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Mary Mazzoni headshot

A Year After Quake, Relief Efforts Continue in Nepal

By Mary Mazzoni

A year ago this week, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, killing more than 8,500 people. Less than a month later, another quake hit eastern Nepal, near Mount Everest, claiming hundreds more lives. Millions were displaced by the quakes and aftershocks, and the Red Cross estimates that 4 million people are still living in substandard, temporary housing, BBC News reported this week.

The immediate global response allowed aid workers to reach affected areas quickly with essentials like food, water and medical care. But the transition from immediate disaster relief to reconstruction has proved challenging, as the BBC report outlines in detail. Millions in nonprofit funds sits unspent as local politicians debate on plans to rebuild, leaving families dejected and uncertain. And this says nothing of the resilience-building efforts that will undoubtedly be needed to help the country cope in the event of future disasters.

As nonprofits and governments go back and forth on how best to rebuild affected communities, the need emerges for the private sector step in and fill the gaps. To that end, efforts are underway to revitalize Nepal's most lucrative industry -- tourism. Travel and tourism contributed 83.7 billion Nepalese rupees (around US$780 million) to Nepal's economy in 2014, representing 4.3 percent of GDP. The industry directly employs around 500,000 people, with indirect employment exceeding 1 million.

In a press release earlier this month, industry nonprofit Tourism Cares announced that Nepal is officially "open for business" and released a free map of “meaningful destinations” in Nepal to promote travel in 2016. But some travel companies sent visitors back to the country long before that.

REI Adventures, the adventure travel offshoot of outdoor gear retailer REI, became one of the first to resume operations in Nepal's Everest and Annapurna regions last fall. The company is also spearheading a resilience initiative to help communities in these regions prepare for future disasters -- and its efforts are a case study in how the private sector can collaborate with governments and nonprofits, cut through red tape, and do its part to make a difference.

REI Adventures in Nepal: Longstanding relationships foster true community impact

REI Adventures has a long history in Nepal. Nepal's Everest treks were the first trips on offer when the co-op adventure travel company formed in 1987 -- and it has worked with the same lead guide, Mingma Dorji Sherpa, ever since. Cynthia Dunbar, general manager of REI Adventures, referred to Mingma's team of in-country guides as part of the "family."

Perhaps it's this longstanding connection with Nepalese trekking communities that made the company's response to the disaster so unique. Private-sector outreach is often lambasted as tone-deaf, with companies flooding millions into a cause without taking the time to understand what people on the ground actually need. But REI responded quickly and in ways that were immediately felt by affected communities.

Case in point: The quake struck at the start of the spring trekking season. As travel companies canceled tours, thousands of guides were left without income when they needed it most. “Many members of Mingma’s team needed to repair and rebuild their homes, and like all of us, depend on their salaries," Dunbar explained. To keep its team intact and make sure they were supported, REI Adventures paid its guides' full salaries, including tips, for all canceled trips. Dunbar said this was simply "the right thing to do."

The company also made an immediate donation to Mercy Corps to support the nonprofit's aid workers already on the ground. For the first time, it also called on its co-op members to join in donating to a cause, and nearly 11,000 members donated $852,000 in just a few days. The funds were used to distribute emergency supplies and clothing in the initial wake of the disaster, reaching approximately 11,275 families (an estimated 56,375 people), according to Mercy Corps. REI’s vendor partner LifeStraw also donated 50 community water filters to provide safe drinking water to 25,000 people.

But, as the BBC noted, efforts can't stop there -- another thing REI Adventures and its parent company seem to have grasped from the start. Since the disaster, REI has worked quietly with local partners and community leaders to construct the Everest region's first disaster relief center in Namche Bazaar. In another best-practice example for the private sector, rather than donate some money and run, the outdoor enthusiasts at REI are showing what's possible when early-stage efforts are matched with consistent and tireless follow-through.

From relief to resilience: It's all about follow-through

As the unofficial capital of Nepal’s Khumbu region at an elevation of 11,286 feet, Namche Bazaar and its surrounding communities are home to over 2,000 year-round residents. The population jumps significantly during the spring and fall seasons, when trekkers and climbers stop to acclimatize on their way to Everest Base Camp. As REI points out, "Nepal is a country of extremes." During non-trekking seasons, the region can experience devastating monsoons and fires.

To help the region rebuild and promote resilience, REI’s in-country guide team joined forces with the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), a local environmental nonprofit. (For those who didn't major in geography, Sagarmatha is a district in Nepal that is part of the Khumbu region.)

Established by the local people, the SPCC's initial aim was to promote waste management activities in the Khumbu, including Everest Base Camp and higher camps. Its partnership with REI centers around the new relief center in Namche Bazaar, which will provide essential supplies that can be accessed by the community in the event of a future natural disaster.

The relief center represents public-private partnership in its purest form -- counting a global travel company and a regional nonprofit, along with police, army and the local Sagarmatha Buffer Zone Authority, as collaborators. Local residents were employed for the construction, and REI's guide teams facilitated engagement with the community.

“SPCC had this plan for a long time, but because of lack of funds, they were not able to do it," said Mingma Dorji Sherpa, REI's lead guide in the region. "Now they have this building standing in Namche; it will be a big help in the whole region.”

REI also provided funding to Nepal SEEDS, a local nonprofit founded by an REI Adventures guide. Back in 2011, the travel co-op donated funds for 100 residential and community biogas systems through Nepal SEEDS. These systems provide sanitary restroom facilities for communities that don't have them and eliminate the need for in-home wood fires for cooking. Many of the systems were severely damaged during the earthquake. Continued funding from REI will allow the nonprofit to repair damaged biogas systems and continue to expand its efforts to build new medical facilities, schools and residences in the region.

"That's a very important piece of investing in projects in developing countries: Don't leave things broken," Cynthia Dunbar of REI Adventures told 3p back in November. "And I think that's a big part of who we are [as a company] is making sure that we continue to take care of those places where we've either invested or where our members love to recreate."

Such a philosophy is the antithesis of the set-it-and-forget-it model that often dominates corporate philanthropy, in which companies dump cash and in-kind donations on nonprofits and pay little attention to the ultimate outcome.

Through all efforts to date, more than $1 million has been donated or granted by REI members, REI and LifeStraw. REI's in-country team will continue to work with the new relief center moving forward.

To encourage co-op members to return to Nepal for adventure travel, REI will offer a $600 discount on its 14-day Everest Lodge-to-Lodge Trek from May 20 to May 30 during the company’s anniversary sale. Travel must be completed in 2016.

While no single company can repair a disaster-ravaged country like Nepal, REI's efforts are an example of what can be achieved when firms take an active stance on the micro level. If every company did the same in the regions where they do business, the collective effort would surely buoy broader government attempts to rebuild -- a boost that, as news reports this week indicate, is sorely needed.

Image credits: 1) Dan Patitucci 2) and 3) Courtesy of REI Adventures 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

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