The Major Earthquake of April 25 and the series of aftershocks that followed have destroyed many ancient temples, historic buildings, and monuments within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Property. Now with the focus on rebuilding them, Mr Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO in Kathmandu, spoke to Anand Gurung of travelnewsnepal.com to point out the nature of planning and measures the Nepal government should adopt to revive the country’s rich cultural heritage and the bold decisions the political leadership must take for that purpose.
TNN First of all, could you share with us the UNESCO’s assessment of the devastating impacts of the earthquake on the cultural heritage in the country, in particular, the extensive damage at the World Heritage Sites of Kathmandu Valley?
Manhart: Our damage assessment to examine the full extent of the devastation caused by the earthquake to the country’s unique cultural heritage shows that more than 60 percent of the temples, palaces and monuments within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site have been seriously damaged. Of the seven monument zones within it, Kathmandu Durbar Square and Patan and Bhaktapur have been heavily wrecked. Swayambhunath and Changu Narayan, which both have also suffered extensive damages, are now facing landslide risks.
Pashupati and Bauddhanath have been less affected. In the same vein, several monuments and natural heritage sites located in other parts of the country have suffered extensive damage. The World Heritage site of Sagarmatha National Park, in the Mount Everest area, has been marred by avalanches and landslides triggered by the earthquake. However, two other World Heritage Sites in Nepal – the Chitwan National Park and Lumbini- fortunately have not suffered any damage. We conducted the assessment in close coordination with the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and other international expert missions.
TNN How does the UNESCO plan to assist the Government of Nepal in coming up with a strategy to save these World Heritage property that are in precarious condition?
Manhart: We are mobilising our expertise as well as international support at this difficult time to help safeguard Nepal’s religious and cultural heritage. For instance, a team from California-based Global Heritage Fund and Skycatch was in Kathmandu for one month, to devise 3 D models of the seven Kathmandu Valley World Heritage zones, through aerial surveys using drones. We also have a team of French architects and archaeologists who are helping us with the assessment of the damage, safeguarding of remaining architectural features and art object, as well as identification of priority areas.UNESCO also teamed up with other partners such as the European Union and the World Bank to proceed with a detailed Post-Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA). This is aimed at examining the extent of the quake induced damages apart from advising as well as assisting the Government of Nepal and local communities to devise conservation and safeguarding measures needed for the long-term recovery of both the tangible and intangible heritages of the country.
However, the main problem is that we don’t yet have a common database on the current condition of all the monuments in the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage site. We are now building a web based database where experts and volunteers put all the data together. This has however to be joined with the other existing databases. Creating an inventory of the state of all the monuments is our task for the next two months.
TNN Concerns have been raised regarding the level of originality and aesthetic values these badly damaged World Heritage sites will maintain once they are rebuilt or renovated. What is your take on this?
Manhart: Although a majority of the monuments and sites within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage property have been severely affected by the earthquake, the conditions are still good enough for renovating and rebuilding them. Even those temples and palace buildings that have collapsed can be rebuilt to its original from the detailed drawings, measurements and photographs taken by archaeologists and architects from Nepal and abroad during the last 40 years. Many architectural features of the temples, palaces and historic houses, such as statues, sculptures, carved wooden beams and other artifacts are still intact and will be re-used during the reconstruction.
It is now important to consider building back better, making these temples, monuments and historic private buildings more earthquake resistant while consolidating or reconstructing them. Also, these sites will definitely not lose their World Heritage property status once they are reconstructed, as some may fear. However, there is a possibility that a proposal will be discussed during the upcoming UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) meeting that will take place end of June in Bonn, Germany, to put the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site on the list of World Heritage in danger. This would not have a negative connotations nor a blame on the government of Nepal. It would just draw the much-needed awareness on the sites and could, of course, be a good tool for fundraising. But nothing has been decided till date. The WHC will take a democratic decision on whether to put the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site on the list of World Heritage in danger or not.
TNN The government has recently reopened four of the seven constituents of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site – Durbar Squares of Kathmandu (Hanumandhoka), Patan and Bhaktapur including Swayambhunath to the tourists (Pashupati and Bauddhanath had never been closed), which were closed due to security reasons after the earthquake caused heavy damages. What is the UNESCO’s position on this matter?
Manhart: I have already sent a letter to the Government of Nepal regarding the matter, where I have conveyed UNESCO’s concerns to the hastiness shown in cleaning up the destroyed sites and to open them again for tourists. The authorities who undertook cleaning with bulldozers have often further destroyed the artifacts that had survived the earthquake itself. But, at the same time, we understand that the authorities were under much pressure from the local communities to rescue people trapped under the rubbles of the destroyed buildings. After all, saving precious human lives should have priority.
The reopening of these sites should be done by giving priority to safety as some of the temples and monuments which are standing precariously can collapse in particular during the rainy season.
According to our assessment, the Hanumandhoka Museum at Kathmandu Durbar Square is unsafe. Our attention has also been drawn to incidents of people climbing up the collapsed structures of temples.
The concerned authorities should immediately enhance security to discourage such unwarranted behavior.
TNN Is the UNESCO mulling over any immediate or long term plans to renovate the heritage sites?
Manhart: Our first priority now is the consolidation of the Hanumandhoka Museum at the Durbar Square in Kathmandu. The building was totally unsafe and shaky with risk of collaps. Together with the DoA the shoring was done and the relocation of the 6000 museum artifacts inside has started. Similarly, we have to consolidate some of the temples at the Basantapur Durbar Square and Patan Durbar Square which are at risk of collapsing due the beginning of monsoon.
Third priority is Swaymbhunath. Landslide experts have already warned that there is a landslip risk on the south slope just under the museum of Swayambhunath. We are working together with Japanese landslide experts to at least seal the quake induced cracks on the hills and the Stupa.
TNN Could you reveal the tentative cost needed to bring the damaged World Heritage Sites to theiroriginal form?
Manhart: In the post disaster needs assessment, we have calculated the costing of everything, which includes renovating buildings and temples and also upgrading of the Department of Archaeology in terms of its physical resources.
The Ministry of Culture has estimated that the amount of USD 205 million is required for this purpose. Obtaining and implementing funding of this scale demands courageous decisions on the part of the Nepali government. In order to help generate the money, UNESCO is proposing mobilising the entrance fees taken from the foreign tourists entering the seven World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley.
These fees should be totally channeled to a central cultural fund for the restoration of the heritage sites and not be used for other purposes. Similarly, a heritage pass could be created, which would allow tourists to visit all the heritage sites and, other ancient temples and monuments, across the country by paying a certain amount of money. We had good experiences with this in Sri Lanka.
A certain percentage of the Visa fees charged from foreign tourists, could be allocated to this cultural fund. This was for example done in Egypt during the International Safeguarding Campaign for the Nubia Temples. These measures reserve immense potentials to raise the needed amount over the years to fund the renovation. We have incorporated them in the strategy of the PDNA that has been forwarded to the government. As tourism is one of the mainstays of the Nepali economy, the state authorities hopefully will seriously consider the viability of the PDNA. TNN