One month ago, a massive earthquake shook Nepal – and set back by decades the country's efforts at lifting its people out of poverty.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake, which was followed two weeks later by another of 7.3 and hundreds of smaller aftershocks, has now claimed more than 8,000 lives and injured more than 17,000 others.

Nearly a half million homes have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

Stories of incredible resilience

Just two weeks ago I was with a WaterAid team delivering aid supplies – water purification drops, sanitary towels, nappies and bars of soap – and helping document damage to our projects in the country, which in some cases have been running for more than two decades.

With hundreds of thousands of people now in tents or temporary housing, most often wooden frames with corrugated metal for walls and roof, and monsoon rains due to begin next month, the risk of an outbreak of cholera or another waterborne disease is high, and worrying.

In ten days of travelling through some of the hardest hit districts — Gorkha, Kavre, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur — we met family after family who had very little before and even less now.

A family stand amidst the rubble of their destroyed home in the community of Lele, Lalitpur district.
A family stand amidst the rubble of their home in the community of Lele.
Photo: WaterAid/Ravi Mishra

Their resilience is incredible; nearly everyone we met was already trying to cobble together some sort of shelter and getting back into their terraced fields of corn, wheat and potatoes. But the challenges ahead are massive.

Lele: a devastated community

Before these earthquakes, Nepal’s water and sanitation situation was difficult, but improving. One in eight people did not have access to clean water, and two out of three did not have access to a basic toilet.

Still, Nepal's campaign to end the practice of open defecation was progressing. Just one month before the earthquake, WaterAid Nepal had celebrated the Open Defecation Free status of the community of Lele, in Lalitpur district. A tiny village carved into a mountainside, the moment was marked like a wedding, with music and local dignitaries.

Today most of Lele has been flattened. It was incredible to see that many of the latrines – built more recently of cement and brick, rather than the mud-and-stone of the houses – resisted the quake and remained standing, a small contribution toward health and comfort in an otherwise devastated community.

However, the water supply is intermittent and there are fears of contamination. A few cases of diarrhoea were immediately put under monitoring for fear of wider outbreak; even with a month to go before monsoon season, night-time rains had begun and outbreaks of disease are a very real fear.

Without proper sanitation, heavy rains wash bits of faeces into the water supply, allowing waterborne diseases including cholera and typhoid to spread quickly.