Mahesh Neupane remembers exactly where he was when a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in April last year, killing many thousands and demolishing more than half a million homes.
“The moment the earthquake struck, I was reattempting my IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam on the fourth floor of the Lotus Convention Centre in Kathmandu”, he said.
It was just one month before Mahesh was due to start his Australia Awards scholarship at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, for a Masters of Engineering Studies.
As the building split in half and crumbled around him, he found partial shelter under a table, with concrete and bricks raining down on his back.
“The very first thought that came in my mind was this was how I was destined to die. I thought: ‘Oh dear Lord, can you please save my family… even if I die?’ ” he said.
Mahesh's prayers were answered—he and his family escaped without serious injury. More than 8000 people died in Nepal's two catastrophic earthquakes in April and May 2015.
Shortly after he was evacuated from the rubble of the Lotus Convention Centre, Mahesh rushed to give emergency first-aid to people wounded by the earthquake.
He didn’t even know then if his wife, baby son and mother had survived, and only found out three hours later that they were safe.
A qualified engineer with Nepal’s Department of Water Supply and Sewerage, Mahesh was sent with a rapid response relief team straight to the earthquake’s epicentre, the district of Gorkha on the Nepal-China border.
Their mission was to assess the damage to WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) services and deliver emergency supplies to 14 severely affected areas in the remote, mountainous district in the Himalayas. The supplies included hygiene kits provided under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australian Aid program.
This was a very dangerous assignment. Travelling in a truck and tractor convoy over rough and unstable tracks, his team arrived at their destination at night. Just after they finished unloading their cargo of hygiene kits, the ground shook violently with a series of aftershocks.
"The earthquake wasn't a new thing to me, but I was scared to death when I heard the real sound of a quake. You can hear the real grinding of rocks, it's a sound like grrrr....grrrr, and feel the shock. The ground shakes along with the sound...it feels like you are being dragged on a mat on a rough floor," Mahesh said.
He said the Government of Nepal's WASH Post Disaster Needs Assessment reported that safe water supplies and sanitation were the highest immediate priority for earthquake-hit communities, along with food and shelter. "This priority was high due to the risk of diarrhoeal disease outbreaks due to poor drinking water and sanitation facilities," he said.
Currently studying in Australia completing his Masters, Mahesh was motivated to apply for an Australia Awards scholarship when he met two Australian volunteer engineers who had come to Kathmandu as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program.
"I was so excited when I got the Australia Awards scholarship to study at the University of New South Wales. I always wished to study in a world-class university and broaden my horizons in the field of water and sanitation."
Mahesh believes he has a responsibility to solve WASH challenges "not only in my country or at regional level, but at a greater level - for the entire world." His on-Awards experience was giving him the knowledge and skills to fulfil that goal, he said.