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opinion

I was in Nepal last February and I can't help thinking how challenging the relief operations must be. Even on normal days, the traffic in the Kathmandu Valley was horribly slow; there are not enough roads and too many cars and motorcycles. It would take two to three hours to drive the 13 kilometres from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. There were constant electricity outages and water shortages every day. Living there, even at the best of times and in a moderately comfortable guest house, was trying. The pollution from traffic, dust and archaic heating devices was endemic. Over the Kathmandu Valley there was a heavy, dark smog – one couldn't even imagine that the most spectacular mountains in the world were just a few kilometres away.

The political instability certainly won't help the country recover. During the few days I spent in Patan, the local newspapers were filled with news about the inability of the coalition government – one of five consecutive coalition governments since the first democratic elections in 2008 – to reach a compromise over the constitution, as the two main parties, the Nepali Congress and the Maoist Communist Party, as well as a host of smaller formations, jostled for power. In a striking contrast to its convivial population, Nepal was just emerging from a tormented and violent history that recently saw the toppling of the ancestral monarchy and a 10-year Maoist insurgency that only ended in 2006.

Before the earthquake, Nepal was already home to many aid organizations. Consequently, their volunteers, already familiar with the country, promise to be a huge help in the recovery efforts. More aid is coming, which poses the risk that too many groups will be competing with each other, with no centralized organization to co-ordinate their efforts. This happened in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The country's fragile infrastructure couldn't deal with the flood of money coming in. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, Nepal is among the poorest countries in the world, though well ahead of Haiti.

But, of course, the disheartening fact is that it always seems to be the poorest countries that are affected by natural disasters, from the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean to rural Turkey to southern Italy, a couple of rare exceptions being the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the tsunami in Japan in 2011. Nature is an unfair devil.

Among the lovely memories I brought back from my short stay in Nepal is of its splendid Durbar Squares – the three 17th-century royal plazas that adorn the centre of Kathmandu Valley's three major cities. I lived a few metres from the one in Patan, with its gracious alignment of pagodas and temples of both Buddhist and Hindu inspiration. When I first walked into the square, I stopped in amazement, seized by the sheer beauty of the scene. Neither in China nor in India had I seen anything comparable. And then there were the ancient wooden market stalls, the wonderful courtyards of the royal palace and the state-of-the-art museum built by Austrian sponsors.

Part of this is gone, reduced to rubble. Our tears should be reserved for the countless Nepalis who lost their lives or their homes, but the destruction of the country's fabulous cultural heritage will forever be seen as a huge loss for humanity.