What People Really Need After a Natural Disaster
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 07 - 13, 2015

Emergency earthquake relief is vital but short-lived. The Dzi Foundation brings Nepails aid that lasts.

Abe Streep

The road loses form in the night. That's probably a good thing. It's not much of a road at this point, more a gully full of boulders and hail drifts perched on a cliff. The truck, a 1980 something Tata, bottoms out regularly. Occasionally it fishtails towards the edge and a drop-off of a few hundred feet into the blackness of eastern Nepal's Khotang district. "Have you looked down?" asks Ben Ayers the Nepal director of the Dzi Foundation, a nonprofit development group focused on rural communities. The passengers in the car, myself included, too busy bracing ourselves for the next spine jarring impact ignore the question.

We’ve been driving for 14 hours. Our guru—a term of respect for drivers in Nepal—is a 20-year-old kid named Jeevan, who recently took over the wheel from his 17-year-old brother, whom Ayers hired after a guy with an impressive rattail ripped us off. “My brother doesn’t know how to drive,” Jeevan says, his earrings glinting. “He doesn’t even have a license!”

The truck hits a mud patch and slides toward the edge of the cliff. Jeevan slams the brakes and shifts into reverse. The truck hits the wall behind us. Our guru gets out and, after a cursory examination, announces that all is well— just a broken taillight. When he starts the engine back up, the transmission sounds like a helicopter, and some new kind of bad smell engulfs us. The truck, Jeevan says, is due for repair tomorrow.

It’s Oct. 23, six months after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a 7.3 aftershock killed almost 9,000 Nepalis and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Relief arrived in a surge, with international aid organizations delivering bags of rice, pallets of bottled water, and emergency tarps. Now comes the harder, longer work of reconstruction in the rugged Himalayan foothills. I’ve joined Ayers, 38, a former logger from New Hampshire, to visit rebuilding projects in some of the remote villages where Dzi works. For the past eight years the organization has been striving to develop robust agricultural economies in 70 communities that have otherwise relied on subsistence farming, remittance labor in the Middle East, and portering for mountain climbers. It draws on financial backing from companies like Vitol, a Dutch oil services provider, and wealthy individuals such as Pete Ricketts, the governor of Nebraska and former chief operating officer of Ameritrade. Now these villages need relief— the quake destroyed 31 schools, and Dzi’s surveys indicate that about half of the region’s houses are uninhabitable.But here’s just the first of many challenges: All materials for the reconstruction, from cement to rebar, must travel over roads like the one we’re on.

Our ultimate destination is Sotang, a market town in the impoverished Solukhumbu district, with stops in seven other remote villages. The plan for now is to start rebuilding some schools. The plan for the future is to develop the kind of prosperity that can make a community more resilient when it’s confronted by natural disaster. “It’s easy to drop off some tarps and call it good,” Ayers says. “I think this is more effective.”

Dzi’s “model,” as Ayers calls it, is toilets, not just tarps; irrigation projects, not bags of rice. He asks locals what they really need. It’s a long-view approach based on the belief that small, slow, personal assistance is more useful than big, splashy, short-lived aid. But Ayers, a former climber with anti-establishment leanings, also enjoys throwing caution to the wind now and then. Immediately following the earthquake, when larger aid organizations struggled to ramp up operations, he and some friends in Kathmandu organized an unregistered, unlicensed relief effort called Yellow House. It was so effective, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) started delivering emergency supplies via Yellow House trucks.

“The reason Nepal is poor—the reason that this road sucks—is because the state is ineffective,” Ayers says. “So if you’re going to be accountable to communities, sometimes you have no choice but to do things that are illegal.”

At the moment, the government is making his critique seem absurdly mild. On Sept. 20, Nepal adopted a constitution that divided the country into seven voting districts demarcated by geography. The Madhesi people, in the nation’s south, objected, as the document minimized their representation. Violence broke out in the country’s south and west, with at least 45 people killed, including nine police officers. One cop was burned alive. India’s government, which is sympathetic to the Madhesis, ceased fuel deliveries on Sept. 23, presumably to pressure Nepal into amending the constitution. When India squeezes, Nepal has little recourse: Its only other neighbor, China, sits beyond the planet’s highest mountains.

In Kathmandu, people wait in line for five days for gas; diesel sells for $19 a gallon on the black market. Food prices have doubled in rural areas. The Himalayan winter is looming, and the government has yet to spend any of the billions pledged by international governments. The UN and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are still delivering supplies, but their efforts have slowed as the government has rationed fuel. In a couple of weeks, at about the same time the government starts selling firewood to desperate citizens, the UN World Food Program will be forced to ground its two supply helicopters. Our ride may leave something to be desired, but at least we’re moving. That’s more than can be said for much of the country.

In the summer, many in Kathmandu hoped the earthquake would prove a dark gift. In June, Nepal assessed the cost of reconstruction at $6.7 billion. The international community quickly pledged $4.4 billion. The government established a body called the National Reconstruction Authority to disburse the funds. Nepalis who lost their homes were given $150 for temporary shelters and promised $2,000 more. There seemed reason to hope, too, that the disaster might spur the parliamentary government to finalize a new constitution; Nepal had been operating under a temporary one since a decade-long conflict with a Maoist insurgency ended in 2006.

But the phrase Ke garne—“What can I do?”—is ubiquitous for a reason, as is an accompanying shrug of futility. The constitution, drafted in August, was seen as little more than an effort to consolidate power in Nepal’s three dominant political parties, and the new Parliament failed to give the Reconstruction Authority the legal mandate to distribute the promised relief money; it remains inactive.

When I later reach the authority’s recently ousted chief executive officer, Govind Raj Pokharel, he says a government-led rebuilding effort won’t begin for at least six months and that villagers will have to tough out the winter. He talks about the need for procedures and standardized earthquake-proof designs for all buildings, but he concedes no agency is prepared to provide this oversight. “It is a mess,” he says.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEKView All

Young U.S. Jews Shift on Israel

Millennial and Gen Z progressives question American support of Israeli policies, a point of tension for the Democratic Party

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

Fever Pitch

A British tonic maker aims to conquer the U.S. with its premium mixers

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

Welcome to the Trump Coast

The former president’s strategic retreat to Mar-a-Lago has helped turn Florida into a new home base for Republicans

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

THE SEDITION HUNTERS

Amateur sleuths pore over photos and videos online to ID Capitol rioters

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

The FOMO Economy

From AMC to Dogecoin to houses, buying seems driven as much by anxiety as by hope

7 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

KING OF CARDS

Sports trading cards are having a moment. And no one promotes the industry like Ken Goldin

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Vladimir Putin’s tolerance for criminal hackers will be on the agenda when he meets with President Biden on June 16

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

It's TEQUILA O'CLOCK In NYC

Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is a hit song, a chill state of mind, a billion-dollar marketing empire, and the new best worst attraction in Times Square

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

Is Streaming the Limit for Sky?

As its content providers start online services, the broadcaster pivots to create its own shows

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021

A Pop-Up Store Hits the Road

Cuyana’s store-on-a-truck is a cost-effective way to quickly test locations and products

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
June 14, 2021
RELATED STORIES

READY FOR THE WILDS

THE SLYSTEEL SURVIVAL KUKRI IS MORE THAN JUST A BIG KNIFE

7 mins read
Knives Illustrated
December 2020

GLOBAL MISSIONS MINISTERIES: HARVEST PARTNERS AGRICULTURAL PROJECTS

Early this year, we received a call from a Harvest Partner church in Tucson wishing to assist in some short-term way to bless pastors of local churches in the nations that were not receiving regular support.

3 mins read
White Wing Messenger
August 2020

Harvest Partners Projects

Our global Church family faces many challenges in their daily ministry to share the Gospel to their surrounding communities.

2 mins read
White Wing Messenger
March 2020

Into The Mountains

With its endearing culture, fascinating architecture and scenic nature, Kathmandu is a constant surprise

5 mins read
Business Traveler
November 2019

Harvest Partners Spotlight: Gopal Lama, Nepal

The Himalayan mountain range is made up of at least 52 mountains that stretch over 1,400 miles across six countries.

2 mins read
White Wing Messenger
October 2019

Montañas

Seamos alpinistas o simples admiradores, las cumbres elevan nuestro espíritu.

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveler en Español
Septiembre 2019

Running Nepal's 3 Passes Trail Takes You Off The Beaten Mule Path

Running Nepal’s 3 Passes Trail takes you off the beaten mule path.

9 mins read
Trail Runner
July/August 2019

Corazón Himalayo

Cimas majestuosas –que incluyen el Everest– atraen a la mayoría de los visitantes a Nepal, pero una cultura rica prospera a la sombra de estas montañas.

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveler en Español
Abril 2019

नेपाल संसद भंग, नवंबर में होंगे चुनाव

केपी शर्मा ओली की सिफारिश पर राष्ट्रपति विद्या देवी भंडारी ने शुक्रवार आधी रात को संसद भंग की

1 min read
Hindustan Times Hindi
May 23, 2021

Sri Lanka halts trains, buses to curb virus

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka halted passenger trains and buses for four days as authorities imposed a fresh travel ban across the country, in its latest efforts to curb the escalating number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

1 min read
Gulf Today
May 23, 2021