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Post-disaster Nepal and the power of fieldwork

In the immediate aftermath of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, Harvard Graduate School of Design students initiated advocacy efforts from a makeshift station inside Gund Hall, task-mapping the affected region and establishing web resource Nepal Quake Aid. This past January, a group of students from the GSD’s Master in Design Studies (MDes) Risk and Resilience program brought efforts to the ground, traveling to Nepal's Kathmandu Valley region for a month of fieldwork.

With guidance from Risk and Resilience program co-coordinators Rosetta Elkin, assistant professor of landscape architecture, and Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism and chair of the department of urban planning and design, six students traveled with current GSD Loeb Fellow Brett Moore to Nepal, focusing their fieldwork on post-earthquake recovery and humanitarian efforts. The initiative was supported by sources including Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and Harvard University Asia Center.

Following their fieldwork, two members of the group—Justin Henceroth and Ashley Thompson (both MDes ’17)—prepared a set of reports for World Vision Nepal’s Earthquake Response Innovation Lab.

Fieldwork in Nepal provided the group with opportunities to engage design-research methodology, academic criticality, and general design-studies perspectives in a direct context.

“The importance of fieldwork emerges from an effort to unify the conversations on resilience and to remain focused as a research unit on developing unique methodology, one that is tactile and experience-based,” Elkin says.

Thompson says she experienced a confluence of contextual dynamics, rooted in the experience of the place, that harmonized with the conceptual tools she has developed through her Risk and Resilience coursework.

“We were exposed to the cross-cutting connectivity between this physical event and implications for the individual, the community, and the nation,” she says.

“There is a mythos to fieldwork that demands and excites our optimism,” she adds, “an indomitable hope for success that sends us into the field with a real sense of discovery time and time again.”

The student team divided itself into three thematic groups: Henceroth and Thompson engaged with local partners and researched energy use, gender equity, and social inclusion across contexts; another grouping investigated the relationship between shelter infrastructure and cultural and community identity; and a third group examined representational and geospatial mapping as tools for organizational and community capacity creation.

While Henceroth and Thompson’s daily activities followed no set pattern or rubric, their time generally was split between meeting with partner organizations in Kathmandu and visiting sites within and beyond the city, including earthquake-flattened villages, temporary schools, and displaced-person camps.

They also conducted extensive community outreach and engagement in order to assess local fuel and energy needs in light of the area’s current energy crisis. For a stretch of three days, they went on what they now call “an energy scavenger hunt,” trying to “trace” energy sources through the city by asking people about their experiences procuring and using various energy sources like gas and wood. They then asked for advice on where to locate these resources and attempted to find and purchase them.

The exercise “really highlighted the different ways in which people were changing their behavior in order to acquire energy,” Henceroth says.

One of Henceroth and Thompson’s site visits brought them into the rural district of Sindhupalchok, one of the areas most affected by the April earthquake. There, they met a group of subsistence farmers, women whose homes had been destroyed and who had lost family members. These women now live in temporary shelters while their husbands have migrated abroad to work.

Speaking to Henceroth and Thompson through a translator, the women expressed one collective desire: a small, safe home.

“Fieldwork is an opportunity that offers access to researchers that compels us to engage and approach as more than an outsider,” Thompson says, “but with the hope that we can better understand the lives, the hopes, and the struggles of those people who are at the heart of our research agenda.”

For Henceroth, witnessing the dynamics among affected communities and the NGOs assisting with relief efforts stressed the importance of developing disaster-response plans in advance.

“Design research methodology encourages action and adductive reasoning,” Henceroth says. “The design researcher engages with and combines methodologies from many disciplines to gather the information that is most relevant to the questions at hand, while also being empowered to update and improve our methodologies as we gain new information. This style of research enables us to engage in very contemporary issues and to develop information that is immediately actionable.”

To read more about the Risk and Resilience team’s Nepal efforts and findings, please visit Justin Henceroth and Ashley Thompson’s reports Energy: How has the fuel shortage changed the way people access and use energy?, and Innovation Lab: How can engagement with local partners promote innovation, gender equality, and resilience?