An Open Letter to Kevin McCloud: Go to Nepal

Dear Kevin

Yesterday Nepal was hit by the second magnitude 7 earthquake in a month. Buildings and livelihoods have been destroyed, lives have been lost under debris. I know your background is in lighting and theatre, but if there is one thing we all know that you know a thing or two about, then that it is buildings.

The Grand Designs programme which you write and present focuses on European luxury building projects, so you may not have thought that your programme was relevant to developing Nepal. I imagine that you may have spent a few minutes wondering if the buildings were appropriately designed to survive an Earthquake. Equally I imagine that you are as likely as anyone else to have watched the TV coverage with a heavy heart, perhaps donated a few pounds, and moved on with your life, and so you should. That is fine.

I am a believer in win-win outcomes, they are the only ethical sustainable course, so be clear that what I am about to suggest could and perhaps should be done for a profit, or to further your own public image, or to feel proud. Good. I suggest you do it, make a profit, and feel proud of it. If you wish to do it and give your fees to the DEC, then that is also fine by me. That is your call. Pragmatically, you might also remember that those things that can be done profitably are more likely to be done. I would like this to be done. I cannot abide waste.

Nepal clearly faces a problem of buildings falling down in earthquakes. I do not know if their buildings were any more or less likely to fall down. There is perhaps some good TV to be made discussing that, but I know nothing about it. I do know, because I have watched endless episodes of Grand Designs and because I have been to Nepal myself that important buildings, in iconic areas of Nepal do one thing very badly indeed:

They make terrible use of thermal mass.

That they are inefficient in this way may be of no interest at all in the course of the next few weeks, as rescues are made and the population faces economic disaster and shortages, but the suffering that Nepal faces will last much longer than that. In fact, before the earthquake in iconic areas such as the Everest Trekking Path, Nepal already suffered from specific shortages that your knowledge and contacts can address: a shortage of wood.

According to presentations in museums in Namche Bazaar, deforestation in the Himalayas is such a problem that rules exist limiting the felling of trees, ensuring only wood that has fallen naturally is available for use as fuel. Meanwhile, trains of donkeys ship gas along the Trekking Path, presumably from Lukla or further afield where it can be shipped by road. Rows of yaks carry dung to be burned in private homes, away from the noses of tourists. Much of this manual effort can be eliminated, freeing those resources for more productive uses.

And how is all this fuel used? In hostel after hostel it is placed into iron stoves in the centre of a room and allowed to radiate out to stone walls lined with plywood. The fuel heats air, clothing, furniture and plywood, not thermal mass. Instead the thermal mass is exposed to freezing outside air. Even the smoke is vented out through roofs.

A typical hostel between Lukla and Lobuche is a primitive affair. Basic shared toilets and no hot showers. Our trip ended in illness, and the reputation these hostels have as being beyond basic surely puts many a traveler off from visiting in the first place. The problem is, I am told, not just the lack of water but also freezing pipes. Between these concerns it is not economical to have ensuites in hostels beyond Dengboche. If a change in building design enabled pipes to stay warm in winter then it would hugely improve the standard of hostel beyond that point.

That may sound like western ignorance – how could a hot shower or ensuite toilet help post-disaster Nepal? As well as representing an improvement in insulation and efficiency such luxuries would bring in the kind of older or more sensitive trekker who appreciates the extra convenience or hygiene of such an arrangement, expanding the market for a key natural resource of Nepal. I have met several retired people who have been to Nepal, in fact there were 20 in our hostel in Namche but they visited different areas, where luxury lodges exist. These older people are wealthier and willing to spend money so expanding this market improves the balance of payments for Nepal.

So, Kevin, can you make private bathrooms work above 4,000m, deep in the Himalayas? Can you free up the trains of donkeys plying the trail to more productive uses? Can you make fallen wood go further? Finding out would make great TV and would make a great place even more accessible and profitable for everyone involved, including those that deserve it the most.

Simon Gibbs

Quake struck Nepal, before the quake

A little over two years ago I was deep in the Himalayas enjoying an adventurous honeymoon. It is emotional to see the place where we landed is now a hub for the collection of the stranded and the dead, rather than trekkers and their supplies. Though, I cannot help but think that life up there in the mountains, at Lukla or a couple of days away in Namche Bazaar might even be preferable to Kathmandu at the moment. I have been stuck in Namche Bazaar and it while it quickly became boring, certainly when ill, it is safe and largely benevolent. Like those Anzac day trekkers, I would hold up there for a few days.

Choppers

We were also offered a place on this planned chopper-ride.

We were also offered a place on this planned chopper-ride.

When I say “largely” benevolent, I am not ignoring the determined if not systematic fraud perpetrated against insurance companies. It works like this, if one member of a trekking party gets sick or injured on the way to Everest and gets a medivac by helicopter, then any spare seats will be allocated to the highest bidder. A typical ride might cost a few thousand dollars in total and the choppers have 4 seats. If their seat can go to someone willing to pay, then even your porters will be told to walk home. I doubt the porters get a very good cut for their trouble, and yes they are often going to be walking pretty much the same distance you are flying e.g. back to Namche. It seems that in a world without roads, helicopters are such a huge time saver that they are much in demand, but only if they can be obtained at a reasonable cost. For a local, something like a half day’s walking distance can be flown in a minute.

That money should, by rights, flow back to the insurance companies and effectively be subsidising premiums, but I strongly suspect it is the other way around. Your guide will not be shy about trying to involve you in such a deal even if you are obviously weak and struggling to walk up to the helipad. Our guide propositioned us on behalf of an entirely healthy local right there on the pad as we waited for the chopper. It was, apparently, the healthy man’s sick-uncle who needed to get to Kathmandu. It did not sound or look legit. Telling the guide this was fraud did not offend him, although it is possible he did not understand the word. My wife and I recovered quickly at a lower altitude, by the way, and the insurance came through – thanks for asking.

This is the darker side of a quite impressive entrepreneurial spirit. A few days earlier I wondered into town down the hill and asked random people about places that could broker a shared ride in a helicopter (we did not think that the insurance company would pay up at this point so wanted to share, limiting the cost to “just” $1200). I knew of a cyber-cafe and heard of a bar where this could be done. The cyber-cafe was closed, but the bar was open, so I spent a bit of time there discussing the issue. The landlady, whose English was good, was trying to use an old desk phone to call a contact and the line kept dropping. By the time I walked back out up the hill people were shouting and waving trying to get in on a deal with me. Those random people in the street evidently knew exactly who would benefit from the news that a gringo wanted to spend $1200. I was left with the distinct impression that a legitimate brokerage would very soon cut a deal with the insurance companies to cut their costs by up to 50% per evacuation, and my money was on the guy from the cyber-cafe. I can still remember, fuzzily, the faces of these wheeler-dealing types, and I am sure they will be doing a brisk trade this week as the injured and the terrified compete to get home. Good luck to them, I say, at least these guys were honest.

Land and Food

It was on the flight into Lukla, separated from my new wife by single-aisle seating, that I first took the time to notice the odd land-usage patterns in the Himalayas. I wrote about that flight and the bizarre sight of cabbages growing under the veranda. Things which demonstrated how precious land is for farming amongst the peaks.

The same is true of the foothills. Here is a collection of images taken out of the window of the plane and also, later, from the window of a taxi in Kathmandu. Be sure to look at the background of the urban images. Notice the odd phenomenon of multi-story accommodation sitting directly alongside fields, even in those urban environments.This is, I think, not something a westerner would have experienced or expected but is perfectly understandable in terms of incentives. Much of Nepal cannot be built on and cannot be farmed, it is too steep or rocky, so people build up so they can have fields. There is evidently no law to stop fields and homes being next to each other and people find that that suits them, so that is what happens,

Narrow, bustling central Kathmandu is not somewhere I would want to be when there are aftershocks. Relatives told us that on their tour of Kathmandu (some years ago now) they saw the fronts of buildings that had been unilaterally demolished by the authorities because the roads had become dangerously narrow. At the time I found that distasteful, but it is at least understandable. I would frankly rather be home, or in the mountains as long as I was away from steep sided valleys. It is, however, something of a relief to know that much of Kathmandu is scattered with these urban-fields. Even in regular times I doubted these fields will produce enough to eat by themselves, but they are a place to stand when tiles are falling and they are a resource to be tapped. They are also, of course, a resource that might be looted, but it is better they are there than not there.

Roads

Where we went there are no roads. It is therefore amusing to hear the TV people talking of the difficulty of getting to “remote areas” because of damaged roads. Lukla’s main drag is a rocky mud track, the correspondent was probably standing on it. A fake Starbucks?Yes, but roads? Nonsense! There were never roads, everyone walked the track, even with supplies of timber on their backs, or gas cylinders strapped to their donkeys.

I spent a lot of time there looking at the path but not much time taking photos of it. Here are a few that show some detail of what transport links are like 4,000m up. Mud is a theme.

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Water and Shelter

In Kathmandu, let alone the Himalayas, water will be at a premium. I recall running water in most places. In the mountains I know this came from small tanks on the slope above the hostel, or carved into the cliff above the hostel in one case. In Kathmandu there seemed to be a reliable mains water system, but we didn’t drink from it. The locals would though, I expect. In any area left without mains water another small mercy is that us fussy westerners would drink bottled water religiously. That water is stock piled in various places even above 4,000m and demand will now plummet as the westerners leave.

Another small mercy is that western demand for accommodation as driving the construction of ever more and better hostels. Every hostel had solid stone walls, a tin roof and a kitchen. In Namche, there will be a glut of such accommodation while the areas recovers.

When I hear on the TV that the shops are closed and prices are rocketing, I think of all this western tourist infrastructure that is there in Nepal, all the stock piled luxuries, and all the unique entrepreneurial spirit of the Nepali people I dealt with and I see this as natural and proper – a part of the economy readjusting and adapting so that is can swallow up all the additional needs and desires that have been imposed upon it by nature’s blind cruelty.There will terrible suffering in some places, but this nation is hardy in ways that a metropolitian westerner would not readily understand unless he has had the privilege of being there.