Kathmandu’s World Heritage In Danger

Uttam Maharjan


The 43rd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) is taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan. The session kicked off on June 30 and will last till July 10. Nepal is also participating in the session.
The WHC, which was set up in 1972 to designate and mange world heritage sites around the world, aims, inter alia, at encouraging countries to sign the World Heritage Convention to ensure protection of world heritage sites, encouraging state parties to nominate heritage sites for placement on the world heritage list, encouraging state parties to formulate management plans and set up reporting systems on the state of conservation of the sites, helping the state parties in safeguarding world heritage sites by providing technical assistance and professional training, providing emergency assistance for world heritage sites in immediate danger, supporting state parties in their public awareness campaigns for conservation of world heritage sites, encouraging locals and local communities to preserve world heritage sites and encouraging state parties to seek international cooperation and assistance for conservation of world heritage sites.
The WHC has proposed to enlist the Kathmandu Valley on the list of World Heritage in Danger. The 7.8-magniture earthquake of 2017 destroyed or damaged many structures in Nepal, including private and public buildings, schools, hospitals, temples, monasteries, shrines and monuments. In the earthquake, the temples, monasteries and monuments in the Valley were also destroyed or damaged. Although some such structures have been reconstructed, the reconstruction of others is going on or in the process of being started. For instance, the reconstruction of Kasthamandap and Dharahara is going on, whereas that of Ranipokhari is stuck in limbo. It has been over four years since the 2015 earthquake struck the country but the progress on reconstruction and rehabilitation is slow. This must be the reason for the WHC to propose to put the Kathmandu Valley on the danger list.
Immediately in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, the WHC tried to put the Kathmandu Valley in the danger list, doubting the country’s ability to rebuild the cultural and historical heritages damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. But at the time, the country was able to convince the WHC that the structures would be rebuilt to their satisfaction and thus the Kathmandu Valley was saved from being inscribed on the danger list.
However, the reconstruction drive could not proceed smoothly. In the first place, it took time for the formation of the National Reconstruction Authority. And there has been a frequent change of guard at the Authority. Due to unsatisfactory performance of the Authority, there are still quake victims having to live in tents.
According to the Department of Archaeology, once the Kathmandu Valley is put on the danger list, it will be difficult to remove it from the list. Moreover, there will be chances that the Valley may be delisted from the World Heritage List altogether. There are seven world heritage sites in the Valley: Swoyambhunath Temple, Pashupatinath Temple, Changu Narayan Temple, Bouddha Stupa, and Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares. Besides, Lumbini, Chitwan National Park and Sagarmatha National Park are also the country’s world heritage sites.
Prior to putting a world heritage site on the danger list, the WHC assesses the condition of that heritage site and develops correctives for conservation in collaboration with the concerned state party. And if no improvement is made on the heritage site, it can be put on the danger list as per the final decision of the WHC.
It is the duty of state parties to conserve their world heritage sites as per the standards set by UNESCO. When there are threats or danger to world heritage sites, immediate steps need to be taken to restore them. Help may also be sought from the WHC. Natural calamities or disasters like earthquakes, floods or fires may also knock world heritage sites off the World Heritage Site List.
When a world heritage site is put on the danger list, the concerned state party needs to initiate efforts to restore it. For this, the state party may get financial support from the world heritage fund through the WHC. The state of restoration or conservation of the site is reviewed on a yearly basis. If the threats to the site have ceased and the site has been restored to its former form, the site may be removed from the danger list. If threats persist and no improvement is made, the site can be removed from the World Heritage Site List as well.
One positive aspect of danger listing is that it encourages state parties to put in more efforts to restore their heritage sites with their own resources as well as with financial assistance from the world heritage fund. However, it will always be prudent to save world heritage sites from deteriorating by taking effective measures to conserve them.
The threat to the Kathmandu Valley is a matter of great concern. The threat has cropped up as most of the damaged or destroyed heritages have not been maintained or reconstructed even in four years. The threat is of a particular concern because the country is initiating the Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign, which is just six months away and for which the government is trying its best to lure as many as two million tourists. The government is also carrying on publicity campaigns abroad.
The country is lobbying with the WHC not to put the Kathmandu Valley in the danger list. If it succeeds in convincing the WHC, it will be better for the country. However, the reconstruction of the heritages in the Valley must be speeded up at any cost. The recent warning from the WHC to the country should be taken as a great lesson by the government when it comes to conserving any heritage.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000)


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