Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake has exposed not only flaky concrete and brittle pillars, but also a system of government building-code enforcement rotted by corruption and indifference.
KATHMANDU, Nepal — Bikash Suwal, a Nepali trekking guide, has climbed the 18,805-foot Yala Peak in the towering Himalayas. But since a powerful earthquake rocked Nepal a week ago, he has been afraid to climb the stairs to the rented rooms he shares with five relatives.
Like many of his neighbors in the usually thrumming Gongabu area of Kathmandu, Suwal fears the buildings still standing are so poorly constructed they may be toppled by aftershocks.
“A mountain is safer than this,” he said of the four-story concrete-and-brick building where he lives. “Up there, climbing, I sometimes feel afraid, but not like this. This kind of danger is not in my hands.”
Jittery fear has coursed through Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, since Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude quake, which is thought to have killed more than at least 6,260 people across Nepal. Ancient temples in Kathmandu crumpled, as did many dozens of buildings constructed after a modern building code was put in place.
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That has ignited public alarm that the collapses exposed not only flaky concrete and brittle pillars, but also a system of government enforcement rotted by corruption and indifference.
Residents and building experts say the corruption is an open secret, as evident as the unlicensed five- and six-story buildings that have risen in recent years, displacing two-story ones that sprang up in former farm fields starting a decade or so ago. The developers and landlords who slap up the buildings, the residents and experts say, know they will rarely be punished by officials, who are often happy to look the other way for a price.
“We pay like this,” said Bir Bahadur Khadwada — owner of the Kalika Guesthouse, frequented by migrant workers in Gongabu — as he rubbed his thumb with his index finger under his dining table. “They go away.”
Nepali experts said bribery, lax law enforcement and a lack of land-use controls left buildings vulnerable to seismic disasters. But several said those problems were symptoms of a deeper failing: the government’s inability to keep up with a rapidly urbanizing society.
Since the nation’s building code was introduced in the 1990s, the population of greater Kathmandu more than doubled. It grew to 1.74 million in 2011, the year of the last census, from 675,000 in 1991 as migrants began pressing into the city, drawn by jobs and services that distant villages can only dream about: regular electricity, water and satellite television.
In recent decades, the Nepali government has undergone a convulsive succession of crises, including a bloody 10-year civil war with Maoist insurgents that diverted government priorities and revenue from the task of managing urban growth.
Geology further complicated matters: Kathmandu is the ancient bed of a lake, and haphazard urban growth has allowed construction to spread to risky terrain, said Richard Sharpe, a New Zealand earthquake engineer who helped draft Nepal’s building code. “You shouldn’t just go and build anywhere,” he said. “You’ve got very soft soils in some places.”
Despite many such warnings from scientists in recent years, modern housing, malls and shops, some built with breathless haste, filled in the contours of a city revered for its ancient monuments and temples.
“I think there’s still a hell of a lot of informal building,” Sharpe said in a telephone interview, referring to unlicensed and unplanned development. “And you’re in the Kathmandu Valley, but what about the other 90 percent of the people, who are in the hills? How can you enforce the building code in the hills?”
The tally of the damage in those villages remains incomplete, with many isolated from rescuers by landslides and severed roads. In central Kathmandu, at least 175 residential buildings were destroyed, according to satellite images compiled and assessed by the European Commission’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service. The Nepali authorities estimate that nationwide, nearly 150,000 dwellings collapsed. But larger, modern buildings, including urban hospitals and schools, mostly withstood the earthquake, reflecting more robust construction.
Nepal’s building code set what experts call admirable standards, but officials often enforced it in a perfunctory way, despite experts’ warnings that the country was in a region where a giant earthquake was a real risk, said Niyam Maharjan, a building engineer who works for the country’s Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development.
“It’s too late,” he said this week, “but they are listening to us now.”