Down to earth in Nepal
Brandeis alum Nathan Belofsky ’81 co-founded Good Earth Nepal to help rebuild after an earthquake disaster in April
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in April of this year crushed entire villages and left hundreds of thousands homeless — but a few structures in Nepal were still standing after the natural disaster.
All of the approximately 30 Nepalese buildings constructed with Earthbag technology were unaffected by the earthquake. Nathan Belofsky ’81 co-founded the non-profit Good Earth Nepal in May along with Kateryna Zemskova and Baris Tuncer to promote and spread this technology throughout Nepal, and together they are at work rebuilding the country from the ground up — literally.
Belofsky first met Zemskova and Tuncer, a now-married couple, on a trip he took to Nepal three years ago to fulfill a dream he had of hiking in the Himalayas. Zemskova and Tuncer own a tourism agency that is operating in Nepal and were planning on building eco-friendly hotels throughout Nepal before the earthquake struck. Afterwards, they decided to instead devote their time to rebuilding the structures that had been destroyed. Belofsky had kept in touch with them over the years and they collaborated together to start the non-profit.
Belofsky currently resides in New York but is returning to Nepal in late November to attend meetings with engineers, architects and volunteers and to assist with on-site building. “Our main bases are Kathmandu [the capital of Nepal] and New York City, and we sort of shuttle between the two places,” he said in a phone interview with the Justice.
Earthbag technology was not invented by Belofsky or the other co-founders — Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili pioneered the method — but Good Earth Nepal is committed to building with it and advocating for its widespread use. Earthbag structures are constructed by first laying a foundation, then laying plastic sacks that are filled with densely packed soil and gravel on top of each other, with barbed wire between the layers. The walls of the structure are then plastered and a roof is added. This building method is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly, and it produces extremely stable structures that are resistant to earthquakes and floods and are expected to last for centuries.
The environmental and economic costs of importing many materials after they are made in distant factories are eliminated by building structures primarily with local soil. Good Earth Nepal’s first Earthbag house cost only about $14.70 per square foot. The non-profit expects the prices of future construction to be even lower, as the first house was built during monsoon season, a particularly difficult time to build in Nepal since it brings heavy and frequent rainfalls. And as Belofsky put it, “There’s a saying that ‘the second time is always easier than the first.’ … You learn a lot from the first construction.”
Good Earth Nepal’s first project was a house for a widow named Kamala and her two children. “The first structure we built was a few months after the earthquake. We supervised the building along with our network of engineers and architects in Nepal, and it was during monsoon season. We think it’s the only Earthbag building that’s ever been built during monsoon season. Obviously, that makes it a little more difficult. It was built in a village that Kateryna had a very special attachment to. She had been there before and she met with the village elders, and together they decided that Kamala and her two children needed the house the most. And they’re living there right now,” Belofsky said.
The non-profit is expanding from constructing houses to constructing schools, as well. It is at work on constructing one right now and hopes to complete two more by the end of the year, in addition to several houses. They are partnering with other non-profits in Nepal as well.
In September and October, Dr. Owen Geiger, the former director of Builders Without Borders and a man who is considered the leading Earthbag expert in the world, led 45 days of workshops in Kathmandu that taught over 300 people about Earthbag building, sponsored by Good Earth Nepal. “When the students weren’t in the classroom, they would go outside to the campus grounds, and they were building an actual Earthbag building on the campus grounds. So it’s really hands-on,” Belofsky said about the workshops.
“We’ve got volunteers streaming in actually from all over the world. Young people, old people, tremendously talented. Some of them are good with, say, graphics and design, and drawing and construction, and others just come to fill the bags, which we have great need for. These houses are built out of bags of dirt — it takes a lot of labor just to fill the bags, and we can really use people to do that,” said Belofsky.
Volunteers also operate from locations outside Nepal in helping to fundraise for building efforts and spread awareness about the organization. Belofsky is specifically interested in Brandeis students getting involved with Good Earth Nepal. He is working on setting up an official volunteer and internship program with Brandeis, both for students who want to commit a week or two to building and for ones looking for a more long-term commitment.
Belofsky looks back fondly on his time at Brandeis for many reasons, the first and foremost being the “wonderful people” he met here and the lifelong friendships the University gave him. He majored in political science at the University, and he said, “The liberal arts education I got at Brandeis was very helpful as an attorney … my Brandeis education really was even more helpful in my writing.” (Belofsky has had two books published: “Strange Medicine” and “The Book of Strange and Curious Legal Oddities.”) “Brandeis instilled in me a huge curiosity about the world. I have to know everything, so I’m a big reader, I keep up with everything, and I think that was nurtured at Brandeis by both the teachers and the students, and that’s really served me very well. To a great extent, that’s how I got involved with Good Earth Nepal; I just had a broader perspective that I got from Brandeis.”
Though Belofsky has a variety of interests, he says that he and the other co-founders have put their other careers “sort of on hold because of the urgency of the situation and the promise of Earthbags.” He calls Good Earth Nepal “the big passion in [his] life now,” and he is very optimistic about the sustainable future of Earthbag technology. “Our biggest hope is that we build, but then the Nepalis themselves start building. Not just the Nepali engineers and architects, who we’re helping train, but the village people themselves,” he said. “We’re hoping in a year or two that the people in the villages we’re building in now, they’ll see our schools, and then say, ‘Hey, we want to build another school using Earthbag technology, and this time we don’t need Good Earth Nepal, we can do it ourselves.’ That’s our biggest hope.”