Beauty or the Beast

By Kensuke Matsueda

7.00 am. It was a lovely sunny day in the monsoon season. The sun was slowly rising in the blue sky above the old city of Kathmandu in Nepal. The orangish old Newari temples were modestly glittering. Some people were quickly commuting to school and work in town, while others were busily buying vegetables and fruits for breakfast in the local market. In such a perfectly usual morning scene, a woman standing next to me whispered one word, “Scary...”

In late July, I joined the one-hour Earthquake Walk in Kathmandu organized by UNDP, which aimed at raising awareness about the visible vulnerability of Kathmandu to major earthquakes. The participants walked around one of the oldest areas of the central city and observed the fragile structures of architectures with a coordinator. As the old saying goes “seeing is believing,” and this experience, in the end, awakened me to see Kathmandu from another angle that I had not taken before.

Hindu temples, atmospheric brick houses and porches, slightly rotten wooden warehouses, quaint narrow streets – all of those old things in Kathmandu intrigue me a lot, as they seem to tell us more stories about the city and people living in there than new things do. However, such a quintessential beauty of architectures does not necessarily mean ‘safe’ for people in terms of emergency preparedness. Rather, something scary might lurk behind the beauty.

In the old area of central Kathmandu, buildings in general have been constructed at different times. Consequently, each building has a different floor height with different construction materials from those of adjacent buildings. Many buildings have been standing on very small premises in crammed conditions due in part to the high land price. This has resulted in the construction of further, higher stories above the original flats when renovated. This is how and why some buildings are strikingly slender although they do not seem to have ample substructions, while others are apparently bending or leaning against the next buildings without proper repair.

Besides, I have also learned that traditional Newari houses which are constructed with bricks without gaps are not very earthquake-proof, while their wall decorations look absolutely beautiful. The coordinator told us that all those things cause what you call “vulnerability” to earthquake.

He also continued that in the old areas of Kathmandu today, there are some other risks to be considered. For example, a bunch of electric cables are randomly piled up on the streets, and they may easily cause a big fire in case of an earthquake. Nevertheless, the public water supply system for fire is not sufficient. Groundwater that people used to take has long dried up in the process of urbanization, and many of the wells have been malfunctioning. In such a situation, the narrow streets between crammed old buildings would certainly hinder city dwellers from evacuating once a big fire occurs.

Some reports have shown that the entire country of Nepal lies in a high seismic hazard zone in relation to the movement of tectonic plates along the Himalayas, and numerous casualties including about 40,000 deaths and 95,000 injuries are estimated in case a major earthquake occurs in the Kathmandu valley.

We could never know when exactly it happens, thus preparedness is more important than anything else. The vulnerability to earthquake lies behind the beauty of the city in our everyday lives, just beside us.


Ken Matsueda is a communication officer in IOM Nepal