As the autumn tourist season draws closer, controversy has surrounded an assessment done by Miyamoto International on the impact of the earthquakes in the Everest Region. The assessment, prepared for the Ministry of Tourism and funded by World Bank member International Finance Corporation, reports that 83 percent of the buildings assessed along the Everest trail were undamaged and safe enough to warrant green tag status.
While Miyamoto is highly respected, a close reading of its report raises some fundamental concerns. First, the assessment used the only strictest definition of the Everest route. Despite claiming to cover the ‘Everest region’ and ‘Khumbu’, it does not take into account the Thame and Gokyo valleys. The estimate of 83 percent buildings undamaged, therefore, contrasts sharply with earthquake experiences in those areas. For instance, data collected in the Thame Valley (Namche VDC’s wards 4-9) shows 93 percent of residential and tourist structures damaged by the earthquake; 66 percent were fully damaged (unusable without major reconstruction) and 27 percent partially damaged (safe to use with repairs). Although secondary to the main Everest trail, the Thame and Gokyo routes form a significant part of the overall Everest region tourism. Their exclusion in the study gives a skewed perspective of the impact on local life and livelihoods.
Given the challenging terrain of the Khumbu region, five days is simply not enough time to conduct a thorough assessment of the listed 710 buildings and the trails. The study relied heavily on helicopter flyover for the upper areas of the trail. Even onsite inspection will give an inaccurate impression unless all sides of the buildings, including their internal conditions, are examined. This is unlikely to have been achieved in such a short time frame, even on the lower parts of the trail where the team did travel by foot.
Some of the claims in the report also run contrary to local experience; for instance, it states “damage in the lower valley (below Namche) is significantly greater than in the upper valley which is likely because the slopes are generally steeper in the lower valley than the upper.” Observations in the higher areas of Khumbu contrast with this claim. For instance, in Namche VDC, settlements and buildings located on hill-slopes generally survived better than villages on flat, level ground. Khumjung VDC locals report similar damage patterns.
Understanding damage impact also requires detailed insight into local construction. With stone construction, damage and instability is often not apparent in the same way it might be with brick and other types of construction. The Miyamoto report also concluded that in comparison with more modern tourist accommodation, homes built in the traditional style performed more poorly. This fails to take into account the fact that traditional residential buildings are often much older than the tourist accommodation, most of which was built in the last two decades. It also does not show an understanding of some of the benefits of traditional construction. With the exception of the now-rare heavy slate roof, a traditional style building has several features that actually contribute to earthquake safety. For instance, in older Sherpa homes the load of the roof rests primarily on a series of wooden posts and beams virtually independent of the stone wall. This increases the chances of the roof and floors remaining intact even if the walls collapse.
Risks and the rush
A proper impact assessment also needs knowledge of how tourist flows and economies work within the Khumbu region Trekking accommodation in the Everest region has transitioned completely from tented camps to permanent lodges. Although some key tourist villages such as Lukla, Namche, and Dingboche suffered relatively less damage, accommodation in these areas alone is not sufficient, as places to stay are needed along the entire trekking route. Additionally, while larger, fancier tourist lodges may still usable, adequate accommodation for the guides, porters, lodge owners, and staff who serve as the fundamental backbone of the tourism industry is also critical. They often stay in facilities where there is less investment in construction and therefore more chances of damage in the earthquakes.
No one is more concerned about the impact the earthquakes will have on tourist arrivals than the people of Khumbu. However, taking a holistic and well-informed view, clearly both tourism carrying capacity and local life in Khumbu have been affected more than the Miyamoto International report alone will indicate. A rush to boost tourist arrival numbers before proper recovery is to risk extensive criticism if there are any safety issues in the future.
By autumn, there will be significant recovery as Khumbu residents are working hard to repair and rebuild on their own, not just for tourism but because living in tents in high-altitude winters is not an option. However, the rebuilding process is severely challenged by a lack of skilled manpower coupled with acute shortages and exorbitant costs of construction materials. The challenges of transporting materials to an area not connected by road and primarily accessible by air are not to be underestimated. For example, currently a 30kg bag of cement sells for Rs 5,000 in Khumbu, a cost of over 10 times the Kathmandu market value. This is not solely due to the earthquake; in the past, market prices for the same quantity of cement have risen as high as over Rs 8,000. Given these constraints, the possibility of rebuilding to the best earthquake-safe standards is questionable.
A key issue is that Solukhumbu was not included among the list of critically affected districts, despite the massive damage and destruction that equals some of the 14 districts with this classification. There have been allegations that this is a result of pressure on the government from the tourism lobby, fearful that this categorisation would frighten away tourists. Although the intention of this may be good, it does come with significant costs to Solukhumbu earthquake victims—both within the Everest region and in the lower non-tourist areas. This lack of recognition of the impact makes the area ineligible for many types of large-scale relief and reconstruction aid. A local tourism professional recently said that having to say Khumbu is unaffected is like a ‘runche hanso’ (a forced smile through tears).
Work to rebuild
A multi-stakeholder industry like tourism must coordinate on international, national and local levels. Getting correct information and formulating the best paths forward requires proper consultation and participation from all parties. The Miyamoto report itself states that the trail assessment should be taken as preliminary due to the time constraints of the survey. It should therefore be open to feedback and constructive criticism.
Given the importance of Everest tourism for the national economy, the correct approach would have been to declare the region as a ‘high priority’ area for rebuilding and reconstruction with intensive support for transportation to deliver construction materials along with technical expertise. This would have allowed communities to rebuild their homes, lodges, trails and cultural structures as safely and quickly as possible. Once that is done, the government, private sector and local people would be able to jointly say with confidence that the ‘Everest region is ready for business’.
Norbu Sherpa is president of the Sagarmatha Sarokar Samaj and was in Khumbu during and after the earthquakes