How can those who have nothing lose everything?
The news of the devastating earthquake which hit Nepal on Saturday gets increasingly worse as communications are restored and eye-witnesses and reporters are slowly revealing the damage and destruction to the rest of the world. The unfolding humanitarian crisis would be truly terrible in any country, following any natural disaster, but the severity of the earthquake and its impact on this beautiful country which depends on tourism is uniquely cruel.
As I write this, the death toll from the Nepal earthquake stands at 1,900, including at least 17 people killed at Everest Base Camp by the avalanche triggered by the earthquake, and there has just been an after-shock measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale. However, the vacuum of information from the villages in the Kathmandu Valley and from Pokhara is ominous, as it is certain that the number of casualties is far greater than that yet reported.
We spent several days walking in the villages around Pokhara last year, and met the kindest, most generous, wonderful people we have encountered anywhere in the world. The most populated village we visited was Kaulikot, but around 2000 people live in the hills around the village centre in small hamlets and individual houses that are no more than shacks. Many villagers have their own chickens, goats and maybe a small buffalo for milk, and are subsistence farmers.
We spent a lot of time with Harry, a gentle, kind, deeply knowledgeable local guide, who shared his expertise with our children and made nature walks exciting. His beautiful, graceful wife made simple jewellery which she sold by the roadside to passing tourists, and his children walked for up to an hour to and from school each day. We met countless village children, whose fathers are working away in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to try to provide for their families, and the boys enjoyed an impromptu football match with a group of children on a hillside overlooking Lake Begnas. We have no news yet from this part of Nepal.
Yet beyond the immediate human tragedy, the impact of this earthquake for Nepal is devastating. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal is dependent upon its growing tourist industry. Following years of political unrest and civil war, Nepal has seen an increase in visitors year-on-year since the monarchy was abolished and the federal republic established at the end of 2007, such that tourism is now the country’s main industry. The poverty in Nepal is obvious and can be shocking at times. One of my abiding memories is of children playing barefoot in the street in Bhaktapur – reports yesterday estimated that 50% of the houses in Bhaktapur had been destroyed.
Most of the pictures filling our tv screens are of the destruction of temples and monuments, such as Durbar Square and the Dharahara Tower, and the consequences of this for Nepal are immense. It is this cultural heritage which brings the tourists to the country to spend their money: without the attractions, will visitors still come?
The other main draw in Nepal is, of course, the mountains, and the trekking industry is vital to the economy. But the avalanche has destroyed part of Everest Base Camp, and there is no news yet from the Annapurna range. The trekking industry was still recovering from the deadly Mt Everest avalanche last year, in which 16 Nepalese guides were killed, and the snowstorms and avalanches in October in the mountains of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, which saw at least 43 people lose their lives in Nepal’s worst trekking disaster. The events on Mt Everest from this earthquake are still unfolding, but this vital part of the Nepalese economy will be severely hit.
The emergency in Nepal is ongoing, and the relief effort will be extensive, but the future for this unbelievably beautiful country is also of grave concern.