In the days after the earthquake in Nepal, as aftershocks splintered through the country and the death toll continued to climb, the impact of the disaster came into focus for those far from the epicenter. Across the impoverished nation, historic temples had toppled, and buildings had collapsed entirely, spreading cragged blankets of concrete, beams, and bricks. The death and destruction in Nepal is devastating, but not surprising. The country sits on a fault line and experienced a deadly earthquake in 1934. Making matters worse, rapid urbanization—and the shoddily built homes that have come with it—left countless people particularly vulnerable when the earth shook so vigorously that the entire city of Kathmandu shifted by 10 feet.
The fallout from the April earthquake is exactly the type of tragedy that the World Bank warned about in a 2013 report. “Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to rapid and uncontrolled sprawl; irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing development; loss of open space, and decreased livability,” stated the organization. “It has also increased vulnerability to disasters, making Kathmandu one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world.”
FAO/Thomas L Kelly; Sailendra Kharel / IFRC
The catastrophic event not only destroyed homes and ended lives, it brought down many of Nepal’s centuries-old monuments and temples. These structures exemplified the country’s religious and cultural history and helped fuel Nepal’s tourist economy. Kathmandu Valley is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list with seven groups of historic monuments. But after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, many of Kathmandu’s renowned sites have been destroyed, or at least damaged.
The historic Durbar Square, for example, was covered in debris from the fallen buildings that had surrounded it. The collapse of these cultural landmarks also had deadly results: According to early estimates, 180 people died when the iconic, nine-story Dharahara Tower fell.
Following the disaster, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO said in a statement that Kathmandu Valley had experienced “extensive and irreversible damage.” She added that the organization would assess the damage and work with Nepalese authorities to protect and conserve these sites “with a view to recovery.”
But despite the earthquake’s magnitude, and the country’s inadequate infrastructure and seismic planning, many historic structures survived the disaster largely unscathed. For many sites, this was due to the work of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), a local non-profit that has been rehabbing and seismically retrofitting the area’s architectural gems since 1991. Almost immediately after the earthquake, KVPT surveyed the roughly 45 structures it has worked on, and found—much to its surprise—that only three had major structural damage. Rohit Ranjitkar, the trust’s Nepal director, has already said that each of these buildings could be rebuilt.
The difference between the condition of the structures rehabbed by the KVPT and many UNESCO sites is dramatic. When asked about the disparity, Lisa Ackerman, the executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, which has partnered with KVPT, said it comes down to issues of organizational structure, control over specific sites, and money—and in an impoverished country like Nepal, money is hard to come by. “KVPT is a local organization that had purview over a relatively small area of the country,” Ackerman wrote in an email. “UNESCO is an intergovernmental agency that does not own or operate buildings or sites in any particular country. Member nations of UNESCO and signatories to the World Heritage Convention must decide how much to invest in their local heritage activities. UNESCO provides a framework for international standards.” Both Ackerman and representatives from KVPT praised UNESCO’s work in the region. (UNESCO did not respond to requests to comment for this story.)
With the country still reeling from the disaster, focus remains on reducing human suffering. Nepal is expected to rebuild as it has done many times before; and as it does so, the country will need to decide what the process should look like. The work of organizations like the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust could provide the necessary roadmap for how to stabilize and preserve the country’s cultural, religious, and architectural heritage.
“Nepal is a place where people are really identified as part of this cultural landscape with these extraordinary historic buildings,” said Ackerman. “It would be unthinkable not to care about the cultural heritage, not just because of the tourism economy that has developed in Kathmandu but it really is a living, spiritual center.”