Can history be rebuilt after the Nepal earthquake?

A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Bhaktapur on April 26, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Omar Havana/Getty Images

PLEASE NOTE: This story has been updated to include comments from UNESCO representative Christian Manhart in Kathmandu.

Hundreds of years of culture and history was shattered into pieces when a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck Nepal on Saturday.

“This is a major disaster,” Christian Manhart, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural (UNESCO) representative in Nepal, told Global News on Tuesday. “It’s absolutely dramatic what happened to the cultural heritage — not only the world heritage, but so many other temples.”

He said it’s still too early to establish the extent of the damage to UNESCO world heritage and other cultural sites across the quake-hit country, but the UN agency is dispatching architects to gather more precise assessments.

GALLERY: Before and after photos show devastation in Nepal

Some of the sites destroyed or damaged in Saturday’s quake — such as the Dharahara Tower and Durbar Square in Kathmandu — have suffered a similar fate before and have been rebuilt, but not necessarily by what engineers would consider modern standards.

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Volunteers work to remove debris at the historic Dharahara tower, a city landmark, after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Saturday, April 25. Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo
Temples on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square are ruined after earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, April 25. Sunil Sharma, Xinhua?The Canadian Press
“No historic structure would have been designed for any sort of earthquake load,” said Lydell Wiebe, an associate professor of civil engineering at McMaster University. “It’s really only recent structures [since the 1970s] that have really robust earthquake engineering going into them.
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“They wouldn’t have been designed by an engineer. They would have been built based on experience building other things and what materials happened to be around.”

READ MORE: Understanding earthquakes: Why Nepal was rocked with such a strong one

Nepal sits on an active seismic zone and has suffered several devastating earthquakes. But Saturday’s was the strongest and deadliest since 1934, when the country was hit with an magnitude-8.1 quake that left some 16,000 people dead in both Nepal and India. Although the magnitude of the quake was less than the one 81 years ago, the damage seen so far is catastrophic.

Manhart said earthquakes were taken into consideration when many of the historic sites were first constructed and the brick and wood structures were meant to handle the “lateral movements of the earth during an earthquake.
“But then if an earthquake exceeds a certain level of force, all of [it] falls down. That’s what we saw in [this] earthquake.”
WATCH: Aerials of destruction in Nepal from massive earthquake

When it comes to the structural integrity of ancient and historic structures during an earthquake, Wiebe also said a lot of it comes down to chance.

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The ruins and monuments of ancient Greece also sit in an active seismic zone, but still stand after thousands of years.

“I’m pretty sure that there was no engineering that went into it, but it turns out now that we’ve discovered, in the last couple of decades, that actually there were some really brilliant things that happened there that we can now replicate,” he said. “But, they happened to do that in Greece and they haven’t done it so much in other places.”

As far as the structures in Nepal, it’s “textbook what not to do,” adding unreinforced brick construction is good at holding weight, but not able to withstand the pulling that occurs when the ground shifts during an earthquake.

READ MORE: Beneath the rubble, people survive against the odds

It’s best to reconstruct damaged edifices as close as possible to their original state, in order to best preserve them as cultural heritage sites, Wiebe said.

He explained there are options to preserve or reconstruct historical buildings in quake-stricken areas, but you’re never going to be able to rebuild a structure exactly as it was and expect it to fare any better.

“There are some things that can be done, if it’s rebuilding, that can be hidden [and] that would dramatically improve the performance of a structure with no visible changes to the outside.”
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For example, if a structure is being rebuilt out of brick, as the Darahara Tower was, steel rods placed “in a particular way” between the bricks could have improved the stability of a structure dramatically, Wiebe explained.

“The other thing [that] can be done is you can build… one structure whose job is to hold up the facade of the historic structure. We see this very often when a building has made it through an earthquake but they’re concerned it won’t make it through another one.”

READ MORE: Canadian Red Cross shipping mobile field hospital to Nepal, box by box

There’s also the question of whether reconstruction is at all worth it. Wiebe gave the example of the Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Four years after the facade and spire of the church crumbled in a magnitude-6.3 earthquake, the future of the historic cathedral, and whether it should be restored or demolished, remains in limbo.

“Even there, in a highly developed part of the world with some of the world’s most advanced building codes, it’s been a huge battle over whether or not to repair it,” Wiebe said.

Manhart said UNESCO will consult with its structural engineers and earthquake architects to see how to move forward with rehabilitation efforts. He said the cost of repair is likely to be monumental and the Nepalese government won’t be able to cover the expense on its own.

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“I think when we have made the assessment, there should be an appeal for international funding for the rehabilitation and restoration and reconstruction work,” Manhart said. “[But] the situation is still rather chaotic.”

But, he’s hopeful they country’s cultural heritage sites will recover. He said UNESCO has photographs, drawings, designs and measurements for all of the world heritage sites, and for many of the other temples.

And local residents have already helped with recovery, salvaging sculptures and woodwork for damaged sites and protecting it in their homes.

“They have a very efficient network around the heritage sites and did immediate relief work there,” Manhart said. “If we have these we can use them for the reconstruction.”

Amid the uncertainty and recovery, Manhard had one bit of good news to share.

Despite fears, he said the heritage site of Lumbini, which is believed to be the birth place of Buddha, is “totally safe” and had “absolutely no damage.”


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