Tag Archives: World

In Nepal’s Himalayas, the uphill battle is against plastic

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Matang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Manthang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there.  Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.

“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of  Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas.  www.plasticfreehimalaya.org

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and Sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year.  As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”

Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.

Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.

Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts.  The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.

“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles.  But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.

In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.

The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.

In Nepal where mountains rule — Making roads is not straightforward

 

View from the road down to the Bagmati River near Kathmandu. Nepal is one of the toughest countries in the world to build roads. Copyright Donatella Lorch

View from the road down to the Bagmati River near Kathmandu. Nepal is one of the toughest countries in the world to build roads. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Just 25km south of Nepal’s capital as the crow flies, the limpid Kulekhani River empties into the larger and heavily polluted Bagmati River, which flows in a series of twisting bends down from Kathmandu. In this narrow gorge bordered by steep treeless mountains that slice the blue sky, there are only a few mud houses perched on seemingly inaccessible ledges and on the riverside an army camp of plastic-covered quantum huts. This is the shortest way from Kathmandu to the Indian border.

The shortest route from Kathmandu to India where even the tracks are impassable due to landslides. Copyright Donatella Lorch

This gorge is part of the shortest route from Kathmandu to India. Even the tracks are impassable due to landslides. Copyright Donatella Lorch

To get here from Kathmandu, I took the shortest route passable by a 4X4 car – a 45km drive that took 2.5 hours on a narrow mostly-dirt road that hairpins over sheer precipices. The road is too narrow for the trucks that bring fuel, propane and all imported goods from India to the Kathmandu Valley. They have to take a 152km detour that on a map looks like a big C loop.

Outside of Kathmandu, bridges over the Bagmati are all like this one. Copyright Dominic Patella

Outside of Kathmandu, bridges over the Bagmati are all like this one. Copyright Dominic Patella

Inaccessibility is a defining characteristic of Nepal’s history. Much of Nepal is an endless sequence of steep hills and narrow gorges that abut the world’s highest mountains. Once you leave the Indian border and the Terai, the word flat or straight is rarely used to describe a road (outside the Kathmandu Valley). Whole areas have been so geographically isolated that Nepal, a country of 27 million, has 123 spoken languages and 125 ethnic groups. Today there are still far-flung areas of Nepal, especially in the northwest, that are not connected by any road and where all goods have to be brought in on foot or by donkey. After years of a violent Maoist revolt that tore Nepal apart, roads are a critical means of integrating and uniting a nation. Not only do roads facilitate trade and decrease poverty but they also provide isolated areas with security and medical care.

Most of Nepal’s roads are not paved and even on the paved ones, the maintenance is poor and irregular. Landslides are commonplace, especially during the torrential monsoon downpours. Vehicles, often overloaded, have frequent accidents.

One of the many trucks that didn't make. Copyright Donatella Lorch

One of the many trucks that didn’t make it. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Only Peru ranks up there with Nepal as the toughest country in the world to build roads. Today, the fastest way from Kathmandu to India is through the town of Hetauda on the dirt road I took. The main means of transport is the Tata Sumo, a 4X4 large jeep lookalike.  A Sumo can cram 12 to 15 people inside and at least five sitting on the roof rack. Up to 800 Sumos a day aggressively ply this road that at one point curls up the sides of mountains and has redefined for me the meaning of the word ‘narrow’. The road has no shoulders. From the open window of our car, it is possible to touch the sheer wall of rock, on the other side our wheels are inches from a sheer drop of at least 400 meters. Below and across the river gorge, houses inch up the hills while white Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples perch on hilltops accessible only by switchback dirt trails that resemble goat tracks. Reverse is often the only way to deal with oncoming traffic. It takes five hours to the Indian border. Trucks take the longer 10-hour route.

A Sumo on a wide Nepali road. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A Sumo on a wide Nepali road. Copyright Donatella Lorch

 

The Nepali government has a four-year-plan. They want to build what they call a “Fast Track” road following the Bagmati River to India. This 91km-road would link Kathmandu with a new airport the government wants to build in the flat Terai land for bigger airplanes. The new airstrip is to be built in one of Nepal’s foggiest zones. Critics say this will affect airplane traffic. Tourists would then take the two-hour drive to the Kathmandu Valley.

Of course the airport won’t work if the road isn’t there. Challenges to building the ‘Fast Track’ are technical, financial and political.  In the road sector, politicians often pressure the government to steer projects to their home districts. In one district in Nepal, the conflict between three political parties over the building of one bridge compelled the government to agree to build three bridges (one for each party) within 4kms of each other, but to date, no bridge has been completed as the project has become too expensive.Six months ago, at the confluence of the Bagmati and Kulekhani, the Nepali army enthusiastically blasted a segment of the ‘Fast Track’ through an overhanging  mountain crag transforming it into a jumbled pile of jagged white boulders.  Since then the work has stalled. Financing has yet to come through. International engineers estimate a cost of about US$1billion, 40 percent of which would go to building 9kms of bridges and 1.4kms of tunnel. Geologically, mountains are unstable in Nepal and no road tunnel has ever been built here.

The slice of mountain blasted by the Nepali army as part of efforts to   start  'Fast Track' construction. Copyright Dominic Patella

The slice of mountain blasted by the Nepali army as part of efforts to start ‘Fast Track’ construction. Copyright Dominic Patella

 

The ‘Fast Track’ will exist though it probably will take 10 to 20 years. In the meantime, we continue to drive on our goat-like mountain paths with the nail-biting hairpin turns, incredible scenery, on Nepali time and dreaming of better roads.

 

How I collided with Nepali culture and got a really short haircut

Two young girls on their way to school with the ubiquitous braids. copyright Donatella Lorch

Two young girls on their way to school with the ubiquitous braids. copyright Donatella Lorch

 

 

 

I have short hair and I haven’t had a haircut in five months. After 25 years of very short hair, this state of affairs was not because I had decided to grow it.  The challenge is that in Nepal, women just don’t have short hair.  So why should any hairdresser specialize in that field?

A view from the back. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A view from the back. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Over time, my search for a reliably good cut turned into an existential angst. I was stopping women on the street and at dinner parties asking for any advice on how to find someone who can cut short hair. I even found three who did have short hair but they did not enthusiastically offer a solution. And as all women in the world know, there is nothing quite as depressing as a bad haircut.

Even the grandmothers have long hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Even the grandmothers have long hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Inspired by a mother at my son’s primary school who was so frustrated with the lack of options that she took matters in her own hands, I resorted to cutting my own hair. I had the correct tools since I have been cutting my husband and our three sons’ hair for over eight years. But self -cutting meant that the back of my head quickly looked hacked. And when it grew in, I can vouch that I was somehow related to a shaggy Pekinese.

From the day I arrived in Nepal, I felt my short hair did not belong here. I was mesmerized by the beauty of Nepalese women’s hair. I loved looking at the ubiquitous groups of uniformed schoolgirls walking arm in arm on the city streets, all wearing their hair in two thick, long, voluptuous braids tied with bright ribbons. I can attest that my twin braids, very tightly woven by my father before I headed off to primary school never looked that good and definitely never were that thick.

A farmer washing her hair early in the morning. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A farmer washing her hair early in the morning. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Young urban women leave their hair often tumbling free down their back. The female traffic police have it pulled back in air-tight polished buns while older women, often wearing saris, pile it up in less constricting but no less thick and shiny chignons. From my yard, perched up on a scree of rocks, I look down at local farmers that come every day to a public water tap, the women unraveling their waist-length hair and foaming it up with shampoo. When I run in the early mornings, I ‘Namaste’ mothers on their front stoops lovingly oiling, brushing and braiding children’s hair.  Nepal is different from India where short haircuts are more and more common among the urban female youth. In Kathmandu, I concluded after multiple discussions with female and male friends, that it is the culture and by definition the men that dictate the hair length.

Young Nepali women frequently wear their hair cascading down their back.

Young Nepali women frequently wear their hair cascading down their back.

I was still faced with the fact that I wanted to cut my hair. In fact, I needed it as much as I wanted it. After living in Kathmandu for half a year, I felt I had gotten a grasp on searching for the impossible. What I have come to love about this city, is that somewhere out there, there is always someone who can do what you want.  So I kept asking everyone I met for advice.

This young girl's hair reaches her waist. Copyright Donatella Lorch

This young girl’s hair reaches her waist. Copyright Donatella Lorch

There is no shortage of hair salons in Nepal. My first week, a Nepali friend took me to visit what she called “the best one” just off Kathmandu’s Darbar Marg next to the likes of Nike and Victoria’s Secret stores and just down the road from the royal palace. She assured me all her colleagues at the office patronized this particular salon. I felt uneasy.  I had met many of her friends and like her they all had long, silky black hair. The coiffeur approached me to check out my haircut and smiled. “I can do it, no problem, let me show you,” he insisted. He then went to a drawer and pulled out two electric razors and motioned how he would buzz cut my head. I rapidly retreated to the door not quite ready for a “Full Metal Jacket” experience.

My neighbor runs a tea stall and when working pins up her mass of hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

My neighbor runs a tea stall and when working pins up her mass of hair. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Then I struck gold. I found Sangita. Like so many Nepalese one meets in Kathmandu, she worked and studied abroad and then came back home. I drove almost an hour through jams and road construction and needed a hand drawn map to find her home. Sangita had shoulder length hair but she too had experienced my crisis. She had returned to Kathmandu with very short hair and unable to cut her own, she had no option but to grow it.

Then she cut mine.   The final product

In Nepal, Life and Death Meet in a World Heritage Site

Pashumatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu's airport. It is also the city's best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site adjacent to Kathmandu’s airport. It is also the city’s best known cremation site. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation ghats on the left

The Pashupati temple complex with the burning cremation areas on the left

Pilots do visual landings into Kathmandu, first skimming then dipping down sharply over the rims of the nearby hills that encircle the valley and stopping at the end of a runway that abuts the city’s downtown.  There is no long highway into town, no time for visitors to slowly absorb the capital city’s chaotic traffic, smells, dust, colors or history. Everything is there —- immediately.

Just drive through Tribhuvan International Airport’s huge orange and gold gateway, make a right, pass the golf course and you arrive, just a few hundred meters from the runway, at Pashupatinath, one of Kathmandu’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, and one the world’s holiest Shiva Shrines. It doesn’t look very sacred from the outside especially if you enter through the gauntlet of stalls selling religious knick knacks, but amid the huge bewildering pantheon of gods in Nepal, here you have reached the apex of Hindu spiritual power.

The site, on the banks of the Bagmati River, the country’s holiest river that feeds into the Ganges, is in a big park and consists of a collection of temples, shrines and cisterns that were first built in the 4thc AD though the main pagoda styled temple was also rebuilt in the 17thc. These days, the Bagmati’s other claim to fame is its overwhelming filth. The river is dead, a thick, slimy grey liquid, lined by garbage and coating nearby neighborhoods with its choking stench. Added into the complex are a hospice and a temple doubling as an old age home founded by Mother Teresa where homeless elderly live amid devotees ringing sacred bells and making food offerings at the myriad mini shrines.

At Mother Teresa's hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine.  (copyright Donatella Lorch)

At Mother Teresa’s hospice, the elderly live in a working shrine. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Here Shiva is the Lord of the Beasts not the fearful and destructive Bhairab and devotees flock to worship him from all over the subcontinent and the world. Non-Hindus are not allowed in certain parts of the temple. I brought my four kids here so they could see, touch, smell and experience Hinduism and its rituals for the first time.  We share the shrine’s stone paths with devotees, tourists, wandering cows, scrawny stray dogs, beggars and what our guide calls “the Hollywood Sadhus,” the ash coated and orange-dressed bearded holy men who demand money for pictures.

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Playing tourist with the Hollywood Saddhus. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pashupatinath is also a favored location for Hindu cremations. It is the open presence of death that I think shocks western visitors the most. As the smoke from the pyres wafts over and around us, Richard, our Christian guide from India, brings us to a terrace overlooking two on-going cremations to describe the technicalities and the ritual. Bodies are cremated rapidly after death, preferably the same day. The body is first taken to the edge of the Bagmati and the feet dipped in the water, symbolically the last effort to see if they are still alive. It is then carried to the ghat and placed in a pyre of wood to burn between three and four hours. Women are fattier and take longer to cremate. The umbilical cord, which apparently does not incinerate, is buried in the soil of the shallow Bagmati, as part of the cycle of rebirth. In a complex ritual, the relatives receive the ashes and then go to the other shore of the Bagmati for puja (worship) before giving the ashes to the river. The northern most cremation area is reserved for the royal family. Here in 2001, the king and queen and eight members of the royal family, who had all been gunned down by the crown prince, were simultaneously cremated.

the cremation ghats

the cremation site

My eight year old is okay with all this. He has been living here for six months and sees cremations in the neighborhood temples where we live. The word “Puja” is an integral part of his vocabulary. He knows that pious Hindu adult sons must wear only white (shoes too) for a year when their father dies and when we drive through town, he regularly points out the men in white. He knows that for the first 13 days after a father’s death, a truly pious adult son lives alone and can only shower outdoors. He cannot touch anybody, eating only once a day boiled rice with ghee, lemon and fruit. He cannot sleep with his wife.

My teenage boys, at school in North America and both argumentative philosophers, are keen to discuss the meaning of life. For my 21-year-old daughter, I think listening to the crackle of the pyre and watching the stoker push back embers around a protruding foot, is part surreal and part overwhelming. The public and physically intimate ritual of handling a dead person does not exist for us. When a relative died recently, we all said our goodbyes as she lay in a hospital bed. A few days later, we received the ashes. The ritual, if there was one, was highly impersonal. I wonder what the elderly who live in the next-door hospice think when the distinct smell of burning human flesh wafts into their abode.

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa's hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Waking Lord Shiva by ringing the bell in Mother Teresa’s hospice (copyright Donatella Lorch)

But Pashupatinath is not only about the dead. It is about a vast number of festivals, daily pujas and ceremonies. One of the biggest yearly festivals, the Maha Shivaratri (Great Shiva Night), falls on February 28th 2014. Thousands of Sadhus come from all over Nepal, India and the rest of the world for a week of prayer, smoking marihuana and bathing in the Bagmati.  Some strip naked. Mark your calendars.

Already CNN Hero, a Nepali Blazes a Unique Path

Pushpa Basnet with Sanu (left), the first child she met and rescued from prison life eight years ago . Fourteen month old Pushpanjali (right) is her youngest ward. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa Basnet with Sanu (left), the first child she met and rescued from prison life eight years ago . Fourteen month old Pushpanjali (right) is her youngest ward. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa Basnet’s home, like many places in Kathmandu, is hard to find. I had to call her several times for directions as I drove into the dust-caked northern part of Nepal’s capital city, navigating the ubiquitous ruts created by road construction, the jams from overloaded buses dropping passengers in mid-lane and the sea of motorcycles oblivious of any traffic rule. Finally I found the right turn into the narrow alleyway that led to a black gate. Pushpa was waiting there, a young woman all smiles, her black hair in a tight bun, a baby in her arms and children tagging behind.

I have reported from and volunteered in many orphanages in Africa and South Asia and often felt they were defined by a tangible sadness if not despair.  For a stranger entering this home for the first time, the warmth was unmistakable. Pushpa, 29, founded and runs a home for children who have one or both parents serving long prison terms. She lives with her 45 wards that range from 14 months to 18 years in a simple three-story brick house without running water.

In Nepal, a country whose major claim to fame is as home to Mt Everest and great trekking, Pushpa is different.  She is a CNN Hero 2012.  I had wanted to meet her in part to see what made her a ‘hero’ and what a CNN Hero does after they have won their award.  I left a few hours later feeling that I had met an extraordinary woman with unusual inner strength, humility, smarts and a seemingly endless amount of love and positive karma to share. If heroes are made on a battlefield, Pushpa’s is far from the world’s attention. She is not a media star in Nepal. But she is a star in this home. She is Mamu, a very unusual mother.

The children at ECDC, a home to children of Nepali prisoners, greet visitors.

The children at ECDC, a home to children of Nepali prisoners, greet visitors.

Pushpa’s organization, the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC), houses the children of prisoners and pays for their education. But this is just the bare bones of what happens here. By her own admission never a great student, Pushpa says she found her calling in 2005 after she was temporarily suspended from school and began to visit prisons as a social worker. One of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal lacks a social safety net that can help the children of prisoners. As a result, if the child has no guardian, it must go live in prison or on the streets.  In 2007, Pushpa started a residential home with just two children. Through a complex legal guardianship process, Pushpa has now brought 32 girls and 13 boys here from 22 prisons. Most of them are between ages 4 and 8. She also runs a daycare center in Kathmandu prison.

Pushpa focuses on children whose parents are serving long sentences for crimes such as drug and human trafficking and murder. Herself a product of boarding school, Pushpa created her home on a similar model. The children live in impeccable though Spartan dorm rooms. The small ones sleep two to a bed for physical and emotional warmth. “Hugs are very important,” grins Pushpa who grabs her little ones to ruffle their head or exchange a kiss. Prizes of ice cream outings are given monthly to the cleanest rooms. Everyone studies together on floor cushions in the evenings. They have four meals a day of dal and rice with homemade pickles made by the gallon by Pushpa. They can afford meat  (chicken) only once a week.

The dormitory rooms are immaculate and Spartan.

The dormitory rooms are immaculate and Spartan.

Like all Nepalese, Pushpa and her staff adapt to the ubiquitous shortages. Road construction means no running water for months now. There is no central heating but she has no money for propane heaters so in the winter it is early to bed. With 12 hours a day of no electricity, she has used her CNN funds to buy solar panels and her inverters feed the critical rooms: the night bathroom light, study hall and the kitchen. The funds have also helped her buy two solar broilers where I saw beans busy simmering as well as a long metal dining table with benches so everyone eats together.  Every four days she goes through one 15Kg propane cylinder for cooking. She usually hoards (like everyone else) 25 cylinders at a time but today she has only five left due to an unforeseen shortage in the Kathmandu Valley. “I’ve hoarded wood,” she assured me. “If we can’t find propane, we’ll cook with that.”

Pushpa used some of her CNN award money to buy solar inverters as well as this solar broiler where she is cooking beans. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa used some of her CNN award money to buy solar inverters as well as this solar broiler where she is cooking beans. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

As much as possible, she wants her children to have a normal life. Aside from paying their school fees, Pushpa has hired a Tae Kwon Do (one of Nepal’s major school sports) teacher to come to the house and train. Painting is also a key activity. One girl, whose father died of an overdose and whose mother is serving a 25-year sentence for selling and using “Brown Sugar,” (heroine) has nerve damage that makes it difficult to speak but Pushpa encourages her drawing talent. And on weekends, everyone heads out for a hike to a nearby hill to play games and fly kites. This is Pushpa’s favorite time. “This is the one place I can be myself and just run around,” she explained. On holidays, the children return to the prisons to stay with their parents.

Pushpa must compete with Nepal’s orphanages for funding. With foreign adoptions suspended, orphanages are overcrowded and underfunded.  Pushpa’s biggest challenge is finding a permanent home. So far, ECDC has moved five times. Her CNN prize money has gone towards buying land to build her dream “Butterfly Home.” She is now fund raising for the $400,000 she needs to build the home and make it a reality. At times, serendipitous encounters, are magical.  Coming back from his honeymoon, her brother chatted with a fellow plane passenger who was coming to visit orphanages she was supporting. Today, this woman supports 23 of Pushpa’s children with $3,000 a month. Of the children Pushpa has raised since 2005, 120 have left and 25 of the parents remain in contact with the school. Pushpa continues to pay for many of their school tuitions.  Fourteen of Pushpa’s wards were abandoned by their parents after leaving prison but the kids continue to live at ECDC.

There is a circle to Pushpa’s life.

Sanu, the little eight-month-old who first grabbed her clothes and smiled at her in 2005 is now nine years old and still lives with Pushpa. Sanu’s mother served a sentence for killing her abusive husband but was turned away by her own family after being released. She is now also living at ECDC.  In halting English, Sanu tries to explain her situation: “I have an original mother and I have Mamu, a mother who gives me everything.”

Over a year ago, Pushpa was handed a 45-day-old girl by policemen. The baby’s mother had just been burned to death by her husband for failing to make him an omelette. The father is serving a 10 year sentence. The little girl, Pushpanjali, is now 14 months old and Pushpa has been given complete guardianship. At lunchtime, the older children feed and look after younger ones. But every spare moment when she can grab her away, Pushpa is picking up Pushpanjali to nuzzle and hug her.

In the heart of earthquake land, Kathmandu waits for the Big One

January 15th is the 80th anniversary of the 8.4 magnitude earthquake that destroyed Kathmandu in 1934. Within a minute, 17,000 people were dead in Nepal and Northern Bihar. In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, 80,000 buildings crumbled and 8,500 people died.

The 1934 Earthquake in Nepal destroyed 80,000 buildings in the capital Kathmandu

The 1934 Earthquake in Nepal destroyed 80,000 buildings in the capital Kathmandu

Though earthquakes are frequently felt in the capital city (two since August), earthquake history shows Kathmandu gets hit by a major quake every 75 years or so. In a recent email, the U.S. Embassy here in Nepal reemphasized the need for being prepared for the inevitable: “it is not a matter of if but of when,” I was reminded. We are definitely due. John, my husband, argues with my angst. “Earthquakes don’t observe anniversaries,” he reminded me this morning.  Followed by the line he used to convince me to move here six months ago: “Earthquakes aren’t like pregnancies. They don’t have due dates.”  We have learned some lessons in our half year in Nepal. I slept through the 5.0 magnitude earthquake in August and was shaken awake by John yelling “Earthquake!” We then walked out onto our balcony instead of doing what we were supposed to do: grab our son from his bed and get out of the house.

But today the anniversary reminds me of the cataclysmic possibilities.  Knowledge is power after all and to be terrified all one has to do is go surf Google. The Kathmandu valley sits on an ancient lake bed, a big bowl of jello that in earthquake language is called a liquefaction zone, an area that magnifies shock waves.  The mountains circling us volley the shock waves back into the valley magnifying the damage. In Kathmandu, earthquake talk is common. There are the worriers like myself and the ostriches, who prefer to keep their heads solidly in the sand.

Kathmandu sits in an ancient lakebed known in seismological terms as a liquefaction zone

Kathmandu sits in an ancient lakebed known in seismological terms as a liquefaction zone

Kathmandu is not the same city as in 1934. More than 2.4 million people now live in a densely urbanized valley where the population has grown by 500 percent in the past 50 years. Building codes are haphazardly enforced if at all. Buildings are built on the cheap with substandard bricks and concrete. The narrow streets are a spider web of black interlaced cables and electrical wires. When they crumble, the roads will be impassable except on foot. Lucas, my eight-year-old, has tagged buildings on the way to his school as those that will pancake and those that might stay standing. The former wins.

Houses are poorly constructed and building codes are not enforced.

Houses are poorly constructed and building codes are not enforced.

 

Webs of electrical wires on Kathmandu streets can be very dangerous during and after an earthquake

Webs of electrical wires on Kathmandu streets can be very dangerous during and after an earthquake

In a recent earthquake preparedness meeting, experts including OCHA, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that an 8.0 quake could displace 1.8 million, kill 100,000 and injure at least 300,000 people. Hospitals will be overwhelmed if not destroyed and clean water, food and medicine will be in short supply. Sounds bad? Now stop and think about how help will get into the valley. Experts believe that a large earthquake will make most if not all the impossibly narrow precipice-bordered roads into the valley (there aren’t that many to begin with) impassable and blocked by landslides and will seriously damage the airport. There are 19 bridges between our house and the airport. Looks like walking will be our main means of transportation anywhere.

The message from the UN and the embassies is straightforward: we have to survive with no outside help for at least two to three weeks. As a World Bank family, we fall under the UN security network. We have neighborhood wardens and every few months do practice drills. With phones and communications most likely unusable, we are on a radio system and do weekly radio check-ins. We store potable water, food and clothes in a safe area outside our house and have go-bags ready. My friends and I joke that they really should be called “stay bags” as no one is going anywhere outside the valley.

Lucas knows his earthquake drills from both school and home. Drop, Cover, Hold. We have identified the areas in our home which hopefully wont cave in. Lucas sleeps on the bottom level of a bunk bed (extra head protection). I make sure he has a flashlight under his pillow, water and a whistle. His clothes are piled on a bed corner at arm’s length (with an extra sweater in the present cold winter months) He has a whistle in his school bag too and he himself asked for a face mask. He reasons that this very dusty city will be choked in clouds of rubble dust. His school is well prepared too with food and water and parents have been assured that it will last several weeks for all the students. Lucas knows that it might take me more than a day to get to him.

We are at least a bit prepared. Many are not, especially many Nepalese who are fatalistic about earthquakes and see them as the hand of God (or Gods as there are millions of gods here). Years of covering war zones as a reporter has translated into my managing family earthquake logistics. I know that our best chance of survival begins with avoiding serious injury. Unfortunately, I can’t control that. It is the post quake panic and chaos that worries me a touch. Luckily, I live in a heavily agricultural suburb with a vast number of cows, buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. Not enough for 1.8 million homeless but it is a start.

We live in one of the last heavily agricultural city suburbs with plenty of goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. On a weekend walk I chatted with this lady and her baby goats

We live in one of the last heavily agricultural city suburbs with plenty of goats, pigs, chickens and ducks. On a weekend walk I chatted with this lady and her baby goats

The earthquake preps have had light moments too. When a US embassy warden asked me for the satellite coordinates of my house, I provided him with the ones given to me by the United Nations. He emailed me back a few days later rather confused: “You live on the Indian border?” he asked. “I thought you lived in Kathmandu?” It is good to laugh in the face of disaster sometimes.

Brazen Rhino Poaching Hits Kenya Hard

Naibor, the largest white rhino on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kenya. Photo by OWS

Naibor, the largest white rhino on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kenya. Photo by OWS

Naibor was a gentle fellow, the largest and oldest white rhino living on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary (OWS) overlooking Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. His horn was three feet long, and he was a favorite of rangers and visitors. But earlier this month, in broad daylight, armed men got through the electric fence and shot Naibor dead with an AK-47 within earshot of a ranger’s post. Both his horns were hacked off before the poachers fled.

OWS mounted a massive tracking operation with police, rangers, tracker dogs and a helicopter, but the poachers escaped into dense bush. The dogs found the small horn stuffed down a hole, along with shoes and a shirt, and they later identified five soldiers from a nearby army barrack. The soldiers were arrested and then released due to lack of evidence, police said.

Naibor, after the poachers attacked. Photo by Phil Mathews

Naibor, after the poachers attacked. Photo by Phil Mathews

In the same week, five other rhinos were killed 150 miles north on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of the best-managed private conservancies in Kenya. The poachers used automatic weapons and escaped through rough terrain. The dogs lost their tracks in Isiolo, a hub for the illegal wildlife cartels, for weapons and explosives smuggling, al Shabaab networking and human trafficking.

These brazen attacks show that the battle against rhino poaching is neither straightforward nor a guaranteed win.  When I asked a well-known Kenyan conservationist what he thought needed to be done to save the rhino, he hesitated. “How does it get stopped?” he asked rhetorically.“I stay awake at night asking myself that question.”

Though rhino poaching is not new to Kenya, the market for rhino horn has grown massively, along with its price.  In a country where the average person lives on about $2 a day, it’s almost impossible to protect a jewel attached to a lumbering weak-eyed giant wandering placidly through the bush.

In the 1970s, illegal hunting for rhino horn reduced Kenya’s population of black rhinos from 20,000 to about 300. For ten years, as many as five rhinos were killed every day.  But even with reduced numbers, rhino poaching continues.  South Africa, with about 20,000 rhino, loses two a day. Kenya, which now has fewer than 600 rhinos country-wide, lost more than 20 in 2012.

Rhino horn is worth more than gold. While the gunmen who kill the animal may only receive $10,000-20,000 dollars, by the time the horn gets to its biggest market, Vietnam, where people believe it can cure cancer, a gram of horn powder can cost $65,000.

Lewa, with 62,000 acres of windswept hills, scrub land and savannah, is one of my favorite places. Once a cattle ranch, it became a wildlife conservancy in 1995 and is now a global model for community-based conservation—a tourist destination, home to 350 species of birds and 70 mammal species including lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and cheetah. It is also a leader in rhino preservation—home to 10 percent of Kenya’s black and 14 percent of its white rhino.

Keeping rhino is not for amateurs. The cost of protecting wildlife nearly doubles with black rhino present. Lewa has established a veritable army to protect its animals—and it is expensive.  Encircled by an electric fence, Lewa has 150 armed rangers, surveillance teams, radio operators, dog handlers, a fence maintenance team, night guards and aerial surveillance. The conservancy works extensively with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and—critically—with local communities, which provide labor, and informers.

So who poached Lewa’s rhinos? A massive investigation is underway in the conservation community. Several people told me that only locals or former employees—including possibly employees charged with rhino security—would have known their way in and out of the ranch. Lewa officials describe the rhino as a ‘Kenyan national asset’ and warn that attacks could escalate across Kenya.

Another reason rhino are vulnerable is that their horns are so portable.  Elephant tusks need to be moved by vehicle, but rhino horn can be hand-carried. “Rhino horn, like drugs, counterfeit currency or illicit diamonds, is a high-value black-market product that, once it leaves the hands of the poacher, is moved through a series of couriers, onto godfathers coordinating these activities,” explained Ian Craig, Lewa’s founder, in a speech to American zoo-keepers. Slipped into a shoulder bag, the horn probably left Isiolo by car and then Kenya by plane within hours of the killings.

While elephant poachers are often caught with tusks, in Kenya only twice have police caught someone with rhino horn.  Without the horn, prosecution is nearly impossible. Moreover, anti-poaching laws offer little deterrence, as penalties are grossly outdated. Magistrates know little about wildlife crime.  Most poachers get charged with misdemeanors. Fines are paid immediately, in cash. One poacher has been arrested, fined and released five times. High-level corruption may be partly to blame, as there is certainly enough money to go around.  And if there is no corruption, there may simply be indifference:  the Kenyan Minister for Wildlife has yet to issue a statement about the recent poachings.

Paula Kahumba, executive director of WildlifeDirect, which blogs to support conservationists, argues that no African government has invested the resources needed to stop poaching. “The truth is that the demand for ivory and rhino is so great that you can’t save it on your own,” Paula says, adding that KWS has its heart in the right place but does not have the wealth or manpower to investigate and prosecute. “The wildlife laws are inadequate given the scale of the problem. We are talking to the government trying to convince them to use the Economic and Organized Crime Act in Kenya.”

It is difficult to know how this will end.  It is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons.’  We are collectively richer with rhino, but for many of the poor, individually, it is better to kill the rhino and market its horn—even if, in the end, there are no rhino or rhino horn left over.  For a desperately poor breadwinner, one horn can make all the difference between feeding and educating children, or consigning them to a life of poverty as well. It is not a fight that conservationists alone can win.