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Rehabilitation of Culture Sector three years after Gorkha Earthquake

Countdown eighty years after the Great Earthquake of 1934

History shows us that every eighty to hundred years a great earthquake strikes Kathmandu. With the additional tremors such as those in 1988 and 2011 reminding us of the urgency of the situation, preparations were underway in anticipation of the next big one. For the culture sector, workshops were carried out and risks discussed. Government and stakeholders from various heritage sites were trained in disaster risk management. The heritage management systems were modified to include disaster preparedness. An international symposium, ‘Revisiting Kathmandu’, was organized in November 2013 to discuss the linkages between disaster preparedness and various themes, such as community participation and site management, along with the understanding of significance and authenticity.

When the earthquake did strike on April 25, 2015, one quickly realized how difficult it is to work on preparedness when there is a generational gap between each major event. There were only a few who had experienced the Great Bihar-Nepal Earthquake of 1934. With the lack of personal experience, there was little concern for the growing risk of disaster. This was even the case with the monuments, for many were not maintained, or were restored in inappropriate manner. There are many lessons that need to be learned from this disaster.

The challenge of post-earthquake rehabilitation was immense, particularly considering that most people were traumatized. The psychological stress of dealing with loss and grief made it so much more difficult to go through the strenuous process of building back one’s life. The resilience of the communities was evident in the continued performance of festivals and rituals. However, the challenge of restoring the monuments has been immense, with varying degrees of success.

Response through collaboration

The response right after the earthquake was to a large degree exemplary, despite lack of preparedness. The communities got together to help find people trapped in collapsed buildings. The armed forces quickly moved in to assist with clearing activities and providing security. The international search and rescue teams arrived the very next morning.

In the initial desperate stages, though heavy equipment was brought in to clear the sites even within the historic city centres, this was quickly stopped. Heavy equipment was going to endanger possible survivors under the collapsed structures, while also damaging the important building elements. This misunderstanding of designating the collapsed remains of traditional structures as debris, and dealing with it as a waste product that needed to be removed from site, was a major mistake made not only by the local authorities but also international organizations. However, in general, the communities worked closely with the authorities to salvage and safeguard artefacts, mainly the metal, stone, and carved wooden elements of the monuments.

The donor conference

The damage caused to the traditional settlements, and particularly the historic sites of Kathmandu, was well documented in the international press. The international interest to assist in the reconstruction of cultural heritage sites laid the precedence of giving the cultural sector a prominent position. This, then, was the basis for culture to be included as a separate section in the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) that was prepared for the donor conference held exactly two months after the earthquake. Within two weeks, an impressive document was prepared, announcing to the world that damages and losses added up to over seven billion dollars, of which two hundred and six million was of the cultural heritage sector. The donor conference was a grand success, with pledges reflecting the concern of the international community and their willingness to help.

The outcome has, however, not been satisfactory. Soon, the amicable relationship between local government and international agencies soured. The focus was on gathering funds, instead of ensuring the establishment of proper procedures. The rough estimates of the PDNA report were taken as sufficient to be used as a rehabilitation plan. The criteria and procedures for disbursement of funds, as well as the rush to show progress, led to disastrous results.

Tendering galore and ‘build back better’

The work of conservation and rehabilitation of monuments requires an entirely different approach, process, and understanding than when constructing a new building. The government was, however, bound by the Public Procurement Act, which instead of ensuring quality and transparency had exactly the opposite effect. Conservation projects had to be tendered out, and work was often taken on by contractors with little or no experience in such work. The projects were also carried out based on the PDNA listings, which clearly showed that there was a lack of preparation before tendering was done.

The motto of “build back better” was further misinterpreted. There was a general belief that traditional technologies could not compare with modern construction. The trend of demolishing slightly damaged monuments, so that they could be rebuilt from their foundations, has had disastrous effect on cultural heritage. Some projects were so faulty that concerned communities took to the streets to protest.

Embargo and disruption of rehabilitation

Any possibility to set the process back on track was made even more complicated through the political wrangling following the promulgation of the new constitution. The government possibly believed that it was important to establish the new constitution, which would facilitate the rehabilitation process. There was discontent with parts of society. A blockade was started along the southern border to Nepal on September 23, 2015, halting all reconstruction and relief work for several months.

In the meantime, the post-earthquake conservation guidelines were prepared at the Earthquake Response Coordination Office (ERCO) located in the Department of Archaeology. The concept that the guidelines followed was that as much of the original monument must be retained as possible, and any restoration would be done considering the most appropriate and authentic state of the monument before the disaster. Should the use of modern materials and technology be required, particularly to stabilize original fabric, a clear justification would need to be provided. The guidelines did not endorse in any manner the removal of existing foundations and their reconstruction using stone soling, which seems to have become standard procedure.

Post Disaster Recovery Framework

After much wrangling, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was established on December 26, 2015. This was part of the package agreement linked to administering the funds derived from the PDNA. The office was set up within the government compound at Singha Durbar. The NRA has had some difficulty setting itself up and clarifying its jurisdiction in respect to the standard government bureaucracy. Politicization of the appointment of the CEO has also been an issue.

For the first anniversary of the Gorkha Earthquake, the NRA prepared the more detailed and process-oriented Post Disaster Recovery Framework (PDRF). The PDRF document was put together in a rush, but at least by now the actual situation had become clearer. The text of the PDRF for the culture sector clearly points out various concerns, particularly in respect to the mismanagement of rehabilitation of historic monuments. The document needs to be translated into Nepali for general distribution.

Tale of three cities

The three cities of Kantipur, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur have been competing over the centuries for political influence and cultural prowess. The cities have taken on very different approaches in the post-earthquake rehabilitation process for the respective Durbar Squares. This comparison provides a good overview of the reality of rehabilitation.

Early on, Bhaktapur decided it could deal with the rehabilitation of its historic city on its own. The municipality, which is run by the local Workers and Peasants Party quickly ordered its artisans to remain in Bhaktapur, and that they should first assist in the rehabilitation of their own city before helping others. The work carried out by the municipality directly seems to be of good quality, particularly considering that they have been using local technology, materials, and skills. There are a few structures in Bhaktapur being restored by the Department of Archaeology through tendering. Nevertheless, the involvement of foreign agencies with foreign technology and materials was rejected.

The situation in Patan is very different, where a specialized NGO with international affiliation has taken over the overall rehabilitation of monuments. Patan Durbar Square is well organized with fencing around each damaged monument, along with the stamp of the responsible international donor. The procedure of salvaging, research, and systematic implementation is exemplary. The concern has been the total dependency on international involvement and the over emphasis on strengthening monuments using non-traditional material.

In Kathmandu, the rehabilitation process has been less clear. Parts of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace have been given to international agencies for rehabilitation. Some monuments are being restored under the PDNA-listed tendering by the Department of Archaeology. Some monuments have been restored by NGOs. A very different trend is the local activism that has developed through the dissatisfaction of the community. Decisions on rehabilitation procedures have been taken to the Supreme Court. This has led to the forced rectification of certain unacceptable actions, while a fully participatory approach is being established for the restoration of Kasthamandap.

Rehabilitation: what for?

The word “reconstruction” is most often used when referring to monuments that have been damaged or have collapsed. This is the case not only in Nepal, but also on the international stage, where even ICOMOS has been working on a document entitled, ‘Guidance on Post Trauma Recovery and Reconstruction for World Cultural Heritage Properties”. However, the ultimate goal is not the reconstruction, but a more comprehensive rehabilitation of the monuments. The function, significance, related activities, and the surrounding context of the monument is possibly even more important than ensuring the re-erected physical structure.

There seems to be a certain assumption that the monuments need to be reconstructed rapidly for the tourists. Some believe that rapid reconstruction is an issue of national pride. For some, it is the implementation of legislation, while for others, reconstruction is a business. However, there are some instances when it becomes clear that these monuments must first be seen as an expression of a certain community, closely linked to their religious, social, and often, economic existence. The rehabilitation of these monuments must first fulfil the needs of the community that created, maintained, and used them.

Ensuring cultural continuity

The question that arises after a major earthquake is how did the cultural heritage survive and continue thriving after previous earthquakes in history? What is it that made the culture resilient, and ensures that it doesn’t perish along with all those monuments that were lost in the past? We must understand that resilience doesn’t lie only with the tangible monuments, but also with the will and means of the communities.

The artisans are the primary bearers of the skills and knowledge to ensure cultural continuity. It is not the strengthening of monuments, but the support of the artisans, that will ensure that the monuments will continue existing into the future. There are many cultural heritage sites that have lost the people with skills to ensure regular renewal of the monuments. However, in Nepal, there are still craft-persons who can reassemble, rebuild, rehabilitate, maintain, and even replicate elements needed to ensure cultural continuity.