Building earthquake-resilient schools to protect Nepal's children

Nepal, the landlocked country nestled between neighbouring giants India and China, is situated on the southern slopes of the Great Himalayan Range ridge and is home to some of the Earth's highest peaks. Whilst this unique location is part of Nepal’s appeal with magnificent and awe-inspiring mountains, treks and views, living on top of continuously colliding tectonic plates brings significant risk and danger to the people of Nepal.

The Tibetan and Indian tectonic plates are said to be converging at a relative rate of 4-5cm (two inches) a year, creating pressure that can only be released by earthquakes, posing an ever-present threat to the communities and buildings in the foothills of the Himalaya, one of the main areas of Pahar Trust Nepal (PTN) projects.

The impact of such earthquakes in Nepal is evident from the devastating 2015 Gorkha earthquake that took nearly 9,000 lives and damaged more than 750,000 buildings. Around 24,000 classrooms were damaged or destroyed with almost one million children unable to return to school following the quakes, according to UNICEF. Thankfully, the main earthquake struck on a Saturday when schools and many businesses were closed, otherwise, the number of fatalities and casualties would have been considerably higher.

A school building at Tamang Khaka that was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake.

There is a major concern that progress made over the last 25 years to increase primary school enrolment in Nepal – from 64 per cent in 1990 to more than 95 per cent today – has suffered a serious setback in the aftermath of the earthquake. UNICEF’s experience shows that children who are out of school for extended periods, including during emergencies, become less and less likely to ever return to the classroom.

So what can be done to ensure the school children of Nepal have access to education whilst living in a high-risk earthquake area? Pahar Trust Nepal has over thirty years of experience in supporting communities in the foothills of the Himalayas through major earthquakes, flooding and landslides, becoming the prominent earthquake-resilient school provider in this area of Nepal.

The majority of PTN schools withstood the 2015 earthquake with minor damage compared to other nearby buildings, most of which were not built to withstand such impact. Schools that witnessed total collapse were largely constructed from stone and brick masonry, with many built before the enforcement of Nepal building code and guidelines for school building designs. Many of the earlier PTN schools were built to the prevailing building code in Nepal at the time and did not collapse but were likely structurally compromised. Therefore PTN has been working to repair and retrofit the older schools to increase their resilience. Here are some case studies of Pahar Trust Nepal schools impacted by the earthquake that have subsequently been designed and rebuilt or retrofitted:

Case study 1: Shree Ramkot Secondary School.
(Left) 2015 earthquake damage to Shree Ramkot Secondary School and (right) the new safe, durable and earthquake-resilient school built by Pahar Trust Nepal.

Aims and Objectives:

The primary aim of the Shree Ramkot Secondary School project was to deliver a new, 6-room, 2-storey school building to provide a safe and secure learning environment for the students of the village and surrounding communities. The existing school buildings had received major damage during the earthquake of 2015 and many needed to be demolished.

 

Project activities:

A stone laying ceremony was conducted by the Executive Director of Pahar Trust Nepal (PTN) in April 2018 and construction began in October 2018. Works were scheduled to be completed by the end of July 2019. The work has been well supported by local contractors, the School Management Committee and the local community. The support of the community has been vital to the success of the project and included the preparation of the ground for construction and the provision of timber from the local woodland.

In July 2019 a group of students from Chew Valley School, North Somerset visited the school to help with finishing works including painting and tree planting.

Beneficiaries:

The school benefits all 392 students on roll with the new rooms providing more space and the allocation of subject-specific classrooms for secondary level education. The increased capacity also allows the school to increase its student numbers as nearly 1200 of the local population of 6000 people are under 17 years old. 

The wider community also benefits from the new building and are encouraged to use the space for out-of-school activities such as youth clubs or as a community meeting space. This approach is fully supported by the school management committee.

 

Community Involvement:

The community of Ramkot are very supportive of the construction and provided materials such as wood, from their forest and also labour, both skilled and unskilled. The community also carried out and paid for the site preparations to clear the construction area which required the hiring and use of heavy plant machinery.

Case study 2: Shree Pasgaun Thanti, Secondary School in Pasgaun, Lamjung

One of the first schools constructed by Pahar Trust Nepal was Shree Pasgaun Thanti, Secondary School in Pasgaun, Lamjung. Like many buildings built before the current earthquake specifications, it was damaged during the 2015 earthquake but due to the need, the community were still using the structurally unsafe school.

 

 

The initial plan for the works was to remove the heavy tile roof and replace it with a new, light roof. However, once works began it was discovered that the entire first floor was unsafe and the decision was taken to completely remove the floor and to replace it with a new, prefabricated steel frame construction. The changed approach was delivered within the original budget and also further reduced the weight of the first floor.

The project consisted of:

  • Repairing and renovating the existing damage
  • Removal of the heavy slate roof
  • Removal of the first floor 
  • A new lighter steel frame was installed to replace old masonry walls
  • Lightweight, insulated panels were put in place.
  • The application of a fibreglass ‘wrap’ to the building to increase its resilience to future earthquakes

Case study 3: Shree Saraswoti Secondary School, Thulaswara, Lamjung

This PTN 10-room, two-storey school (built in 1998 and funded by the Jephcott Trust) has been well attended for many years but was damaged in the earthquake of 2015. Although the building survived the earthquake, four of the classrooms suffered significant damage with large cracks visible in the walls and doorways. Deemed structurally unsafe and damaged beyond repair, these four rooms need to be demolished and replaced to make them safe for the children and teachers to use. The remaining six rooms of the building are in use but require further refurbishment and retrofitting to ensure that they are able to survive future earthquakes. 

Four classrooms were structurally damaged by the 2015 earthquake and are yet to be funded.

PTN have been seeking funds to support the work at Thulaswara for a number of years but a suitable donor has so far not been identified to fund the works. However, the school remains on the list of potential projects in need of support along with many others in need too.

We hope that we can find the funding to enable us to build more earthquake-resilient schools to protect the children of Nepal who live in this beautiful but earthquake-prone area of the world.