On a recent sunny afternoon, the bell rang at the Tika Vidyashram School in Sanepa. It wasn't to signal the end of classes, the students instead put their schools bags over their heads and crawled under their desks.
The drills are part of a new initiative to save as many children as possible in the next big earthquake. "We hope that the simulation will be remembered when the time comes," said Nirakar Joshi, an engineer from the National Society of Earthquake Technology (NSET). So far, 300 schools in
the Valley have taken part in the initiative.
An NSET survey of nearly 400 government schools in Kathmandu Valley 12 years ago showed that a 1934 type earthquake would kill nearly 30,000 students and teachers outright and injure another 43,000. Most of the
injured can't be rushed to hospitals because they would have also collapsed, too.
An magnitude eight earthquake today would destroy 80 percent of hospitals except few facilities like the Teaching Hospital or the Chhetrapati Free Clinic. Even these may not have electricity. There will be few ambulances,
and roads will be blocked. An estimated 700,000 people will be injured, and will have to be moved to open spaces where there will hopefully be open-air emergency medical facilities.
Since that study, the number of schools in the Valley has doubled and NSET estimates that the structure of 25 per cent are so poor they need to be torn down, nearly 50 per cent have to be retrofitted.
Two of the new structures in the Sanepa school are earthquake-resistant, but its main building is not. In the event of an earthquake, the classrooms that survive will also serve as shelters for the community.
By spreading awareness about earthquake preparedness among students, NSET hopes the message is also passed on to their parents. Most Kathmandu homes are even more at risk than schools.
The massive casualty among school children in the Pakistan in 2005 when 17,000 school children died when 7,000 schools collapsed shows what can happen here. Hundreds of children died in unsafe schools in the Sichuan
earthquake in 2008. NSET's study of Lamjung and Nawalparasi districts last year showed that the state of school buildings there is even more precarious than Kathmandu: 75 per cent would collapse in a 7 magnitude earthquake, killing nearly 14,000 students and teachers and injuring 100,000 in the two districts alone.
The Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium has retrofitting of schools and hospitals as one of its five flagship areas for urgent attention. It estimates that nearly $50 million will be needed for the seismic strengthening of Kathmandu Valley's government schools and hospitals alone.