Lessons not learned from 2015

The clock is ticking on the next Big One, but most schools are not prepared for disasters

The brand new Patan School building that is nearing completion with support from the Japanese aid agency. A raft concrete foundation makes it withstand a magnitude 8 earthquake. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

It took 40 seconds for the 25 April 2015 earthquake to seriously damage or demolish some 50,000 classrooms across central Nepal. If the earthquake had not struck on a Saturday, the death toll would have been unimaginable.

More than five years after a disaster that could have had a much more catastrophic outcome, and with most of the schools now rebuilt, Nepal does not seem to have learnt its lesson. The Covid-19 crisis has forced schools into hibernation, schools in other parts of Nepal are not prepared, and the retrofitting of classrooms has languished.

“Given the scale of the 2015 earthquake, our reconstruction process has been quite satisfactory but we are not prepared enough for future mega-quakes,” says Surya Narayan Shrestha, executive director of the National Society of Earthquake Technology (NSET) Nepal.

Indeed, National Earthquake Safety Day on 15 January which commemorates the 8.3 magnitude 1934 earthquake that devastated Kathmandu, is the right time to assess our preparedness for future disasters.

Western Nepal hasn’t had a major earthquake in a long time and a lot of stress has accumulated,” warns Shrestha. “But no part of the country will be spared, and we are not prepared for it – especially public buildings such as schools and hospitals.”

Nepali Times surveyed some of the rebuilt schools in and around Kathmandu, and in general the new structures appear to be of seismic resistant design. However, because there have been no classes for nearly a year, there have been no preparedness drills.

At Tripadma High School in Patan, a retrofitted block withstood the tremors in 2015, and  served as a shelter for the community for more than a month. However, an older building was heavily damaged and got a red sticker in the post-quake assessment.

(Left to right) Two eight room buildings inside Tripadma School in Patan built after the 2015 earthquakes to acommodate the growing number of students. A retrofitted building next to it, survived the disaster and served as a shelter for the community in its aftermath. Photos: SONIA AWALE

Across town, the Padmodaya High School in Putali Sadak would have had 1,000 students in the classrooms if the 2015 quake had struck on a regular day. The building was destroyed. A newly built, sturdier structure next to it survived and was a temporary home for many in the aftermath of the disaster.

According to the Central Level Project Implementation Unit (CLPIU) under the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), a total of 7,923 schools and 49,681 classes were damaged in the earthquakes.

“After the earthquake, we conducted classes in temporary learning centres for two years. It was unbearably hot under zinc sheets during summer. The roof leaked when it rained,” recalls Principal Narayan Prasad Gautam of Padmodaya School. “Things have got better with the new building. The engineer has assured me it can stand a 9M quake.”

Tripadma and Padmodaya were both rebuilt with support from CLPIU and are two of the 7,553 schools the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA) targeted for rebuilding post 2015 earthquakes. Five years since the earthquake, 6,085 school buildings have been reconstructed and another 1,468 are still under construction.

“We have reconstructed some 80% of the schools and the rest will be completed by June,” says Gopal Prasad Aryal of NRA. The government entity has also been working on rebuilding 44 universities and colleges with financial support from India. “We now have strong infrastructure with water, toilets and ramps. Our hope is that it aids the quality of education.”

This year’s National Earthquake Safety Day will have to also work on regular disaster preparedness drills, and reminders on earthquake safety. And as memories of the 2015 earthquake fade, many are becoming complacent with construction that flout the building code. Meanwhile, the western half of the country has little or no information about earthquake safety.

Like most houses rebuilt after the 2015 earthquakes, schools from Kavre to Gorkha now use reinforced concrete structures. This means safety drills will have to be adjusted, and search and rescue procedures completely revamped to take into account the new construction material.

The lack of trained professionals and training in search, locate and rescue in collapsed concrete structures will be wholly different than in 2015, when most of the collapsed buildings were of lighter timber, brick and mud mortar construction.

In 2015, crucial hours in rescue operations were lost because of the lack of concrete cutters, and with them, lives. Some children who had already escaped swaying buildings rushed indoors to perform duck-cover-hold procedures taught at schools when the structures collapsed on them.

“Despite having earthquake resistant structures we have drills at least once a month in school so that students have complete knowledge regarding earthquake safety,” says Tashi Tenzing Norgay of Nepal Green Tara Foundation which rebuilt two schools in Nuwakot in 2014. When the earthquake hit central Nepal in 2015, those two schools were among the few still standing.

After the earthquake, the foundation has built three more schools. “Infrastructure is important but so is earthquake education,” says Norgay. But the importance of drills have been forgotten in most schools, especially as schooling scenarios changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With schools closed for the past 10 months because of the Covid-19 pandemic, students have had no earthquake preparedness training. But as schools prepare to open now, the focus will largely be on infrastructure that ensures social distancing.

Local governments are working with the Health ministry and UNICEF to launch the Learning Continuity Campaign this week. The campaign engages parents, teachers and local government, providing guidance on safe reopening of schools and alternative modes of instruction like home-schooling, low-tech solutions like telephone/SMS for learning, radio programs on parenting and specific focus on marginalised children to prevent dropout, have been highlighted.

The newly-built infrastructure of the schools has been a draw for some parents, thus upping the number of enrollment to community schools at a time when Covid-19 crisis has weakened economic status.

Many public schools have noted a rise in admission of students from private schools.

Patan School with its ghantaghar like clock tower (pictured above) stands out in the midst of the high rises, and is a model for earthquake safe school reconstruction.

Funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Rs 320 million building has a concrete foundation raft designed to withstand magnitude 8 shaking. The school has solar and rainwater harvesting backup, classes are spacious, and labs well-equipped.

Upgrading in infrastructure, however, does not always guarantee an improved standard of instruction. Patan School may have a fancy new building, but is grappling with enough teachers and students to fill the new classrooms, as well as a maintenance budget from the Education Ministry.

“There are now bigger, better school buildings but it won’t make a difference to the quality of education at this rate,” says Rajendra Dahal, editor of Shishyak monthly. “The 2015 earthquake and this pandemic could have been an opportunity to upgrade both hardware and software of our education system, but the teaching standards have instead, downgraded.”

Indeed, the only thing going for most post-earthquake government schools is that they will be safer during a future earthquake. Otherwise it is the same curricula, under-motivated and under-paid teachers, lack of facilities and budgets.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.