Long a venue for royal horse races and colourful military parades, the sprawling Tundikhel ground in the heart of Nepal’s ruined capital has turned into a refugee camp of piling filth and overflowing public toilets.
Families of 15 are packed into one tent with little access to safe drinking water and flushing latrines, raising fears of a possible public health disaster following last week’s earthquake that left more than 6,000 dead and millions homeless.
The campsite is marked by rows of blue tents and tarpaulins. In one corner, a temporary water tank has run dry long before the day is over. At the other end, just two mobile toilets for some 3,000 refugees often mean people defecate in the open, mostly after dark.
In the midst of the squalor, Ruku Maya is preparing dinner for her family of six. Soon, rice and lentils, cooked with water from the washing area, are served outside the tent.
Her children, husband and a sister eat from steel plates squatting on the wet ground. The utensils are then washed, leaving a small cesspool outside the tent. The leftovers are thrown before stray dogs.
"We get two to three bottles of water every day which is not enough for drinking. Where will we get clean water for cooking?" says Maya, 43.
"And I can’t always watch over the kids what they are drinking."
A family loads its belongings on a rickshaw as it prepares to move out of a makeshift tent in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Gurinder Osan/ HT Photo)
Having lost their homes to the earthquake, the refugees in Tundikhel have no choice but to prepare for a long battle for survival in the camp. Till Wednesday, the camp held 15,000 people, many of whom were living outdoors for fear of the aftershocks and have now returned home.
For those who remained, the fear of disease is real. Once a day, garbage is cleared and disinfectants are sprayed at the campsite, but health workers concede this may not be enough to stall an outbreak of cholera, dysentery and jaundice.
There are already reports of a small outbreak of diarrhoea at Tundikhel, one of 16 open air camps set up for survivors of the quake in Kathmandu.
"We are constantly monitoring water supply and sanitation at the camps," says Babu Ram Marasini of Nepal’s main centre for epidemiology and disease control.
"The secondary hazards of this disaster are still high."
While there may be some monitoring at the designated campsites, roads and footpaths throughout Kathmandu have become sanctuaries for residents too terrified to return home or whose houses have been destroyed by the temblor.
Limited health infrastructure in outlying districts only compounds challenges in controlling possible epidemics, aid workers say. The risk of disease also comes from rotting bodies and cattle carcasses still trapped under rubble.
Nepalese police and army personnel place a tent at Tudikhel ground in Kathmandu, Nepal on Thursday. (Gurinder Osan/ HT Photo)
Back in Tundikhel, Nepali soldiers use a microphone to announce it’s time for distribution of water bottles. A quick queue forms outside a small tent and Maya’s children join in.
The soldiers start handing out the bottles along with a flier that lists eight ways to avoid an epidemic.
Maya’s children, two boys and a girl, take the bottles. And as they walk back to their tent, the fliers are crushed and tossed into the air.
There are about 500 children in the camp, and health workers say the immune system of the young and elderly weaken faster when they don’t get proper nutrition and clean water.
For Maya’s family, the camp may be home for a long time.
"The rainy season is coming. We don’t know how we will survive here," says Maya.
"Sometimes I wonder which is worse – surviving the earthquake or this life in the camp."