Almost a year since the earthquake: Virtually no govt rebuilding in Nepal

Kathmandu: The violence of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake left countless towns and villages across central Nepal in a shambles. Almost one year later, a shambles they remain.

The country has made almost no progress in rebuilding hundreds of thousands of homes, schools and government buildings, as well as some 600 historical structures, including ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, monuments and palaces.

Nearly a million children still have no school to attend. Millions of villagers were forced to winter in flimsy pop-up tents and corrugated tin shacks, erected haphazardly at high altitudes and across the rolling plains.

The government's reconstruction agency has so far approved zero projects. Some citizens have started rebuilding on their own, but most are still waiting — either because they are afraid of running afoul of new, promised building regulations, or because they still hope to receive government grants.

In this combination of two photos, on left a Nepalese man walks past debris caused by an earthquake in Bhaktapur, near Kathmandu in April, 2015, as on the right Nepalese women walk by the same place after it was cleared of debris in February 2016. AP

Bhaktapur in 2015 (left) and in 2016 (right). AP

Many of them are still living in rows of temporary shelters made from salvaged wood covered with corrugated metal sheets that are likely to be their only protection when rainy reason returns in two months.

"This has been home for all of us for the past year and it looks like we are going to be here for a long time. All we hear is the government is going to give us money to rebuild our homes, but when is that going to happen? Our kids are getting sick and we have no money, job or a government that is going to come to our rescue," said Keshar Narayan, a farmer living with eight family members in a tin shed on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

In this combination of two photos, on the left, a Nepalese woman walks by rubble at Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a Unesco World Heritage Site, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, in April 2015, as on the right, a Buddhist monk stands at the same place after the rubble was removed in March 2016. AP

Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015 (left) and in 2016 (right). AP

The government was quick to promise help after the 25 April, 2015, earthquake, which killed nearly 9,000 people, but a year later only a few families in Dolkha district have begun to get the money. They have each received Rs 50,000 ($467), the first installment of the Rs 200,000 promised by the government to each family who lost their home. Dolkha was among the hardest-hit districts and the epicenter of another major quake that struck on 12 May.

As they wait for help, even prayer can be dangerous. Many in the deeply spiritual Himalayan nation seek comfort in now-ramshackle stone temples left standing askew, sometimes held up just by wooden beams.

Durbar Square in 2015 (left) and 2016 (right). AP

Durbar Square in 2015 (left) and 2016 (right). AP

"Every time I come to pray in the temples, I am not sure if I will even leave in one piece. We have to risk our lives just so we can pray," housewife Shanti Shrestha said in Kathmandu while holding her temple offering of a stick of burning incense and a marigold flower. "We all are very angry ... for a year nothing has been done."

The lack of progress isn't for want of money. Nepal, facing an estimated $6.6 billion reconstruction bill, has received $4.1 billion in pledged donations so far.

The problem, officials and aid workers say, is tangled bureaucracy and government malaise. Some frustrated donors have simply given up.

One of the oldest temples in Nepal in 2015 (left) and 2016 (right). AP

One of the oldest temples in Nepal in 2015 (left) and 2016 (right). AP

"We just lost a donor who wanted to give $400,000," said Unesco's representative to Nepal, Christian Manhart. "Everything seems to be blocked because there are very lengthy government procedures."

The Unesco office alone has about $1.8 million budgeted for Nepal, still waiting to be spent.

The government has been embroiled in political infighting while facing months of ethnic protests in which more than 50 people were killed. Since the earthquake, there has been a change of government and a new constitution that took seven years to craft.

A statue of a Buddhist deity from a monastery around the famous Swayambhunath Stupa in 2015 (left) and in 2016 (right). AP

A statue of a Buddhist deity from a monastery around the famous Swayambhunath Stupa in 2015 (left) and in 2016 (right). AP

It took nearly nine months for Nepal just to set up a department to deal with quake reconstruction. But there are still no guidelines for how to approach the task. It also isn't clear which buildings are even being considered for reconstruction funds.

A Nepalese law requiring that government contracts go to the lowest bidder is also a problem, said Suresh Suras Shrestha, head of the world conservation section at the government's Department of Archaeology, which is charge of monuments and heritage sites. The lowest bidder may not have the skills or knowledge to take on structures dating back to the 5th or 6th century.

"The donors who want to rebuild our monuments need to follow our rules and procedures," Suresh Suras Shrestha said.

They will also have to keep waiting to find out what those rules and procedures are.

A damaged house in Khokana, Lalitpur, Nepal in 2015 (left) and 2016 (right). AP

A damaged house in Khokana, Lalitpur, Nepal in 2015 (left) and 2016 (right). AP

The Department of Archaeology has defended its efforts, noting that its workers have reinforced some buildings that weren't heavily damaged. It has also opened the public bidding process for 39 projects, and expects about $20 million in funding to be released for the first phase of work once the contracts are finalized. There is no clear indication of when that might happen. Restoring all monuments is expected to cost about $200 million.

"The politicians just don't care about our temples. If the king was still ruling these temples and palaces would have already been built," Hindu priest Ram Singh said, referring to the monarchs who acted as guardians of Nepal's monuments until the monarchy was abolished in 2008.

Bhaktapur in 2015 (left) and in 2016 (right). AP

Bhaktapur in 2015 (left) and in 2016 (right). AP

Piles of crumbling red brick are all that remain of the four-story Kastamandap, the 10th-century temple from which the capital of Kathmandu got its name.

Just to the east of that, hundreds of devotees still visit the temple palace of the Kumari, a girl revered by both Hindus and Buddhists as a living goddess, though its brick walls are precariously propped up by dozens of wooden beams. The Kumari, who continues to live in the temple palace, is among dozens of girls who have held the honor for the past four centuries; each steps aside once she reaches puberty.

Bricks, stones and splintered wood collected from the rubble left by the collapse of Kathmandu's 10th-century Durbar Square palace remain in storage until architectural experts can sort through them and put them back in place. Nothing has been done to fix the damaged palace in the medieval town of Bhaktapur, east of the capital.

Statues of the Buddha are seen amid debris caused by earthquake (left), a Nepalese man lights a butter lamp in front of the Buddha statues at the same site in 2016 (right). AP

Statues of the Buddha are seen amid debris caused by earthquake (left), a Nepalese man lights a butter lamp in front of the Buddha statues at the same site in 2016 (right). AP

Many of the small Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries surrounding the 5th-century hilltop shrine of Swayambhunath lie in ruins. It is also called the "monkey shrine" for the thousands of monkeys that congregate on the spot at the northwest edge of Kathmandu. One of its damaged dome-shaped stupas, Tashi Golma, remains covered in wire mesh and corrugated tin to protect it from deteriorating further and from theft.

In Nepal, where majority of the people are Hindu, these monuments and temples are important for cultural, religious and historical reasons. People visit temples regularly and go there for festivals, weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies.

Tired of waiting for government help, some local officials and communities are doing what they can on their own. Residents of Bhaktapur are already rebuilding a 17th Century temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, relying on volunteer labor and funds. It's unclear how much it will cost, said local heritage department official Ram Govind Shrestha, but local officials plan to solicit donations and start charging tourists for visiting.

"It is really difficult to look at our damaged heritage," he said. "So we just decided to begin."


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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2016 11:11:52 IST