efe-epaBy Samar Prasain Kathmandu

Kathmandu Valley in Nepal has been in a race to avoid being declared a World Heritage in Danger by UNESCO, as reconstruction and restoration work at a large number of heritage sites remain incomplete following the devastating 2015 earthquake.

After being given four extensions, the Himalayan kingdom has been given one final chance to complete the necessary restoration work ahead of the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee, to be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in July 2020.

The World Heritage Committee oversees the inclusion of sites in the List of World Heritage in Danger and their removal from the World Heritage List.

The government, which has estimated a cost of $150 million for the reconstruction of damaged temples and monasteries, is convinced that the structures will be rebuilt by then, and has invited a team of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre to assess the state of world heritage properties in Kathmandu Valley.

"We will move ahead along with the mission's working document and timeline related to conservation," Director General of the Department of Archeology, Damodar Gautam, told EFE.

However, historians and conservation experts still have reservations about whether it will be possible to complete the reconstruction while adhering to UNESCO's strict standards and guidelines.

Gautam said that reconstruction effort at major sites would be completed by next year, although it would take "take another year to complete the entire heritage reconstruction work."

The Kathmandu Valley, a World Heritage Site since 1979, consists of seven sets of monuments and buildings, including the three Durbar squares located in front of the royal palaces of Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu), Muttley and Bhaktapur; the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bauddhabath; and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.

In 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal claiming some 9,000 lives, while also damaging and destroying 891 heritage monuments and sites, of which only 377 have been rebuilt, according to the Department of Archeology.

“This year, we have programs to rebuild 398 damaged properties,” said Gautam, while claiming that there was no need to panic as “the progress is so far good.”

In Kathmandu Valley, of the 114 damaged or destroyed monuments which fall under World Heritage category, 60 have already been rebuilt, although the official admitted that among the most iconic ones only the old Gaddi Baithak royal palace, located in the Kathmandu Durbar Square, had been completely restored.

Among the critics, historian Om Dhaubhadel said that the work in the Changu Narayan temple and Durbar square complex in front of the royal palace at Bhaktapur was trudging along not due to lack of financial resources but to a lack of skilled workers and appropriate reconstruction materials.

"Acute shortage of traditional construction materials that include bricks of dimensions as used in the mid-sixteenth century, long and strong lumber and wood carved in a similar style as the original ones have slowed work," Dhaubhadel told EFE.

The historian said that while the local government and public have taken ownership of the reconstruction efforts and ensured that the work was not substandard, the progress was not entirely satisfactory.

Moreover, activists have reported that growing commercial activities and housing construction have hampered restoration works at the sites, and have blamed the government for not doing enough to check them.

"Commercial buildings are thriving which has become a threat to the heritage site," Save Our Heritage campaign coordinator Ganapati Lal Shrestha told EFE.

Lal Shrestha denounced that residential properties had been allowed to accommodate commercial activities inside the heritage sites.

He also cast doubt about the quality of reconstruction materials used at the Kathmandu Durbar Square, and said it would be challenging to complete restoration and conservation of the Kathmandu Valley in the given period while terming the progress as "very poor".

"However, we are fighting to save the heritage sites" he concluded. EFE-EPA