PICS: BIKRAM RAI
On 18 September last year, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake rocked eastern Nepal and northeast India. The number of casualties was miraculously low, but the fact that a faraway earthquake killed three people in Kathmandu was a warning that brought back memories of the Great Earthquake of 1934 which killed 10,000 people in the Valley.
Nepal ranks high on the list of nations at risk from earthquakes, and Kathmandu is the world's least prepared city for earthquakes. Japan and New Zealand proved that even in the deadliest of earthquakes, preparedness can help reduce and avert the loss of lives.
Marles was here to inspect progress on a project to retrofit schools in Kathmandu Valley to make them earthquake resistant which is being supported by AusAID and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Earthquake experts say that unsafe construction will result in widespread damage to the Valley's urban core, and most of the existing schools and hospitals will be destroyed in a big earthquake. Retrofitting schools and hospitals will not just help save lives, but the buildings themselves can serve as shelters in the aftermath of a future earthquake.
Under the AusAID and ADB-funded School Sector Reform Programme, 15 schools in the Valley have been retrofitted in the last fiscal year and nearly 121 more will be completed in the coming year. The retrofitting programme only covers government schools, and experts are worried about thousands of private schools housed in unsafe buildings.
"Many private schools are housed in residential buildings, which are rarely monitored for earthquake safety putting hundreds of children at risk," says Jhapper Singh Vishokarma, engineer with the Department of Education, which is working with technical assistance of NSET to make schools safer.
Walking past the congested residential areas of inner Patan where houses look nothing more than stacks of bricks fighting for every inch of space, Marles made his way to the spacious premises of the Tri-Padma Vidyashram School in Lalitpur. The school has recently been retrofitted and hopes to serve as a shelter for the local community after an earthquake. The students and teachers have been practicing earthquake safety drills over the past year, which has helped spread awareness about earthquake safety beyond schools.
Since schools have the largest concentration of people on any given day, building safe schools will not just help save lives. but also be the best way to pass on earthquake safety information to families and the community.
"Awareness is key," he added as he walked along the wide hallways inspecting the retrofitted classrooms.
In 2009, Nepal's international partners and the UN got together to form the National Risk Reduction Consortium to better prepare for future disasters, including earthquakes. School and hospital retrofitting was considered the best place to start.
The UN's Resident Coordinator, Robert Piper, accompanied Marles on the school inspection. He told Nepali Times: "To protect the future, children need to be safe first and the time is now."
Where the quake will hit hardest, RUBEENA MAHATO
Kathmandu is woefully unprepared for the next Big One
Unsafe schools and hospitals
Where the earthquake will hit the hardest
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