The Nepal Catastrophe


by Thomas Bell
London: Haus, 500 pp., $29.95
The remains of the Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu, four days after the earthquake, April 2015
Ismail Ferdous/Redux
The remains of the Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu, four days after the earthquake, April 2015

A few minutes before noon on April 25, 2015, the Great Himalayan Thrust, a fault line between the Indian and Eurasian continental plates, ruptured deep beneath Gorkha district, fifty miles northwest of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The sudden slippage caused an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale that sent seismic waves ripping through the Kathmandu Valley, the site of three ancient cities—Patan, Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur—and seven UNESCO World Heritage sites.

In sixty-five seconds, much of Nepal’s cultural patrimony was damaged or destroyed. One hundred eighty people died when the two-hundred-foot-high Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu, built in 1832, with an eighth-story observation deck that overlooked the valley, collapsed. Centuries-old temples, including the Vatsala Devi, famed for its sandstone walls and gold-topped pagodas, fell in Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the plaza in front of the royal palace of the old Bhaktapur kingdom. In Durbar Square in Kathmandu, more than half of the forty temples were damaged or destroyed. About 1,800 people in the valley were killed.

Yet the ruin in Kathmandu was incidental to an even greater tragedy. As Thomas Bell, a former Economist and Telegraph correspondent and a longtime Kathmandu resident, writes in Kathmandu, his sprawling history and memoir of Nepal and its fast-growing capital:

In fact the [worst] disaster was not in Kathmandu, where everyone expected it, but in the countryside, especially in districts directly above the rupture. Landslides were set off in many places. The village of Langtang, 60 kilometres north of Kathmandu, was obliterated by an avalanche that buried three-storey houses and killed…300 people….

Most rural houses were of two or three storeys, built of stones bound together with mud, and in many villages most houses were destroyed. It was very fortunate that at midday on a Saturday most people were outdoors. Altogether about 9,000 people were killed and over two million were made homeless, a few weeks before the monsoon.

The number of dead would have been far greater had it not been for the rapid response of both international and domestic rescue teams. Within a couple of days, Chinese, Indian, and US military rescue teams began carrying relief supplies to remote airstrips and stricken villages, and Nepalese police and soldiers fanned out across the country, pulling thousands from the rubble. Small private groups acting without licenses or oversight also carried out much of the initial relief work. These ad hoc NGOs raised money from Facebook and crowd sourcing, signed up hundreds of volunteers, and delivered tents, medical equipment, and emergency rations to remote areas. Typical of these groups was the Yellow House, formed two days after the disaster by, among others, Ben Ayers, a US climber and development expert, and a Nepalese photographer, Nayantara…

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