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SPECIAL REPORT

Nepal quake: One year on, Nepal is shaken but not broken

Quake-hit Nepali village in the mountains slowly but surely getting back on its feet

Life high in the mountains was never easy for guest house worker Suppa Lama, but he and his fellow villagers always knew they were lucky to live in a breathtakingly beautiful valley sought out by thousands of trekkers from around the world.

That all changed a year ago when Nepal's worst earthquake and a second tremor days later killed almost 9,000 people across the Himalayan nation. More than 300 people, including 43 foreigners, died when the tranquil Langtang valley was obliterated on April 25.

Now, with Nepal's crucial, job-generating tourism industry slow to recover after the 7.8 magnitude quake, Mr Lama and millions of others anxiously await the return to the good old days. The 45-year-old is heading a committee to rebuild Langtang village - 60 visitor lodges were wiped out along the valley - but he acknowledges it will be a long haul.

"It will take at least three years before things are back to normal again, although it took us decades to build this paradise under the Himalayas," he said. "By this October, hopefully, we will have eight new lodges ready. We cannot rely on the government for help."

More than US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) in aid poured in from around the world after the quake but much of that remains unspent, largely because of political wrangling over who controls the funds. People still sleep amid piles of rubble.

"We haven't heard anything about compensation. We don't have any money. How can we rebuild?" Ms Menuka Rokaya, who lives in a camp with her husband and nine-month-old baby near the airport in the capital Kathmandu, told Agence France-Presse. They are among an estimated four million people still living in sub-standard temporary shelters, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

It was not until December last year that the National Reconstruction Authority began to oversee rebuilding and distributing funds.

"You had many organisations... willing to support housing reconstruction, but they had to act in a vacuum, a policy vacuum. So they could not start work," said Ms Jennifer Duyne, who heads the international and Nepali donor reconstruction effort.

  • Nepal's worst quake

  • •The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck largely rural Nepal at 11.56am on April 25, 2015. A second tremor hit 17 days later.

    •Almost 9,000 people were killed, and more than 22,000 were injured. Eighteen people died at Everest base camp after the quake triggered an avalanche of rock and ice.

    •More than 500,000 homes were destroyed and an estimated four million people are still homeless.

    •US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) in aid was raised worldwide.

    •An estimated 3.9 million tonnes of earthquake debris included hazardous material.

    •It was the worst quake in Nepal's history, with 8.1 million people directly affected.

    REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Far from the capital, and a three-day walk from the nearest road in the town of Syabrubesi, there is not much government activity in Langtang.

Mr Lama is not waiting for handouts. "We Langtangpas have got to help ourselves to rebuild as soon as we can. We need the tourists to come. If Langtang rises again, we hope that it will galvanise the whole nation to stand up for itself as it will symbolise hope for the future."

About 4 per cent of largely rural Nepal's gross domestic product comes from tourism. It provides one of the world's poorest countries with 3.5 per cent of its jobs.

In Kathmandu, where dozens of historic Unesco architectural sites were damaged, tourists are trickling back. Hotel operators say occupancy this month is only about 60 per cent of a normal April when the spring hiking season is at its peak.

"The government is rebuilding - a few sites are already built and a few are being built (and) will be completed in one to three years," said Nepal Tourism Board CEO Deepak Raj Joshi.

But tour operators say their businesses are unlikely to fully recover this year. "When you lose 85 per cent of your business... basically that's 85 per cent of your cash flow that's gone," said Mr Ashok Pokharel, president of the Nepal Association of Tour Operators.

Climbers have been reticent too, with the number getting permission to scale Mount Everest in the spring window down to 289 from last year's 357.

An avalanche triggered by the quake tore through Everest base camp last year, killing 18 people.

Few visitors have returned to Langtang, despite cleared trails and a handful of new or restored guest houses. Barely 40km from Kathmandu, a bus ride will take eight hours to reach the trail head in Syabrubesi. From there, it is a long, rough walk up the valley, gaining 2,000m in altitude in three days to finally reach Langtang village.

For survivor Chhemay Lama, 16, the tragedy unfolded as he sat at a kitchen stove with his uncle and three tourists. A student in Kathmandu, he was back in Langtang village on vacation.

There was a thundering roar and everything went dark with ash and dust, but he instinctively hid under a bed frame and a mattress - a scenario he learnt in school that would eventually save him.

The exact number of deaths in Langtang remains unknown - bodies were still being excavated as late as last month while many remain missing. Stories of loss are common in the village with 465 surviving residents. Madam Chiring Chopra, 44, who lost seven family members, is the first to open a new lodge, called New Langtang. It started operating late last month and received its first customers this month.

Langtang Valley is the third-most popular area for trekkers in Nepal after the Everest and Annapurna regions. About 15,000 make it there each year.

Passing through hamlets and villages, some abandoned, the chipping and hammering sounds of rebuilding could be heard. There was a sense of hurried expectation as the locals raced to get their lodges up and running again, but there was still no electricity or network for phones. The solar panels they rely on heavily had yet to arrive.

Trekking guide Chhime Lama, 24, said: "If word spreads that this place is safe to visit, trekkers will soon arrive and this place will be alive again. But first we need to rebuild the lodges for them to stay."

It is estimated that at least a fifth of the lodges outside Langtang village are running again but some can offer only drinks and simple food, and no accommodation for now. Lines of mule trains laden with food and supplies could be seen along the trail - a sign that life could eventually return to normal.

Not all villages are left to fend for themselves. Near Tamche, Christian Aid has installed a 10,000-litre tank and a pump to send water uphill to the village, where it built temporary shelters for 52 households, The Guardian reported.

•Additional input from Agence France-Presse

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Shaken but not broken'. Print Edition | Subscribe