A second disaster awaits Nepal’s heritage

Kathmandu’s heritage sites may soon be placed on the UNESCO danger list due to mishandled post-earthquake restoration.

Japanese tourists visit the Kathmandu Durbar Square surrounded by supported wooden poles, Kathmandu, Nepal [EPA]
Japanese tourists visit the Kathmandu Durbar Square surrounded by supported wooden poles, Kathmandu, Nepal [EPA]

The human cost of the earthquake, which struck Nepal a year ago this week, was immense, killing almost 9,000 people and rendering perhaps two million homeless. The response to the disaster has been lamentably mishandled. Most of those who lost their homes are still living under tin sheets and polythene.

Despite more than $4bn being pledged in reconstruction aid, almost nothing has yet been done. And even as reconstruction appears about to belatedly begin, there are more questions and contradictions than clarity over the rules for using (or misusing) all this cash. One gets a different answer from every supposedly informed person one speaks to.

Nepal: After the Earthquake – 101 East

Amid all the misery and the mischief this situation entails, spare a thought for the unique and precious architectural heritage of Nepal, and especially of the Kathmandu Valley.

The damage the earthquake wrought on ancient monuments looks set to be completed by bureaucratic insensitivity and a lowest-tender bidding process, which has already awarded the contract to re-erect dozens of collapsed temples to unqualified building contractors.

Danger list

According to Christian Manhart, the country director of UNESCO, the UN cultural body which has placed Kathmandu’s architectural wonders on the World Heritage list, the status of the Kathmandu World Heritage site will be discussed at a conference in June, when it will be decided whether to place it on the “danger list”.

READ MORE: Do they have what it takes to rebuild Nepal?

Mechtild Rossler, the director of the World Heritage Centre, has already written to the Nepali government’s Department of Archaeology (DoA), warning of the threat that the government’s bidding process poses to the conservation values which Nepal has signed up to.

In Nepal, public sector contracting is notorious for 'mafia-like' operators who cut corners and indulge in corrupt practices to produce substandard infrastructure ...

In Nepal, public sector contracting is notorious for “mafia-like” operators who cut corners and indulge in corrupt practices to produce substandard infrastructure – such as badly designed and rapidly decaying roads, drains, and crude concrete buildings.

Many of the monuments which were damaged in the earthquake are intricately decorated brick and timber “pagoda-like” structures in the unique “Newari” style, which developed in Kathmandu and nearby areas during the Malla dynasty.

Many date back to the period between the 12th and 18th centuries. They have long been a subject of specialist study, and there remains a living tradition of working in the traditional methods, such as wood carving and brick-making, carried on by the descendants of the original builders.

So far, 49 contracts have been awarded by the DoA. According to Bhesh Narayan Dahal, the director general of the DoA, he does not know who the winning bidders are, but he believes that while some might have relevant heritage experience, others don’t.

On the question of whether “dodgy” contractors may end up pouring concrete over heritage sites, he said: “Our engineers, our site overseers, and also the community people are very worried about this. It is a very sensitive issue, but what can we do?”

One problem is that although the legislation on reconstruction spending appears to allow circumventing standard procurement procedures, such as lowest tender bidding, bureaucrats are unwilling to depart from familiar practices. Nevertheless, the government’s process for identifying “prequalified” contractors was not applied in this case: No qualification criteria were used in selecting contractors.

Buddhist pilgrims work on the reconstruction on the top side of the Boudha stupa, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Kathmandu, Nepal [EPA] 

According to Govinda Raj Pokharel, a former National Planning Commission vice-chairman who briefly headed the post-earthquake National Reconstruction Authority, “lowest-tender bidding is completely inappropriate for heritage restoration.”

A further problem is that the contracts have been awarded without any serious investigation of what work is necessary or appropriate at each site.

Architectural conservation involves many dilemmas, for example in considering the sensitive use of modern materials or structural techniques to strengthen buildings, or deciding when it might be appropriate to copy or replace damaged elements.

Specialists point out that working with traditional woodcarvers and masons is very different from how regular contractors work – setting tight timelines for gangs of labourers hauling sacks of cement.

READ MORE: The disaster in Nepal after the earthquake

And there are scientific issues. Any serious contractor would need to know the condition of the foundations, which in cases like these are themselves archaeological sites. There are useful technologies available, such as geomagnetic soil examination, but apparently the DoA has not been particularly receptive.

There is a widespread understanding that such tendering processes enrich officials through kickbacks. This occurs in all government departments.

“The entire tender business showers money into the DoA,” said one close observer. “There are, in fact, strict rules [determining] who owns what share of that money.”

By common practice, the money is divided according to seniority throughout the department.

“It’s not a secret even; everybody knows that,” said the observer.

What is taking place here is just one example of how widely applied and deeply entrenched strategies to misuse public resources end up wrecking the country – in this case, its architectural heritage.

“The tender process which prefers gundas [criminals] destroys heritage,” said the observer. “It’s not at all new. The new feature is that there is no document, no work schedule, no cost estimate – just nothing.”

It is obvious that with the best will in the world, appropriately restoring Nepal’s heritage will not be easy. There are plenty of funds available, but the finite amount of expertise which exists has never faced such a daunting task.

However, the experts that I spoke to were unanimous that, as a first step, the lowest-bidder tendering process should be halted and reversed. Management processes will be needed that are both pragmatic enough to get the work done, and rigorous enough to uphold credible conservation standards.

Meanwhile, the DoA is planning to soon increase the number of contracts awarded to nonspecialist builders from 49 to 104.

Thomas Bell has reported on Nepal for over a decade. His new book of history and reportage ‘Kathmandu’ is published this month in by Haus.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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