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Image showing post-disaster training exercise with first responders

After Kathmandu was hit by the Gorkha Earthquake in April 2015, a team from Durham University’s UNESCO Chair on Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage was invited by the Government of Nepal and UNESCO to assess damaged historic monuments.

The humanitarian disaster devastated large areas of Nepal with substantial loss of life and livelihoods. The Earthquake was also a cultural catastrophe, damaging monuments throughout Nepal, including the Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage Property.

Lost archaeological evidence

In the immediate aftermath of the Earthquake, debris was cleared and dumped. This process led to the loss of archaeological evidence, as the ancient and modern materials were mixed together and removed before detailed recording could be undertaken. While this methodology was understandable during the emergency period, this was a critical phase for the protection of heritage. This was particularly noted amongst key responders who encountered archaeological materials but had no training or protocols for the protection, identification or sorting of heritage materials during this challenging phase of humanitarian recovery.

In response, Durham’s UNESCO Chair team and Nepali colleagues co-developed first responder methodologies for salvaging, recording, and evaluating damaged heritage, culminating in a ‘live exercise’ within a safe, non-emergency, environment at a previously collapsed monument. The exercise included key responders from the Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and Nepal Army, and Nepali heritage professionals, as well as heritage professionals from across South Asia as the challenges faced by Nepal are not unique.

Post-Disaster Heritage Protection Handbook

The participants explored an approach that could be implemented by non-heritage specialists and could remove debris quickly from surviving floor levels. The rubble spread over the collapsed monument was gridded into numbered squares and a replicated grid was laid-out close to the site.  Material was then removed systematically from the site squares to the corresponding replicated squares. This method facilitated the rapid removal and spatial recording of material, which could be secured and analysed later by specialists for their future conservation or reuse in the reconstruction. This is critical as historic material can be recycled rather than dumped, reducing significant economic and environmental impacts from the firing of new bricks for reconstruction.

To build on the practical experience of the participants in strengthening necessary skills and knowledge for heritage protection, and the recovery of historic materials in future post-disaster scenarios, the team drafted a Post-Disaster Heritage Protection Handbook. Piloted within post-disaster training programmes in Nepal, it has also been successfully utilised in responses to the 2016 Myanmar Earthquake and also in 2018 at Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka, where post-disaster methods were translated for conflict damaged monuments.

Informing reconstruction

In the rush to rebuild the historic monuments, few questions were asked about why the monuments had collapsed, and many damaged historic monuments were reconstructed with modern materials. Such interventions also removed evidence of resilient historic and traditional solutions for seismic adaptation. Our collaborative investigations with the Department of Archaeology (Government of Nepal) and ICOMOS at the Kasthamandap - the eponymous monument of Kathmandu – were interdisciplinary. Archaeologists, architects, heritage managers and engineers, including Prof David Toll and Dr Paul Hughes from Durham, and funded by the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the National Geographic Society, UNESCO, Alliance de Protection du Patrimoine Culturel Asiatique and the Government of Nepal, were all involved.

Our research indicated that the original foundations were resilient and undamaged, and that modern interventions contributed to collapse. Traditional features including soil dampening engineered fills, flexible mud mortars and copper plates, to act as damp courses between the foundations and the timber superstructure, were all recoded by the multi-disciplinary team. In consultation with local communities and craftspeople, this information was used by the Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee in the rebuilding of the monument, which completed this year.

The lessons learnt have value beyond Nepal and natural disasters and can contribute towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Durham’s UNESCO Chair recently contributed to the International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change (ICSM CHC), sponsored by the IPCC, UNESCO, and ICOMOS, where the integration of ‘scientific’ and traditional knowledge systems was highlighted as a key case study for understanding past and future adaptations for the protection and preservation of cultural heritage and their communities in the face of climate change. 

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