Tall Order


Suresh Shakya (pictured above) was sitting down for lunch with his family in his house in Itum Bahal four years ago when there was a terrifying, subterranean growl, and his building started shaking.

Shakya, 46, knew it was an earthquake, and while he was concerned the house could collapse, he was even more afraid that an adjacent, new 10-floor highrise that a neighbour had built would topple on him.

Outside, it was difficult to stand as the ground rolled. An hour later, there was a big aftershock and Shakya remembers the tall building swaying like a tree in a storm, creating deep gashes on his house, which remains propped up by timber to this day.

Seismologists warn that the quake four years ago this month was just a warning, and that Nepal faces serious risk from even bigger earthquakes in future. This precarious highrise is not likely to survive those ones.

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On the fourth anniversary of the 25 April 2015 earthquake, experts warn that attention should now shift to retrofitting and strengthening hospitals and schools across the country. More than 1,000 health facilities and 5,000 schools were completely destroyed in 2015, and tens of thousands of children could have been killed if the disaster had happened on a weekday.  

Hospitals and schools flattened in the 2015 earthquake are being rebuilt, but what about the rest of Nepal vulnerable to future quakes? A recent Ministry of Health (MoH) study showed the government hospital in Nepalganj was structurally so weak that it needs to be demolished, and recommends retrofitting four other hospitals in Western Nepal that do not meet the WHO Health Safety Index.

"The study is a warning. The condition of rural health facilities across Nepal is similar, and we need to quickly retrofit them before the next disaster strikes,” says Chudamani Bhandari of the Health Emergency and Disaster Management Unit at the MoH. "Western Nepal is in greater danger of a big earthquake, so we have decided to focus there."

The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2018 stipulates that the main responsibility of managing crises now lies at the local level, but the MoH says it first wants to build capacity at the provincial level.

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However, the first step must be to carry out a baseline safety inspection of medical centres all over the country. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) plans a survey of schools and hospitals, but only after it is done with reconstruction.

The National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) is also resuming its retrofitting of schools in Western Nepal that it had started before 2015. Says NSET’s Surya Narayan Shrestha: "We need to concentrate on Western Nepal because the vulnerability of public buildings there is high.” 

Western Nepal is said to be particularly at risk because it has not had a mega-earthquake for the past 500 years. DFID is supporting NSET with a Safer Schools Project to retrofit classrooms in the region.

Schools are important community hubs and strengthening them can raise public awareness about safer construction in areas that are at high risk. In fact, 2015 itself provided a lesson for schools. Deepak Sharma of the Ministry of Education explains: "The few schools that were retrofitted before 2015 suffered no damage, so we are trying to retrofit schools in all districts for future earthquakes."

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