Starting With the Children

Alberta Engineers Retrofit School
in Kathmandu Earthquake Zone

In The Classroom
Students at the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School enjoy their studies - but the threat of a major earthquake always lurks.

Freelance Writer

When John Alexander, P.Eng., visited Nepal a few years ago, he thought he was simply going on an adventure holiday. He kayaked, trekked and explored the Himalayan country for a month.

Then came the unexpected.

“You fall in love with the area and the people,” says Mr. Alexander, a structural engineer at Stantec Consulting. “You want to give something back, because there is such a discrepancy between what they have and what we have.”

Mr. Alexander recently found a way to contribute to the poverty-ridden country that won his heart. He’s one of several APEGGA members who have volunteered to undertake a seismic retrofit of the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School in Kathmandu. The work is being done through the Edmonton-based volunteer group Partners for Sustainable Development.

The school, for impoverished children from rural areas, is situated in the Kathmandu Valley, a high-risk seismic zone. A major earthquake, in fact, could occur there at any time.

The most vulnerable structure is a four-storey dormitory block that houses over 200 children. “A lot of these buildings are standing just fine right now,” says Mr. Alexander. “But if they were hit with a seismic event, there’s no question they would collapse.”

School administrators are simply too overwhelmed with other critical problems to work on seismic protection, explains project coordinator Andrew Mitchell, P.Eng., a former City of Edmonton civil engineer. Nepal, the poorest country in Asia, is afflicted by civil war.

Waiting for a Big One

Yet the earthquake risk should not be ignored. A massive earthquake is expected at any time in the Kathmandu Valley, similar to the 1935 quake that killed about 8,000 people. Officials with the United Nations Development Program estimate that such an earthquake today would kill 40,000 people and injure 95,000.

Last year, more than 60 children died when an earthquake toppled a school in Bingol, Turkey.

“The idea is that the design work will be done here and that the contract administration will be done by the school,” Mr. Mitchell explains. He adds that the school is well run by a Canadian, Shirley Blair, and its finances are “tightly controlled.”

Mr. Mitchell became involved after meeting with Ms. Blair and then realizing the danger faced by the school. That concern led him to get in touch with Partners for Sustainable Development, which originally began as a project of University of Alberta engineering students and the humanitarian organization Engineers Without Borders.

The founders were Edmontonians Khaled Saleh, E.I.T., Jennifer Lee, E.I.T., and environmental scientist Katharine Cross.

Several APEGGA members recently joined in, including some in Calgary, following a story earlier this year in The PEGG. The group hopes that a start on the retrofit can be made in June and July of this year, when many of the children in the dormitory have returned to their homes in the mountains.

Financial Partners Needed
However, both planning and fundraising are in their early stages. “Our immediate problem is trying to get partners to give some support financially,” says Mr. Mitchell. While cost estimates are preliminary, the group is aiming to raise about $30,000 US.

So far two approaches have been identified for the retrofit. The dormitory structure itself is long and narrow (36 metres long by seven metres wide) and has a reinforced concrete frame. The design group, led by Mr. Alexander, determined that the concrete is not strong enough and that some structural elements are too small.

One proposal was to replace weak walls with reinforced concrete shear walls. However, the school was concerned about the lack of light and fresh air that would result from covering the windows.

The preferred solution is to use structural steel cross-bracing to reinforce the walls. “It’s not very esthetic, but the school is prepared to accept that,” says Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Alexander notes that “the engineering is the easiest part of the project.”

Construction Poses Challenges
Undertaking construction in a high-seismic zone in the Third World is “a different experience from what we’re used to.” Poor construction conditions, poor materials and a lack of uniform building codes are just a few of the challenges ahead.

“There’s a very big variance in the materials,” Mr. Alexander says. “For example, the masonry may have little load-bearing capacity due to the way bricks are made.”

Extreme climatic conditions in the Third World add to the engineering challenges, says Antoni Kowalczewski, P.Eng., of Janto Engineering Inc. in Edmonton, who consults in seismic engineering in Morocco.

The group urgently needs engineering firms to become corporate partners to assist with initial funding. Help is also needed with the project management aspects of the job.

“This school is only one building in the Kathmandu Valley,” says Mr. Alexander. “But you have to take one at a time, and you may as well start with the children.”

For More Information
Or to Donate to this Project

Andrew Mitchell, P.Eng.
(780) 437-3688.


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