KATHMANDU, Nepal— On a calm, clear afternoon last April, Bishnu Karki settled in for a nap in his home. He was dozing in an upstairs bedroom when a 7.8 earthquake slammed his village of Tatopani in hilly, central Nepal, collapsing its stone, shingled homes and striking deep, jagged lines through the land. Karki soon came to, dazed and pinned to the mattress by beams that had fallen from the ceiling. His bed, still intact, now lay on the ground floor.
One year later, Karki, 52, is still without a home. He lives today in Camp Hope, a small settlement built for several hundred survivors in the district of Sindhulpalchowk, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. It consists of a small sandy field, with three rows of green-and-blue tarp tents surrounded by bamboo fencing. The camp is run entirely by the luxury Dwarika Hotel—a local heritage resort where rooms go for $600 dollars a night.
Camp Hope’s unlikely origins are indicative of the Nepalese government’s failures in the aftermath of the quake that killed just under 9,000 people. The private sector’s willingness to step in and provide help speaks to the resilience of the people most directly affected by the quake—and to the fact that people in Nepal have, by necessity, taken a DIY approach to recovery and repair.
“I’ve been helped by my friends—just my friends”
A popular trekking route runs through the village of Tatopani, situated along the Chinese border in the district of Sindhulpalchowk. The district bore the full magnitude of Nepal’s quake and was the epicenter of a 6.7 aftershock. It claimed over a third of the total lives lost in the earthquake— over 3,500 people. Some 65,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and heavy landslides made much of the region uninhabitable.
“I had no clue I would get into something like this,” Sangeeta Shrestha Einhaus, managing director of the family-run Dwarika Hotel, tells me over tea in the hotel’s leafy courtyard. After the quake, she heard that 40 people were stranded in nearby Boudha, a Buddhist heritage district just east of Kathmandu. When she got there, she found twice as many survivors, “all completely stupefied, like prisoners of war.” She rallied her hotel staff. “I said, you guys get over here, we’ve got to fix this.”
The Oman government soon donated 70 tents to the hotel, and Dwarika staff went out in search of land where they could set up temporary shelter. A tip from a few young footballers led them to an unused field a short drive from the hotel, flanked by residential low-rises. The hotel already had housekeeping, security, kitchen, and maintenance staff, Shrestha Einhaus tells me. “So they just brought in the whole hotel system into that camp.”
Camp Hope has a communal kitchen where residents cook dishes like dal bhat—a near-ubiquitous Nepalese dish consisting of rice, lentils and vegetables. There are enough tents for a computer room, a training center, and even a Buddhist monastery. The camp’s younger residents have been enrolled in costly private schools, and are brought over to Dwarika for movie nights. Some are even clothed in Prada cast-offs. Donations come in through the management’s wide social circle. “I’ve been helped by my friends—just my friends,” Shrestha Einhaus says.
The private sector’s involvement in development work is nothing new. In 2010, Unilever partnered up with Oxfam to innovate smallholder supply chains. Several years ago, USAID and Wal-Mart joined forces to boost sales in Central American farms. And Chaudhry Group, a multi-billion dollar Nepali conglomerate, built 1,700 transitional shelters for survivors early this year, and plans to work with the National Reconstruction Authority on other rebuilding projects.
But Dwarika is without a partner. And, unlike most examples of public-private sector collaboration, the hotel’s focus has been on providing humanitarian relief, not directing market growth.
“We don’t hope for anything from the government”
I ask Sangeeta if any camp managers from relief organizations had provided training to her staff. “We run hotels,” she says. “We’re doing the exact same thing as them.” In fact, the International Organization for Migration even invited her to Geneva to present on Camp Hope during their annual retreat. But she is quick to point out a key difference between Dwarika and NGOs. “I don’t run an IDP [internally displaced people] camp. I run a little community—a village.”
“It’s been one year that the hotel has been taking good care of us,” Pasang Bhuti Sherpa, 49, who lives in the camp with three of her children, tells me. Outside her tent, a faint breeze kicks up swirls of chalky dust, and a puppy nips at a ball of purple yarn.
The mood appears peaceful. But there is a ripple of agitation when I ask about state support. “We don’t hope for anything from the government,” Nima Sherpa, 34, says, interrupting his game of Carrom, a prime pastime for residents during long stretches of downtime.
Bishnu Karki agrees: “The government hasn’t even looked at us,” he says. After his fall to the ground floor of his home, he was under army care for just three days.
“No one has taken care of any earthquake victim like Dwarika has taken care,” Yangi Sherpa, 48, calls from the back of her tent, where she sits chatting with a few other women. “The government should be doing this. But it’s not.” Instead, it has mismanaged $230 million in relief funds while the country deteriorated under a four-month border blockade by India.
Dwarika Hotel now has plans to reconstruct flattened villages in Sindhulpalchowk, in cooperation with displaced residents. The $5 million project, for which funds still need to be raised, will rebuild homes for 230 families. The new villages will also aim to rely on ecological practices, using bio-gas, rainwater harvesting, and organic agriculture. Construction is slated to begin at the end of monsoon season in October. Until then, it will be difficult to predict which housing plots will survive fresh onslaughts of landslides.
The state’s extraordinary failings over the past year have been subject of much rebuke. But they have also provoked a curious self-reliance. “Each individual, with help, without help, is getting their lives back,” Saengeeta says. While recovery has been slow, it is making progress.
“The politicians and the government is not only Nepal,” she says. “There’s another part of Nepal that is moving forward.”