Nepal quake-hit villages struggle with reconstruction

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Four years since a catastrophic earthquake destroyed much of central and eastern Nepal, a remote Himalayan area is still reeling with what looks like irreparable damage.

Nestled in the foothills of Langtang Mountain, Helambu has become a textbook example of how not to rebuild after a disaster. Unattractive tiny huts made of blue corrugated iron sheets dot the foothills around the ruins of houses reduced to rubble in the earthquake.

"It was not how I wanted to rebuild. But it was all I managed to construct with my savings and the money provided by the government," said 44-year-old Gyalbu Lama. His new home cost Lama around 700,000 Nepalese rupees ($6,230), but it's too small for his five-member family.

Exactly four years ago, the earthquake pounded Helambu along with the rest of the country, claiming over 9,000 lives. It destroyed about a million homes and pushed an estimated million people into poverty.

Helambu was known for its natural and cultural heritage but became one of the worst-hit areas. Now, almost a third of the houses have yet to be rebuilt due to delays in relief distribution, a shortage engineers and red tape, villagers say.

Lama's feelings resonate across the area, especially among the poor.

The mayor of Helambu Rural Municipality, Nima Gyalzen Sherpa, said the small size of government-provided reconstruction grants and delays in their distribution led to a rise in slum-like houses.

"It's impossible to build a house with 300,000 rupees," Nima said.

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On Thursday, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli spent much of the day inaugurating newly constructed buildings, inspecting quake-hit structures and attending programs in the capital, Kathmandu, marking the fourth anniversary. He pledged to meet a deadline of 2020 for completing the reconstruction of most homes and monuments, but acknowledged that some big structures with historical significance could take more time.

Months after the earthquake, Nepal finally set up a National Reconstruction Authority to rebuild private and public infrastructure.

But reconstruction efforts failed to gain momentum due to frequent changes in the government and in the NRA's leadership. Some bigger projects were affected by delays in grants pledged by India, China and other donors.

According to the NRA, about 50% of the recipients of reconstruction grants have completed rebuilding, and 30% are now underway. It says 80% of school buildings, 95% of government buildings and 68% of archaeological buildings and monuments have been rebuilt.

"The post-earthquake reconstruction is on the right track. The international community has praised our progress in reconstruction," NRA head Sushil Gyewali said.

On the ground, it's somewhat different.

The new homes are little different from the makeshift plastic shelters that were used by many people for months after the earthquake. It's a huge loss for a village that was previously composed of attractive houses made of local resources including timber, stones, tiles, reeds and mud.

Housing experts say Helambu embodies everything that has gone wrong with Nepal's reconstruction efforts.

"The authorities have not just been slow, they've also ignored the local style of architecture in rebuilding," said Rabindra Puri, an architect and conservationist of Nepali monuments.

"Rural areas used to boast great diversity," said Gyanu Adhikari, editor of the Kathmandu-based news portal The Record. "To quote one housing expert, it's 'the greatest slumification in Nepal's history.'"

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