Earthquakes turn trekking paradise Nepal into a nation of campers

Extensive damage to homes - and fears of future earthquakes - has left hundreds of thousands living outside and created a tent shortage.

Bernat Amangue
In this April 29, 2015 file photo, earthquake-affected Nepalese villagers gather by tents where they have taken shelter in Sakhu, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. Sakhu is where the side streets are choked with chest-high hills of bricks, concrete and wood after the massive earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25.

Come nightfall, Nepal’s capital and dozens of districts turn into a constellation of tent camps with people afraid to sleep indoors camping out on whichever empty space they can find.

Plots owned by strangers, public parks, sidewalks, party venues, parking lots, spaces reserved for state functions, and playgrounds. It doesn’t matter whose land they erect their tents on. The landowners or caretakers, who themselves are camping out, don’t complain. Everyone is in the same boat.

The aftermath of two powerful earthquakes on April 25 and May 12, not to mention over 200 smaller aftershocks, has turned much of Nepal's population into campers, an unpleasant irony in a country where trekking and mountaineering tourism is a crucial contributor to the economy. By some accounts a third of Nepal’s population are avoiding being indoors in daytime, let alone at night.

The May 12 quake, while less deadly than the first one, was especially bad because it shook the confidence of people who had started returning to their homes.

Come daybreak, large tents are tidied in Kathmandu for running the prime minister’s office, ministries, National Planning Commission, Army headquarters, and key administration offices in districts outside Kathmandu.

“I slept outdoors for two weeks from April 25 and then moved indoors on May 10 thinking the aftershocks were over. I returned to this open space on May 12 and I’m not sure when I’ll sleep indoors again,” says Shyam Krishna Shrestha, a driver working for Nepal Vision Treks and Expeditions.

Shrestha, whose rented flat was badly damaged by the quake, is living under a tarpaulin in Kathmandu's Narayanchowr park with his wife, two sons, and a daughter. His flat is walking distance from the park. The tarpaulin was given to him by an organization whose name he doesn’t remember, an indication of how chaotic life has become in Nepal.

“When it’s time for a meal, I go to my flat with my wife. She cooks as quickly as she can, while I stand guard to rescue her in case another quake strikes,” Shrestha said. “There are no toilets here. So we go to our flat when nature calls. But we finish our business there as quickly as possible.”

Even people whose homes withstood the quake are sleeping outdoors.

Anita Shreshta, a housewife, says her house in Naxal is habitable. “It developed a few cosmetic cracks in the first quake. We moved in four days later. But the May 12 quake widened those cracks,” says Shrestha who is living in the park with her husband and 14-year-old daughter.

Mrs. Shrestha’s family never leaves the tent because they know there are thousands waiting to grab an empty one.

“Getting a tent is a luxury, because the whole city seems to be sleeping outdoors and there aren’t enough tents,” says her husband Khagesh Bhakta Shrestha, who runs a financial cooperative in Naxal locality.

Kumar Pandey, a police officer providing security to the park’s residents, says over 2,000 people have been sleeping here since May 12.

In areas like Tudikhel in central Kathmandu, the number is over 10,000. There are now thousands of tent camps in Kathmandu and 35 districts in Nepal where the tremors claimed lives.

Run on tents

Understandably, tents are the most sought-after commodity in Nepal these days and people are willing to pay a lot for them.

“There is a shortage of tents,” says Minesh Ghimire, owner of Yeti Everest Trekking Store in Thamel, a popular stop for trekkers and mountaineers looking for camping and climbing gear. ”I had 500 tents until April 25. I donated 100 of them to quake victims. The remaining stock was sold out in four days,” he adds.

About 200 people visit Ghimire’s store every day asking for tents.

Bimal Thapa was lucky to find one. His salary is just $120 a month, but he still shelled out $310 for a tent at the store on Sunday. “I had been looking for a tent for many days. Finding a tent is a relief,” says Thapa, who lives in Lalitpur district, which neighbors Kathmandu. “Money isn’t important anymore. Life is. And a tent is a must for staying alive because monsoon is approaching."

Some stores are charging exorbitant sums for tents and tarpaulins, and the police regularly crack down on price gougers.

A Chinese knockoff of the North Face VE 25 tent is being sold at shops in Thamel for $230 to $280. Normally these tents sell for around $150, a camping goods retailer in Thamel said.   

The death toll from the quakes and subsequent avalanches and landslides since April 25 has topped 8,500, according to the national police. Nearly half-a-million houses were flattened, and around 300,000 more were badly damaged.

The extent of property damage is disproportionate to the death toll because the first quake struck on a weekend afternoon. By the time the second big one struck, most people were staying outdoors.  

Ksirhna Gyawali, chief district officer of Sindhupalchowk where over 3,400 people died in the quakes, says the April 25 quake destroyed most houses in the district. “The May 12 quake finished the job,” says Gyawali. “There is no building here that can be used as an office.”

Prem Lal Lamichhane, chief district officer of Dolakha that was worst hit by the May 12 quake, sums up the story of his district: "There is nothing here that can be called a house. No one, no one at all, is staying indoors.”

The UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal says hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, and that the most urgent priority is to put roofs over their heads before monsoon starts.

The office says that $59.5 million, or 14 percent, of a promised $423 million pledged by the UN and its partners has been delivered so far. 

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