Keeping Nepal’s children safe from earthquakes

Published: 29 November 2016 4:16 CET

A steep, 90-minute climb along a rough-hewn path is the only route up to Pragatishil village. The village sits high in the mountains, about 50 kilometers from Nepal’s western city of Pokhara. The area adjoins Gorkha district - the epicenter of last April’s 7.8-magnitude quake which claimed nearly 9,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless.


Building a school here for the community’s 100 children is no easy task. Porters have to carry about 13 tons of hollow concrete blocks up the path on their backs, not to mention the cement, steel roof struts and other building materials.


“This is a very remote area, with no roads and no electricity,” says Headmaster Prem Bahadur Gurung, pointing even further up the slope to where many of the children’s homes are.


His school is one of 31 in the area, being either rebuilt or structurally reinforced by the Nepal Red Cross Society, whose aim is to provide safe buildings for the children to study in. Outside one of the existing classrooms, which is still in use, a group of children are sitting on the grass for a lesson.


“The children wanted to come outside because it’s cold in the classroom,” says their teacher. “After the earthquake, they often rushed out of the building because they were scared by the numerous aftershocks.”


Manika Ale, a 14-year-old student at the Mahendri Mabi Secondary School, which sits in a valley of rice fields, agrees. “We feel safer now, but in the first few months, we often ran outside,” she says.


She is one of a group of students having an afternoon maths lesson in one of the classrooms, which has been reinforced, or retrofitted.


Retrofitting is being carried out at 21 of the Red Cross-supported schools. The process, which is not yet widespread in Nepal, involves strengthening a building’s foundations and roof, jacketing the walls with wire mesh and putting buttresses in place so that in the event of an earthquake, the building may shake but is unlikely to collapse.


“This is a practice which we would like to promote and persuade other actors to replicate,” says Xavier Chanraud, an engineer with the French Red Cross which together with the Danish Red Cross is supporting the project.


Mariana Liptuga, the Danish Red Cross country representative, points out that retrofitting schools is not only at least 25 per cent cheaper than building new ones, but also offers many other advantages.


“In terms of logistics it is more efficient, especially in remote areas. The time it takes and ecological impact is reduced because smaller quantities of materials such as wood are needed,” she says.


Whether retrofitting or re-building structures, for the Red Cross safety is the key concern. Many schools currently under reconstruction across areas damaged by the earthquake are being reconstructed use single-thickness brick or dry stone walls in violation of Nepal’s strict building code.


Seismologists say there is a significant likelihood of another major earthquake in the Himalayan country, where tectonic plates intersect. But no-one can predict when it might strike.


“The children are often frightened by rumors or false information in the media” about an imminent disaster”, says Krishna Chandra Pokherel, headmaster of Mahendri Mabi school.


The work to rebuild and reinforce schools in just one strand of a disaster risk reduction project managed by the Nepal Red Cross Society that aims to help local communities protect themselves better against a range of hazards, from earthquakes and flooding to communicable diseases.


“We often talk about building resilience in face of future disasters. What could be more crucial to resilience than investing in the safety of our country’s children,” says Dev Dhakhwa, Secretary General of the Nepal Red Cross Society.