Rebuilding a Nepali village, one block at a time

On April 25, 2015 Nepal suffered a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

Story highlights

The devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal killed thousands and leveled tens of thousands of homes

Rebuilding efforts include one small agency's focus on one small village

CNN  — 

Two years after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and causing extensive damages to property, residents are still reeling from the tragedy — especially in remote villages, where aid has been slow to arrive.

Many villages have turned to international nongovernmental organizations for help. Though it’s not always possible for these NGOs to meet all the communities’ needs, they do bring hope and some relief to beleaguered residents.

One such organization is Conscious Impact, a small nonprofit working to rebuild Takure, a low-income, farming village in the Sindhupalchowk District, about 30 miles northeast of Kathmandu.

The April 25, 2015, earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks decimated all but one of Takure’s 245 structures, according to residents. Homes, buildings and schools laid waste in piles of rubble as families worked to assess the damage.

While there’s no official death toll for Takure, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) lists Sindhupalchowk as one of the “worst-affected districts” in all of Nepal. Official figures say 3,570 people died and more than 90,000 homes were destroyed in Sindhupalchowk alone.

Sunita Tamang, a widowed mother living in Takure, described the quake’s tragic aftermath: “Everywhere I went – in and around my village – I saw people who lost their loved ones.”

Tamang’s husband died two months before the earthquake. “My husband was the only person I had to take care of me,” she says, “but now, looking at my three children, I am living my life to take care of them.”

Sunita Tamang has lived in a make-shift shelter for two years.

Chitra Kumari, the president of a women’s cooperative in Nawalpur, another village in Sindhupalchok District near Takure, said those fortunate enough to escape death found themselves immersed in “personal loss, economic loss, and social chaos.”

She says all the training Nepali people received in earthquake preparedness, “like to crawl under beds and tables, could not have helped people survive.”

Since the quake, many of Takure’s men have left to find work in bigger cities like Kathmandu. For those who stayed, corrugated makeshift shelters made from salvaged materials have become their new homes.

‘A huge need for services’

The same day Tamang and Kumari watched their world fall apart, two Americans from the state of Delaware were trekking through the Himalayas when the force of the quake shook their ground. Allen Gula and Orion Haas were a two days’ journey east of their destination, Everest Base Camp. “We started seeing damage to rural tea shops and getting bits and pieces of info about what had happened,” said Gula.

Gula had previously spent five years working in rural communities such as Ghana, Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua as a staff member with the aid agency Global Brigades, a development organization.

The travel companions had a flight scheduled back to the United States a week and a half after the quake, but changed their plans after witnessing the devastation. “We saw a huge need for services in rebuilding,” said Gula, “this made us feel that something should be done, and we wanted to be the ones to do it.”

The duo spent the next few weeks delivering aid to rural areas, and eventually launched a small aid group they called Conscious Impact.

Conscious Impact co-founders Allen Gula (left) and Orion Haas (right).

In August, 2015, Gula and Haas met a group of Takure residents. “We became friends and started talking,” Gula said. “At that time Conscious Impact was little more than a website and some friends with big ambitions.” A couple weeks later the group set up camp in their new home of Takure.

Conscious Impact is one of the hundreds of nonprofits involved in an international effort to rebuild the quake zone. UNOCHA estimated, “thousands of volunteers” and “over 450 humanitarian agencies” responded to deliver aid to Nepal following the earthquake.

The organization uses what they call an affordable and “sustainable, alternative path to rebuilding.” They work with community members to produce Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks (CSEBs) for building. Earth blocks are composed of local soil, sand and a small percentage of cement. They are made using a brick press at the Takure Training and Production Center, which also provides full-time employment to over a dozen local residents. In 2016 the group produced more than 50,000 CSEBs.

Conscious Impact produced more than 50,000 Compresssed Stabilized Earth Blocks (CSEBs) in 2016.

Rather than solely delivering aid, Conscious Impact has made its mission to teach local Nepalese how to rebuild their communities. The organization set up its headquarters in Takure to “empower and collaborate.”

The group envisions its training center as a “self-sufficient, Nepali run business which can function as a national hub for local, culturally-relevant, sustainable, earthquake-resistant, and affordable technologies in building,” according to its website. The belief is that it is critically important for Nepalis to “use the tools themselves to rebuild their own lives and have autonomy in uplifting themselves from economic struggle.”

Since September 2015, Conscious Impact has rebuilt a primary school and is working towards completing an orphanage, senior center and a community center. The group has also hosted more than 300 volunteers from 22 different countries.

‘Overwhelming love’

Ellen Stewart, a 25-year-old from Norwich, UK, found Conscious Impact while she was searching for an organization to volunteer with during her last two weeks in Nepal. Those two weeks turned into a year and a half, accompanied by three changed flights.

“The passion and the energy for what we do still continues to make me feel as excited as I did back in August 2015,” said Stewart.

Ellen Stewart, a Conscious Impact volunteer, teaches 7th graders about environmental awareness at the Nawalpur Secondary School.

The Red Cross, Plan International and a few other multinational NGO’s have helped in and around Nepal, but Conscious Impact is the only organization that is headquartered in Takure.

Without Conscious Impact’s work in Takure, the village would be in an even worse situation, as government aid has been slow to come.

Since the quake, Nepal’s government has been promised $4.1 billion in aid from various sources, according to Nepal’s Reconstruction Authority. However, the NRA is only in its first round of distributing aid to the 14 hardest hit districts – including Sindhupalchowk. Aid distribution to the remaining 17 districts is just beginning, according to Yam Lal Bhoosal, joint-secretary for Nepal’s Reconstruction Authority.

Out of 542,000 families in the 14 hard-hit districts, less than 10% have begun the rebuilding process, according to Bhoosal.

The government and NGOs have blamed Nepal’s mountainous terrain, the remoteness of the villages and volatile rainy season for the sluggish response. However, there has also been some government push back.

Bhoosal acknowledges the first year of aid distribution was slow. “It took eight months to get NRA up and running after the earthquake,” he says, “There are foreign donors, there are several agencies within the government, and there are matters of transparencies, we have to follow all the rules set by donor agencies – all of which makes the aid distribution process slower.”

When asked if the NRA was satisfied with their progress, Bhoosal responded: “Our work in the second year has been quite good.”

Kumari, whose women’s cooperative is based in a building created by Conscious Impact, said the group’s contribution to Sindhupalchowk has been invaluable.

“I don’t have the words to express my happiness,” she said. “We never thought we’d receive any relief after the quake, but now we have this structure for the women’s cooperative.”

Reflecting on why Conscious Impact chose to work in Takure, Gula said: “Whether we chose Takure or Takure’s overwhelming love and need for rebuilding called to us, is debatable.”

Regardless, they’re committed to rebuilding Nepal one Compressed Stabilized Earth Block at a time.

CNN’s Sugam Pokharel contributed to this report.