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NEPAL: Schoolchildren face earthquake risk

KATHMANDU, 4 December 2008 (IRIN) - Thousands of schoolchildren in Nepal are at risk of losing their lives in an earthquake, experts warn.

The lack of measures to mitigate such a potential disaster is causing serious concern to experts in Kathmandu, one of the most seismically active cities in the world.

"The lives of thousands of schoolchildren are at stake. We should learn from the examples of China and Pakistan," independent earthquake preparedness expert Mahesh Nakarmi told IRIN, citing examples in both countries where faulty construction resulted in the deaths of scores of schoolchildren.

However, apart from a few NGOs, international aid agencies and the UN, most people seem less than concerned.

"It's surprising that not even parents are raising this issue… They should be pressurising school administrators to start emergency response plans and strengthen the schools," Nakarmi, who has been involved in earthquake preparedness activities for over 15 years, said.

Death traps

According to the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), a local NGO involved in earthquake awareness and preparedness, most of the nearly 2,000 schools in Kathmandu are vulnerable to earthquakes.

Most schools are in poorly constructed commercial buildings and earthquake risk assessments have not been carried out, according to NSET officials.

"The situation is so scary when you think about how little prepared the country is in the event of a big earthquake," said Vincent Omuga, humanitarian affairs officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kathmandu.

Schools in Kathmandu are generally constructed with cement pillars and beams. But they are often built by contractors who try to save money by using less cement and more sand - weakening the building’s overall structure. Construction is rarely overseen by a qualified engineer.

Less than 10 percent of schools in Kathmandu are earthquake resistant, said NSET officials.


"Schools are aware of the earthquake risks but they have failed to implement safety measures," leading earthquake disaster expert Amod Dixit, executive director of NSET, told IRIN. Schools should at least conduct drills to help prepare children and teachers in the event of an earthquake, he said.

NSET, which has been implementing the community-based School Earthquake Safety Programme (SESP) since 1999 in over 50 schools around the country, has been trying to raise awareness about the risk.

Earthquake drills in schools could prevent a stampede of nervous pupils and help them to know how best to escape in a planned and organised way, the NGO said.

"Recently we did a drill in some schools in the nearby country of Bhutan and discovered we could evacuate 800 students in 60 seconds," earthquake preparedness expert Nakarmi said.

He said Nepal should develop a policy to ensure every school has an emergency preparedness plan.

Government officials say programmes like NSET's should be given high priority. The Ministry of Education and educational institutions are in the process of taking this message on board. Yet experts remain sceptical: Even building regulations are often not applied in practice.

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