Everything I love about my neighborhood in old Kathmandu made it a dangerous place on April 25, the day a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Nepal.
The narrow streets, crowded alleys and beautiful old buildings turned terrifying when shaken by the quake. As the earth trembled, I sprinted out of my apartment in a sturdy, newly constructed building that sustained no damage, neither in the initial quake nor in the hundreds of aftershocks. But as I stumbled outside, the old building across the street crumbled, sending me and dozens of my neighbors sprinting away from the cloud of dust and rubble. Miraculously, none of my neighbors inside was killed. But in old and poorly constructed buildings across the city and around the country, many lost their lives.
In the minute it shook Nepal — a country of astounding beauty and great diversity — this quake revealed a deep chasm, exposing the country’s stark inequalities. Everyone was terrified, but the earthquake did not affect everyone equally. Within a few days of the quake, life in wealthy areas, like the one in which I was privileged to shelter, was returning to normal. Fully stocked supermarkets swept up broken glass and reopened; families celebrated weddings at lavish party palaces. In these areas, the only visible damage was to tall, brick privacy walls, which collapsed to reveal open spaces and new sturdy homes.
In other parts of Kathmandu, old homes crumbled, and those that remain standing are scarred by long, menacing cracks. Many families must decide: Live in a dangerous home? Or sleep outside, under a leaky tarp?
In Kathmandu, building a new home is a visible and sought-after symbol of one’s class. When one of Nepal’s many young migrant laborers sends money home from abroad, his family’s first major investment is often to build a new home. Strong concrete buildings, funded largely by Nepal’s remittance economy, have replaced mud and brick homes.
For some, this turned out to be a lifesaving investment. But for others, the earthquake is an extreme economic and emotional setback.
Ten days after the earthquake, a friend recounted conversations in her office after all of the staff members had returned to work. It is a large company paying good salaries. Not a single employee lost a family member, and only one had been injured. But the story was much different for members of their household staffs: Many of their cooks, drivers and cleaners had been injured and displaced and were mourning the loss of loved ones. Every member of the service industry (taxi drivers, delivery boys, domestic help) I have talked to since April 25 has been displaced from his or her home in Kathmandu; the vast majority lost family members and homes in their natal villages.
Villages that in the best of times lack access to resources are now entirely cut off. Homes are destroyed and families are camping outside, nervously awaiting the coming monsoon. The agricultural season — the economic lifeblood of Nepal’s rural villages — is threatened. A regular income has never been more vital — and more difficult to obtain.
Before the earthquake, 25 percent of Nepal’s population was living below the poverty line. After the earthquake, they will suffer the most. As days pass, and as monsoon nears, the need for long-term rebuilding and assistance becomes more acute. In Kathmandu, the immediacy is palpable — groups from large international nongovernmental organizations and grass-roots youth movements alike are mobilizing to rebuild Nepal. My friends and I are working to provide friends’ villages with temporary shelter — tarps that will keep families dry while they rebuild permanent structures.
Many organizations are working to ensure that support reaches those who need it most. Some suggestions:
Dzi Foundation will help partner communities in remote areas rebuild homes, schools and infrastructure: https://dzi.org/.
Abari is a research, design and construction firm using local materials to rebuild in affected areas: http://abari.org/.
Sahayeta is a 501(c)(3) Nepali community organization based in the Bay Area that supports local grass-roots rebuilding efforts in Nepal: http://www.sahayeta.org.
Himalayan Climate Initiative is building climate- and earthquake-friendly housing in affected areas: http://www.himalayanclimate.org/Resilienthomes.
Sarah Rasmussen, of Wayzata, is a Fulbright researcher in Kathmandu, Nepal.