A lucky escape for Nepal’s schoolchildren

The death toll among Nepali schoolchildren would have been significant if the 7.8 magnitude earthquake had struck on a school day instead of a Saturday, the only day when schools are completely closed.  This stroke of luck ensured there was no repetition of the thousands of deaths among schoolchildren which occurred as a result of major earthquakes in the last decade in China, Haiti and Pakistan.  Such an outcome would have drawn attention to the fact that despite years of lobbying by the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), just 350 to 400 out of 35,000 public and private schools have been retrofitted.  Most of these retrofitted schools are in the Kathmandu valley where many are now being used as shelters for the earthquake displaced. According to the Department of Education, 14,500 classrooms were destroyed in the April 25 earthquake.  NSET Director, Amod Mani Dixit, said: “There are hundreds of schools still standing proudly at a cost of $30 per child. When I first started talking about retrofitting schools nobody trusted us, asking how a poor country like Nepal could do that. I said I will do it in my own way and my job is to avoid deaths in schools. 

“There are 80,000 school buildings in Nepal, part of over 35,000 schools, public and private, and 60,000 buildings require retrofitting. Who is going to do that? We have demonstrated that it is possible to do it and that the cost is not high if you use local methodology.” 

Mr. Dixit’s strategy was vindicated in a message he received from Prof. Kimiro Meguro, Director of the International Centre for Urban Safety Engineering at the University of Tokyo who has been surveying the damage. 

Prof. Meguro wrote: ¨Through our survey, I could have very good impression that school buildings retrofitted by school safety program by the NSET are all OK and PP-band retrofitted adobe with mud mortar house has almost no damage in spite of damage to burnt brick structures around it. I really recognized the importance of pre-event countermeasures, especially retrofit of weak structures and of contribution by private sectors including financial sectors." 

In a post on Facebook, Mr. Dixit wrote: “I shared the above because I am very proud of the work that the excellent staff of NSET have done since 1993 in aspects of earthquake risk management in Nepal and the region. I am proud of NSET's School Earthquake Safety Program (SESP), Hospital Earthquake Safety Program (HESP), Municipality Earthquake Safety Program (MESP) which includes Building Code Implementation Project, Mason Training Program, and so many other innovative programs.” 

In order to meet the Millennium Development Goal of Education for all, thousands of classrooms were built in recent years and it is difficult to find anyone who can say with certainty that they were all built according to the Building Code. 

As Gail Marzetti, the head of the UK’s Department for International Development wrote recently: “disaster risk reduction cannot be a standalone process. Measures such as working towards safer buildings must be integrated across sectors and with all stakeholders to limit the impact of disaster, and safeguard our progress in development and poverty reduction.” 

Talking to UNISDR, Mr. Dixit said that there were high hopes that disaster risk management would become embedded in government processes following the 1988 earthquake in Dharan which killed 709 people and work got underway on a building code which was legally adopted ten years later. However, without a national disaster management agency and low capacity at regional and municipal levels, there has been no reliable compliance mechanism in place. 

This is why in 1997, NSET embarked on a programme to target the masons and small contractors responsible for almost 80% of construction in Nepal which takes place without the involvement of an engineer. 

Mr. Dixit said: “We have trained 5,000 masons but we need to be training 2,000 every year if we are to meet the challenges of development.” 

When it comes to ensuring the safety of hospitals and health facilities, the challenges are even greater. Lack of funding means that no hospital in Nepal has ever been retrofitted despite dire predictions that many of them would collapse and be rendered non-functional if hit by a major earthquake. 

“We have made an assessment of the 24 largest hospitals in Nepal twelve years ago and only three of them would have no casualties but functionality would be impaired, and the rest would not be functional. We were lucky that the distribution of the intensity from this earthquake and the level of shaking was positive for the hospitals in Kathmandu. We have to be better prepared that is the message we get from this earthquake,” said Mr. Dixit. 

One bright spot on the horizon is the NSET Municipality Earthquake Safety Programme. Starting with Dharan which was shattered by the 1988 earthquake, NSET has been working for the last three years with 30 municipalities on implementing the building code and reports good results. 

Mr. Dixit concludes: “If we all work together with the Department of Urban Development and the Ministry of Local Government, miracles can happen. It will take about ten years to show real results but already we can see results in buildings not affected in municipalities like Vyas and Baratpur.”

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