and wood, he says, “They’re not reinforced. They’ll come down very quickly. They’re on hillsides. There would have been landslides coming down on top of them.”

Still, he’s hopeful.

Along with LI-BIRD, an NGO partner in Nepal, the team is working on a plan to provide short-term funding and supplies to participating farm families in the study sites. Longer-term, they aim to help rebuild homes, and provide food aid and livestock to enable farmers to support themselves.

The earthquake might postpone the research project itself, says Raizada. But under a modified scale-up plan, he hopes to provide anything from seeds and fertilizers to farm management practices, including making more SAK tools available to thousands more farmers in the affected region.

The SAKs contain products intended to help improve farming, including seed packages, farming implements and accessories, and farm practice guidelines (including a picture book for illiterate farmers).

With testing of their use and distribution under way with about 600 farms, the team had planned to broaden the project this summer in hopes of reaching 100,000 people next year.

Raizada is now looking at ways to obtain more SAK components, including finding sources in China and India, and get those items into more Nepalese farmers’ hands more quickly.

“The circumstances have changed,” says Raizada. “What can we do in the coming months? What can we do to scale up on high-priority items and maybe add items to the list? How to help in a smart way?

“This was a research project. Now it’s also — I hope — a smart disaster relief project.”

When news of the disaster broke in Guelph early Saturday morning, his first thought was not of the project but for Finlay Small, his U of G master’s student in Nepal working on improving soil fertility.

It took several hours before Raizada learned that Small was unharmed. In an email earlier this week, the student wrote:

“When the first earthquake struck, I was able to get outside quickly and take shelter near a concrete support wall. The magnitude of the initial shock was about 8. It lasted for two or three minutes. Rocks and boulders rolled down the hillsides and the suspension bridge swayed violently, almost throwing two young boys into the river. A house collapsed in the village but nobody was hurt.”

Nepal earthquake
The aftermath of the earthquake in rural Nepal. Photo by Finlay Small.

Travelling to Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, Small endured more tremors, witnessed landslides on nearby hills and passed through a village of 60 inhabitants where all but one house had collapsed.

Says Raizada: “I feel responsible for him. He’s there because of me.”

Raizada’s next thought upon learning of the earthquake was for Kamal Khadka, a PhD student from Nepal who arrived in Guelph last year to work in his lab. A plant breeder and geneticist, Khadka had also worked with Guelph scientists on a millet-growing project in Nepal.

His wife, Anuja, lives with her parents in the Lamjung district, the epicentre of the earthquake and about 75 kilometres northwest of the capital Kathmandu. In early February, Anuja gave birth to their daughter, Aarohi.

Khadka woke up this past Saturday morning to numerous messages about the earthquake on his phone.

While reading reports of the disaster, he tried to connect with his wife. “So many bad things were coming up in my mind,” he says. “I couldn’t think of anything else, I was going blank.”

He reached Anuja after about four hours. When the quake struck, she had been at home with her sleeping baby. “All of a sudden, there was shaking,” he says. Objects fell from shelves. Glasses broke. “She knew she had to get out of the house.”

During aftershocks the next day, Anuja’s mother was hit by a motorcycle and was rushed to hospital. Early this week, Anuja and the baby were staying at the hospital.

“For the last four days, I have been unable to work,” says Khadka.

Watching the news of the disaster, he says, “I just feel like crying, to see so many people affected. You just feel so helpless, you can do nothing. It’s a bad feeling.”

Raizada says the earthquake has hit “at the worst possible time. It’s the planting season. We’re trying to make farmers self-reliant. This has made things worse.”

He and his team partners intend to share their relief plan with Ottawa through the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). “We are in an incredibly unique situation,” he says. “Let’s provide global leadership.”

In the 1980s, TV images of famine in Ethiopia moved Raizada to organize a fundraising campaign in his high school. “Now I feel I have to step up. I’m not that helpless teenager. We’ve worked in Nepal for a few years. We know the needs.”

The Nepal research project received $2.3 million last fall from the IDRC, and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada.

Under the initiative, Raizada has worked with researchers at Guelph and at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, LI-BIRD in Nepal, and private companies in both Canada and Nepal.

For more information about the Nepalese research project, visit the SAKNepal website.

A fundraising campaign for Nepal earthquake relief has been launched by Raja Khanal, a former grad student and now a post-doc in Plant Agriculture at U of G. For information, visit http://youcaring.com/ggnc-fund.