The casualties in the 18 September earthquake last year were surprisingly low, but it should have sent shock waves through parts of the government machinery supposed to prepare for the next Big One in Kathmandu.
The numbers are chilling: an 8.0 magnitude quake like the one in 1934 will kill between 100,000 to 200,000 outright, 700,000 will be injured, and 1.5 million made homeless. The airport will suffer damage, half the bridges will collapse, 95 per cent of water mains will be destroyed, there will be no electricity and phones won't work. Nearly all the hospitals will suffer damage, and half of all schools will collapse. And that is just in Kathmandu Valley.
Most earthquake experts have given up on the government getting its act together quickly enough on enforcing building codes to prevent future earthquakes from killing people. They are focusing on the aftermath: planning for rescue and relief, but even that will be a daunting challenge.
Even if private homes, offices and apartments can't be refitted to be earthquake resistant, the government and Nepal's international partners are working together to at least strengthen schools and hospitals.
"Retrofitting of schools and hospitals can save thousands of lives, and that is our focus," explains Surya Prasad Acharya of National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) which is working with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to retrofit Kathmandu Valley schools.
"We are at least confident that are our students will be safe," says a beaming Nawaraj Kunwar of the Balkumari School Management Committee.
Although the plan is to retrofit 900 schools in Kathmandu Valley in the next five years, NSET estimates there are 60,000 schools around the country with flimsy construction. About 60 per cent of them can be refitted, but 15 per cent need to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch.
The reason for the sense of urgency is that if an 8.0 magnitude earthquake were to strike during school hours, as many as 100,000 students could be killed and many more injured. More than 17,000 school children were killed in the Pakistan earthquake six years ago, and thousands of children were trapped under shoddily built schools in the 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan in 2008.
Around the world, schools are used as temporary shelters during natural disasters, but in Nepal it will be schools that will collapse first. Half of all structures that were damaged in East Nepal in September were schools, and the only reason no children died was because the earthquake hit after school hours.
If the earthquake is terrible, the aftermath may be even worse. Survivors will have to deal with dead phones, no emergency services, contaminated water, lack of food, shelter and a poorly prepared government. "If an earthquake were to strike today, there will be no hospitals for the injured to go to," says Pradeep Vaidya, a doctor who is coordinating Hospital Preparedness for Emergency (HOPE).
The government is showing signs of waking up to the danger. It is now working with the international community's National Risk Reduction Consortium for the seismic strengthening of schools and hospitals.
TUTH, Birendra Military, Civil and Patan hospitals are being equipped to deal with an earthquake emergency. The government, the World Health Organisation (WHO), OXFAM, ICRC and others are working to retrofit hospitals, mitigate non-structural risks and stock emergency supplies.
Says Vaidya: "The aim is to have enough water, medicines, and fuel to last us at least for the first few days. We have no choice, we have to be prepared."
Time is running out
Simple measures like widening exits and stairwells in schools, training teachers and students on first aid safety, search and rescue can save many lives. "The least the government can do is make sure that all the new schools and hospitals follow building codes," Surya Prasad Acharya of NSET says.
The Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium has developed a three-year $120 million strategy for school and hospital retrofitting, emergency preparedness and response, and community activation and has raised half that amount. "Today, the problem is not money, but implementation capacity. And the need for a greater sense of urgency," says the UN's Resident Coordinator, Robert Piper, "time is not on our side."
A shaken nation
If the slow pace of rescue and relief is any indication, rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure in eastern Nepal will take decades
Not if, but when, KUNDA DIXIT
Ask not what your government can do for you in an earthquake, ask what you can do for yourself