A major earthquake of greater than An 8M quake in western Nepal would be felt even more strongly in Kathmandu Valley than the 7.8M disaster five years ago. Still, disaster preparedness experts say attention should now turn from the 14 districts in Central Nepal affected in 2015 to western Nepal.
Before the COVID-19 lockdown, Nepal had begun to retrofit 2,200 classrooms in around 200 schools in four western districts Bardia,
Surkhet, Jumla and Achham to be completed in four years with funding support of DFID UKAID under the Nepal Safer Schools Project (NSSP). NSSP is being implemented by a consortium led by Crown Agents together with NSET, Save the Children and Arup International and is aligned with and contribute to the Government of Nepal’s School Sector Development Plan (2016-2023) which includes a focus on School Safety and Disaster Risk Reduction.
Prior to 2015, NSET had similarly retrofitted around 300 schools in Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas which survived the earthquake and served as emergency shelters. However, nearly 8,000 schools were completely destroyed in 2015, and colossal loss of lives was averted only because the earthquake struck on a Saturday.
Quake was a learning experience for Nepal’s schools, Prakriti Kandel
“We selected the schools in western based on vulnerability, potential for replication, availability of masons and enthusiasm of the school management committee,” adds Shrestha. “Next step is to scale this up and this means more investment, technical support and massive mobilisation of human resources.”
Hospitals in western Nepal at the moment are all on red alert for a possible outbreak of COVID-19 in the region and healthcare workers are keenly aware of shortages of live-saving medical equipment such as test kits, ventilators, ICU beds, oxygen and personal protective gear. In an event of a major earthquake, this situation will be even worse because the hospital buildings themselves may be damaged.
Three components within a healthcare facility determine if a hospital will be functional during an earthquake: seismic resistance of the building, state of power supply and medical equipment, and an emergency preparedness system with health workers trained for mass casualties.
Dadeldhura hospital has been identified as a disaster management hub in Far West Nepal with satellite facilities in other district hospitals.
“For the kind of earthquake projected here, none of us is prepared, western Nepal the least of all. We might have big hospitals in city centres but can the buildings withstand the quake is the real question,” says Bikash Gauchan of Bayalpata hospital in Achham.
Few weeks before the earthquake struck in 2015, Bayalpata hospital had undergone reconstruction to turn the institution into an eco-friendly, earthquake resistant facility. A disaster management protocol was also drawn up for triage in its emergency, as well as in and out patient buildings.
Gauchan says hospitals in the Far West have to be prepared for multiple disasters: “We can’t overhaul our system every time a disaster strikes, be it the coronavirus or an earthquake. We need a standard operating protocol based on concrete national guidelines.”
Back in 2003, Nepal government in collaboration with WHO had conduced earthquake vulnerability assessment of 15 major hospitals across the country that recommended they all be retrofitted. More than 15 years later, except from minor strengthening of health clinics, nothing has been done.
Hope now rests on the newly formed National Risk Reduction and Disaster Management Authority (DMA) which will replace the National Reconstruction Authority set up after 2015. Experts hope the focus will now shift to strengthening infrastructure of public buildings, transmission lines, telecommunication, sewage and water supply.
Says Surya Narayan Shrestha at NSET: “We spent the last fives years mostly in the reconstruction of residential building and heritage sites in Central Nepal. Our priority now is on reinforcing infrastructure and ensuring essential services are better equipped to survive the next big one.”