Toilets, Not Tarps: What People Really Need After a Natural Disaster

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

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 toward 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.

Ayers and Dzi staff
Ayers speaks with Dzi staff and local NGO partners on Oct. 28 in Namlung village. See more photos of the Dzi foundation’s work in Nepal.

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.

The Hongku River valley, looking toward the mountains of Solukhumbu.

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 decadelong 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.

The job of sorting out the mess fell to Prime Minister K.P. Oli, the 63-year-old leader of the United Marxist Leninists, who once spent more than a decade in prison for his involvement in a political party that advocated the beheading of landlords. (His predecessor, Sushil Koirala, did time for hijacking a plane.) Oli’s first order of business was to lavish praise on the police. Shortly after he took office, the Parliament elected Bidhya Devi Bhandari, a member of Oli’s party, as president. The election of a woman would have been seen as a sign of progress, were she not a veteran of Oli’s party and widely rumored to be his girlfriend.

Local villagers sit outside an earthquake damaged shop in Bung Village.
Villagers sit outside an earthquake-damaged shop in Bung village.

In the absence of a functioning government, the job of rebuilding has fallen to others. Nepal is home to a cottage industry of development and aid groups—125 international nongovernmental organizations in all. Most sprang into action, delivering supplies such as roofing tin. But there were a few missteps. Save the Children built temporary schools with tarp roofs that had a greenhouse effect, cooking the pupils beneath. In June the Nepali press skewered the World Food Program for allegedly delivering rotten rice in Gorkha, the epicenter of the quake. The UN vehemently denied the claim, but efforts at damage control only made things worse—a senior official parachuted in and suggested that Nepalis should be happy with whatever the WFP deigned to offer.

Most relief focused, understandably, on the epicenters of the two earthquakes. Neither Khotang nor Solukhumbu—the northern part of which is home to the relatively wealthy Mt. Everest region—is on the government’s list of “severely affected areas.” But the earthquake’s effects were oddly uneven. Some villages in Khotang and Solukhumbu were spared, others devastated. “We’ll have just enough to rebuild in our communities with what we’ve raised since the earthquake,” Ayers says. “There’s a need, and no one else is working there.”

At the end of our drive with Jeevan, we walk 11 hours over steep terrain to Rakha, a town of 3,000 where Dzi has been working for years. We’re accompanied by three porters from the town. Two of them, cousins Tek and Nara Dahal, are old friends of Ayers’s. They occasionally give him grief for being unmarried or crack jokes about some of the donors he’s brought on trips: “Ben, remember when that woman didn’t poop for a week?” Nara asks.

A Sherpa family at their home in Bohane
A Sherpa family at their home in Bohane, which was damaged by aftershocks in May.

A destroyed school at the top of a ridge announces the outskirts of town. A battered oxygen canister that once belonged to a climber hangs from a doorway—the bell. We scale another ridge, round a bend, and come to what must be the earth’s most idyllic disaster zone. Rice and wheat grow thick on terraces, irrigated by diverted spring water. An earthquake-proof community building funded by Dzi stands in the center of town. Satellite dishes are powered by a micro-hydropower project. A farmers co-op serves as a bank, and residents plant lucrative cardamom, thanks to a Dzi program subsidizing seed purchases. Tek says he has 200 plants, which should provide a harvest of $1,500 this year. With that, plus the sale of other crops and portering work, he’s doing pretty well—Nepal’s average annual income is $730. We meet a woman whose house is rubble. She’s staying with her brother. Seeing Ayers, she asks for money to rebuild. But Dzi doesn’t rebuild houses—that would create dependency and jealousy. “We will help you earn money,” he tells her. “We will not be able to help you build a house.”

Most of the other homes look like Tek’s: cracked and unsafe, but not ruined. Some have temporary structures out back draped with the UNHCR tarps that Dzi provided via Yellow House. Most have a fresh coat of paint. The government’s payments of $150 for temporary shelters finally arrived in Rakha just the week before. This was months too late for any meaningful relief, but just in time for Dashain, an annual festival in which people sacrifice goats, ducks, water buffalo—anything that moves, really—and put layers of clay over their houses. Most people, Tek included, painted over the cracks, spent the government cash on meat and moonshine, and had a ripping Dashain.

“This,” Ayers says, “is kind of what you want it to look like after an earthquake.”

“It’s really f---ing hard to eliminate poverty. You can’t reduce it to a sound bite, or that becomes a shtick”

Ayers first traveled to Nepal while in college, becoming obsessed with the toughness of Solukhumbu’s porters, who carry loads to base camps but are paid less than high-altitude Sherpa workers. One summer, Ayers enlisted as a porter, and when he returned to Bates College in Maine, he’d haul beer kegs with a tumpline, a sling that goes around the forehead. For a while he was an Earth First! anti-timber protester. Then, after getting to know some loggers and seeing their impressive trucks, he started cutting trees. After graduating, he split time between his logging operation in Maine and Nepal, where he started a tiny nonprofit called Porters’ Progress that taught English.

He met Greg Mortenson one summer and struck up a casual mentor-mentee friendship, with Ayers seeking advice on fundraising. Mortenson, the executive director of the Central Asia Institute, was already a hero in the development sector for his work building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and this was before his 2006 best-selling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, turned him into a celebrity. His story proved too good to be true: A 2011 investigation by Jon Krakauer outed Mortenson for fictionalizing much of his memoir and misusing donor funds for, among other things, flights on private jets.

“Greg tapped into the great artery of American guilt,” Ayers says. “He proved that, in development, you just have to make it sound good. The attention span of the public is: ‘This will fix Nepal!’ But the truth is it’s really f---ing hard to eliminate poverty. You can’t reduce it to a sound bite, or that becomes a shtick that becomes a shell game.” Asked if Mortenson’s fall made Dzi change any practices, he says, “It made us spend $20,000 a year on an audit.”

In 2006, Ayers fired one of Porters’ Progress’s staff, who was drinking heavily. Ayers says the man threatened his life and started telling the Maoists that he was exploiting porters. Shortly thereafter, Porters’ Progress’s office was robbed and one of its staffers injured in a stabbing. Ayers retreated to Maine and got married. Then, in 2007, a climber named Jim Nowak approached him. Nowak had started a nonprofit—the Dzi Foundation. Named for a protective bead, the group’s mission was, to put it gently, unfocused. It funded an orphanage in Kathmandu and gave away outdoor gear. But Nowak offered Ayers the chance to run a well-funded organization, rebuilding it largely from scratch. Ayers moved back to Nepal and was soon divorced. It wasn’t long before he focused Dzi’s efforts on Khotang and Solukhumbu.

DZI staff members and building workshop participants
Dzi staff members and building workshop participants begin construction of a new school provided by the Dzi Foundation and local partners in Namlung village. Namlung was affected by the May 12 aftershock of the April 25 earthquake.

The staff grew to 29, and Ayers and Nowak recruited donors such as Vitol, Goldman Sachs, the Switzerland-based Oak Foundation, and philanthropists including Ricketts and Kevin Connors, head of foreign exchange sales for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. From a certain standpoint, Nepal is overrun with NGOs headed by Westerners looking to absolve their guilt. But it’s difficult to find critics of Dzi in Kathmandu’s NGO circles. James Sharrock, a political consultant who’s worked for the Carter Center and the UN, says, “Ben’s been there longer than most of the expats, and he’s very well-respected. Dzi is interesting because it’s not top-down reconstruction. A lot of problems are going to be coming from imposing models on local communities. What they need is technical advice and support.”

Ayers is sensitive to the Western savior myth. He says his goal is to work himself out of a job, eventually ceding his position to someone like Jhanak Karki, a 23-year-old Dzi staffer from Rakha who accompanies us on our trip. Still, he says, “tell it like it is. If Jhanak went to London to meet with Vitol, he wouldn’t be as effective.”

Ayers maintains that smaller is better and has no desire to compete with the likes of USAID or the WFP. “They come in with the solution in mind,” he says. “They’re not curious about what the people they’re trying to help actually need. They’re certainly not flexible. They have impacts, but they’re expensive and cumbersome, and they tend to disempower the people they’re trying to help by not having the courtesy to involve those people in the planning process. If a guy from Qatar showed up in a private jet in a poor town in Maine and said he was going to build schools, there would be issues.”

But Dzi serves only 30,000 people. The WFP has provided food to more than 3 million in 12 districts since April. “Dzi is focused on the right stuff, the right areas,” says Richard Ragan, who served as the WFP’s emergency relief coordinator for Nepal until July. But, he adds, “it’s much easier for Ben and Dzi to be nimble. It’s smaller money, and they don’t have the energy to deal with the national government.”

“What makes us different,” Ayers says, “is that we’ve tried to create a system where we’re accountable. You have to stop treating the poor as the poor and more like your clients.”

That, and a tolerance for risk.

Nepali children play at Busuki Lower Secondary School in Tamua Village.
Nepali children play at Busuki Lower Secondary School in Tamua village on Oct. 30. Dzi is retrofitting the school, which was damaged by aftershocks in May.

Dzi starts construction on its first post-earthquake school on Oct. 29. We’re in the village of Namlung, a community of about 1,000 Kulung Rai people in Solukhumbu. Nepal has more than 100 ethnicities and castes, and as many languages. The Kulung Rai consult shamans, worship forests and rivers, and speak a language that exists nowhere else on earth.

We meet Dzi’s engineer, a 44-year-old named Raj Kumar Rai, by a volleyball court. Kumar Rai is responsible for overseeing the construction of 31 earthquake-proof schools. The building site for the first has been the subject of much debate. Villagers originally wanted to keep their court, and only the day before did Kumar Rai convince everyone that the flat, stable ground should host the school. The court is marked off with white string—the outlines for the foundation. At 9 a.m., someone erects a puja, or blessing, made of a piece of bamboo and flowers, which will stay up until the building is complete. The plan is to construct the walls of stone and mud, with concrete floors and ring beams for support. In a prebuilding session, Kumar Rai pleads with the villagers to properly cure their cement, so the concrete doesn’t crack. “If you don’t cure your cement,” he says, “it’s like having a baby and leaving it on a rock!” But that’s a problem for another day. At the moment, Namlung has no cement; it likely won’t arrive until the fuel crisis abates.

Also, good help is hard to track down. “I’ve been able to find only two skilled masons we can hire,” Kumar Rai tells me. The rest of the young, able-bodied people are in the Persian Gulf. Next to agriculture, remittance is Nepal’s biggest economic engine, accounting for about $5.6 billion in annual income, according to the World Bank. The country’s gross domestic product is only $19.6 billion. One effect of the remittance culture is to inhibit democracy—the approximately 2 million Nepalis abroad cannot vote. Another effect is more grim still: Many Nepalis are working on the FIFA World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Last year, 157 died on the job, according to reporting by the Guardian. Nonetheless, Tek maintains that going abroad is safer and more prestigious than working as a porter for Everest climbers.

A villager makes the crossing between Bung and Cheskam villages.
A villager makes the crossing between Bung and Cheskam villages; a landslide destroyed the footbridge.

Soon after erecting the puja, volunteers start swinging pickaxes and working shovels, digging the foundation. This is an achievement in and of itself: Most nonprofits have struggled to build schools, because the government has yet to approve an earthquake-proof design. Dzi simply submitted its architectural plans to the district coordinator (the equivalent of a mayor) and asked him to sign off on a memorandum of understanding.

“The government can’t get its s--- together to approve them,” Ayers says, “and we can’t wait any longer. So we’re just going to go ahead and get a letter to cover our asses.”

Dzi is focused on schools first, then plans to train masons to rebuild homes. When I press Ayers on why that hasn’t started already, he says, “We’re a little behind the ball. But we only have so much money.” Besides, he points out, who in Rakha has the cash to pay a mason? The government’s promised $2,000 isn’t arriving anytime soon. “Those people in Rakha threw on some paint because they don’t have another choice,” he says. “That’s what poverty is. We have to help them make more money so someday they can build back better.”

Still, the long view can be difficult for some to swallow. Later in our trip, we come across a tiny village called Komlu that received all of the earthquake’s wrath. Not a house is standing, and 80 people are living in what amounts to a refugee camp of temporary metal structures. Flies buzz around open sores on the legs of a young boy. A woman offers us oranges and asks for blankets for the winter. The nearest water is a 40-minute hike. Everyone looks at Ayers expectantly.

He says he can’t offer blankets or new houses and instead discusses long-term prosperity. One by one, the people drift away.

We walk through Shitsville—the Village Development Committee of Gudel. (Nepal’s rural areas are divvied into VDCs, the equivalent of counties.) Gudel is a Kulung Rai word, but in Nepali it translates, literally, as “Poop Town.” When Dzi arrived here in 2008, the villages used “pig toilets”—outhouses perched atop pens full of fecal matter-eating hogs. Rates of diarrhea, caused by coliform in the water, were high. Ayers successfully pitched Vitol on a $126,000 toilet project. In the past seven years, Gudel has seen a 25 percent decrease in diarrheal illness. Now the county is also free of plastic trash—the community recently enacted a ban on littering, a rarity in rural Nepal.

The second of two villages we visit in Gudel, Chachalung, is a Rai village of 180 households, or roughly 1,000 people. It was spared by the earthquake—no houses were damaged. A micro-hydropower project provides electricity. There’s hardly any remittance labor—maybe 20 people in the whole village. The school doesn’t need repairing. There’s not even a fuel crisis. All cooking is done with wood fires, and the community doesn’t need rebuilding supplies to be brought in.

But Chachalung faces a fearsome challenge. Above the town sits the beginning of a landslide that’s about 200 meters (656 feet) wide and growing. It’s on track to take out the entire village, creeping lower each monsoon season. That it didn’t obliterate Chachalung during the earthquake was a miracle. Every year the villagers send a young person up to it to offer a puja; last year they also paid some Buddhist lamas $100 to bless the slide.

We go into a community building, where Ayers asks about the pujas. Someone says they have to be performed by a virgin drinking salt water. Then a guy in a green puffy jacket interjects to clarify that pujas aren’t the town’s preferred strategy. “We want to move,” he says. “But the government hasn’t done anything for us. We can’t sit on someone else’s land.” So pujas it is.

A man with a fixed smile says, “Our shaman has seen the future, and Chachalung is swept away.”

The guy in the green puffy cuts in, saying, “It’s not hard to tell. Just look at the ground.”

Then the man with the smile says to Ayers, “You have helped us from mouth to digestion!” People laugh. Life is pretty good here, at least until the ground shakes again.