Urbanisation, lax enforcement contribute to deaths

Bikash Suwal, a lithe, tanned 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 family members.

Like many of his neighbours in the usually thrumming Gongabu area of Kathmandu, Suwal fears that the buildings still standing are so poorly constructed they may be toppled by aftershocks.

“A mountain is safer than this,” he said on Wednesday 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.”

Ancient temples in Kathmandu crumpled from the intense pulses of seismic energy that the earthquake unleashed, but so did many dozens of buildings constructed after a modern building code was put in place.

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.

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 urbanising society.

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.”

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