Why Nepal is still rebuilding, half a decade after the earthquake

Ed Peters


Almost five years after a 7.8 earthquake laid waste to swathes of Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital is still struggling to get back on its feet.

Restoration work has been handicapped by lacklustre organisation and a lack of finance, and while some landmarks have been renovated, other examples of prized architecture are still so much rubble.

It wasn’t just Kathmandu that took the hit, either. The quake on April 25, 2015 killed more than 9,000 people across the country, injured thousands and destroyed around half a million homes. Seventeen days later, a second tremor demolished many structures that had been weakened by the first.

Having launched a massive tourism promotion campaign – Visit Nepal 2020 – the government has been keen to talk up the renovation effort’s headway, particularly since it has been mocked for such gaffes as buying two robot concierges for the international airport which conspicuously lacks clean toilets.

Having described the progress of renovation work as “exemplary” last January, the prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, added: “Progress is clearly visible, and major works of reconstruction have been completed.”

But numerous voices have been raised in criticism, bemoaning both the government dragging its feet – political shenanigans delayed the establishment of the National Reconstruction Agency until a full eight months after the quake – and also missing an opportunity to imaginatively redesign what was in essence a medieval city.

Reconstruction has been slowed by “political squabbling and a lack of local or regional governance’, according to Urmi Sengupta, a lecturer in spatial planning at Queen’s University Belfast, UK.

“When a city is damaged beyond recognition, the need to rebuild presents an opportunity to reshape and redraw the physical landscape.”

Naturally, much of the attention has focused on the damage done to some of Kathmandu’s biggest landmarks: Durbar Square, and the adjacent royal palace; the 62-metre-high Dharahara Tower; and Kasthamandapa, a temple built from the wood from a single tree around 1,000 years ago. Rival international aid agencies sought to outdo each other in Durbar Square; the tower’s reconstruction was mired by legal wrangling, and a lack of artisans and timber mean that a replacement temple is still far from finished.

Often, it has been left to private enterprises, instead of the authorities, to lead the way. At the forefront of the rescue effort, the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) coordinated security and clean-up efforts immediately after the earthquake, working with stakeholders and residents, and gathering remnants of the fallen monuments with the help of hundreds of volunteers as well as soldiers and police.

“All valuable historic building components were secured during the first 10 days after the earthquake and stored in a safe place where they were identified and sorted,” said Rohit Ranjitkar, KVPT’s director.

While a delicate reconstruction operation was possible for some buildings, many were completely ruined, and had to be rebuilt from scratch.

“Sourcing the right timber is the most difficult part in our work, together with finding the right craftsmen,” said Ranjitkar.

“In the past, craftsmen learned from watching their fathers or grandfathers at work so all the skills were transferred from generation to generation, but we still don’t have any vocational school.

“To get very high quality, you cannot just practise for a few years. We currently have people who are learning, and trainees working on site in Patan, because we know that the number of skilled people is in decline, so we have to train them now. The trouble is, many young people from the city don’t want to take up this sort of job because it does not have a high status in our society.”

In the regions worst affected, the earthquake spared nothing and nobody, so it wasn’t just famous sites that were destroyed. Ordinary citizens also saw their houses flattened or badly damaged, and were faced with incurring crippling debts as they tried to put their homes and their lives back together. Again, it was often charities rather than government agencies who stepped in to fill the breach.

“We rebuilt 1,100 homes following the earthquake and 36 new schools – benefiting around 6,000 children – in the worst affected areas from December 2015 until May 2019,” said John White, director of the earthquake response team at the Gurkha Welfare Trust, a UK-based charity that provides aid to Nepalis who served in the British armed forces and their dependants.

“We are now conducting pre-emptive reconstruction or repair on about 100 homes per year. As a charity, we are restrained by funding but we plan to carry on this work to ensure that all our welfare pensioners are in safe housing built to an earthquake-resistant standard.”

Later this year, Rani Pokhari – a 17th-century water tank of both religious and aesthetic significance – is due to reopen after a lengthy period of reconstruction. But many in Kathmandu remain unsatisfied with the state of their hometown.

“Many citizens are more impatient than ever to fix the problems,” said Sengupta, the university lecturer, who advise various NGOs and grass-roots organisations in India and Nepal.

“Yet, sad to say, the reconstruction is often an assault on their personal and collective identities, given that these historic sites carry significant religious, emotional and cultural value.”

Source: South China Morning Post