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Nepal: The Big One?

A looming catastrophic earthquake in Nepal could unleash devastation that surpasses that of Haiti or Chile.

Piper is one of the driving forces behind a pioneering effort to change that. Bringing together a consortium including the U.N., the Red Cross, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, the $130 million project aims simultaneously to ramp up Nepal's ability to respond to a major earthquake and mitigate its effects by improving the structures of schools and hospitals — potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

“It's not going to save every life,” said Piper. “We can't retrofit every building in the Kathmandu Valley. But if we retrofit all the schools, if we fix the hospitals, if we shift the bridges, if we put water sources in where people are going to be evacuated ... we're going to have an impact.”

It's Dixit's NSET that's shown the way forward, or at least the first step. Realizing that demolishing and rebuilding 32,000 public schools would be impossible for a country with a per capita income of less than $500, the local organization has shown that it's feasible to retrofit schools to prevent loss of life — if not always the loss of the building — for as little as $30,000. And in outlying areas where costs escalate dramatically for concrete and rebar, almost any material, including traditional adobe, can be adapted to earthquake-safe designs. So far NSET has retrofitted some 200 schools, providing a strong proof of concept.

Dixit says that over the last decade, NSET has shown that preparing for disaster is not as costly as once imagined, that the knowledge and technology to make a difference is available, and developing countries don't have to be distressed that only rich nations can afford safety. But proving that is far from enough.

“Our school program is very famous, and everybody likes it, and we have been invited to other countries to talk about it, but there's a tremendous sense of guilt with us that we have only been able to go out to 200 schools,” said Dixit. “That is a gloomy picture.”

Even for stopgap measures like retrofitting, the challenges are enormous. Awareness of the risks is high, but poor people are still inclined to cut corners to save construction costs. Kathmandu has no mayor to ride herd on building inspectors, fire chiefs and other officials responsible for making the city safe. And national politicians — notoriously reluctant to focus on issues that won't gain them any political capital until years down the road, if at all — are now wrapped up in a complex peace process following a decade-long civil war.

So although everyone knows that if the big one were to hit tomorrow, the loss of life would be nothing short of catastrophic, in Dixit's words it's up to the banks, the ambassadors and the U.N. to take up the baton now.

“It's a crime not to have an earthquake resistant building in Kathmandu. It's a gross crime,” said Dixit.