Located in Kedarsyu-6 Rural Township, Bajhang, Bhumidev Primary School is perched on a hilltop with roads running on either side. The school, which teaches grades one through eight, has 236 students, but the school’s infrastructure does not provide a safe environment for any of its students.
Ishwar Dhami, an eighth-grader, says he doesn’t feel safe at the school given how prone the building has become to landslides after roads were built so close two years ago.
“Landslides threaten our school every year. During the monsoons, we can hardly concentrate on our classroom lessons as the fear of landslides sweeping us away becomes overwhelming,” Ishwar said. “Even when heavy vehicles drive by, our school building shakes to the ground and we all run away.”
The constant threat of landslides disrupts classes and impairs learning, says school principal Maan Bahadur Dhami. “We’re at the limit all the time, but during the monsoon it’s twice as difficult to teach. The mulch washed up by the rain is flooding our classrooms and it’s taking us four to five days to clean up,” said Maan Bahadur. “Between these chaotic activities, study takes a backseat for both students and teachers.”
The principal accuses the road authorities of being insensitive to the school and its residents. “Authorities should have considered the risk of road construction on a fragile topography,” Maan Bahadur said.
Sidhu Kami, whose two grandchildren are in fourth and sixth grade, faces a dilemma over whether to send them to school. “If we don’t send them to school, they will never get an education. But when they’re at school, I get restless,” Sidhu said. “The school building will not stand if there is a landslide nearby.”
Bhumidev Basic School is just one of hundreds of schools in Bajhang threatened by flooding and landslides. In the rural township of Kedarsyu, where Bhumidev Primary School is located, there are seven other schools at risk from natural disasters such as landslides and floods. According to the local government, around 3,191 students are enrolled in these schools.
In the neighboring rural community of Durgathali, 23 schools are at risk. Around 297 students from Durgathali attend these schools.
According to the district’s Department of Education Development and Coordination, 122 schools in Bajhang are at risk of natural disasters including earthquakes. These endangered the lives of more than 24,400 students.
After roads were built, landslides began erupting near schools, studies show. In 2021, a report entitled “Landslides, Road Construction and Risk Reduction in the Political Economy of Nepal 2020” conducted by Oxford Policy Management: a British Policy and Institution Facility showed that the risk of landslides in hilly and mountainous areas areas of Nepal has increased due to haphazard road construction. The report finds that indiscriminate construction work without geological and environmental studies has not only jeopardized infrastructure such as schools, health posts and irrigation canals, but entire settlements and farmlands have also been put at risk.
“In recent years, landslides have mainly occurred where new roads are being built or are under construction. The stakeholders do not consider the safety of the local people and their schools, settlements, drinking water projects, irrigation systems or anything,” said Surendra Kathayat, head of the district educational development and coordination committee. “The constant fear of death during high school has impacted student learning in the district.”
In October last year, floods and landslides triggered by three days of rain caused widespread destruction in Bajhang. According to the District Disaster Management Committee, the disaster killed 31 people and the district suffered a loss of more than 10 billion rupees in physical infrastructure and economy. Schools were hardest hit.
More than 10,000 students were affected by the floods and landslides, while nearly 89 schools in the district were damaged. More than a year after the disaster, the damage caused still has to be repaired and the schools have to be fortified and rebuilt. As a result, most schools are conducting classes in an unsafe environment, with some classrooms moving outdoors.
October floods in the Jadarigad River in the rural community of Khaptad Channa washed away three concrete buildings, toilets and the playground of Jagdamba Primary School.
“Since then, until mid-August this year, classes have been held outdoors. During the monsoon season we didn’t hold any classes at all. For 10 months, our curriculum was disrupted and students’ academic performance fell to an all-time low,” said Makar Khatri, teacher at Jagdamba Basic School.
According to Lal Bahadur Khatri, director of Jagdamba Basic School, the construction of a six-room building a little further away from where the previous school building stood is in the final stages. “We plan to start classes in the new building, but we will not be able to accommodate all grade levels,” Khatri said. “We have a total of 160 students. With winter fast approaching, I’m concerned about holding classes outdoors for the rest of the students.”
Some schools in Bajhang have been permanently relocated from high-risk zones to areas where new roads are being built. Bastigau’s Bishwanath Primary School in the rural township of Talkot has been relocated from its original location after a landslide began four years ago following the construction of the Chainpur-Ruwatola and Busti-Bhimdhunga road sections near the school.
“Authorities should not allow road networks to haphazardly invade the hilly areas,” said Jhalak Rokaya, a local in Talkot rural community. “This negligence has caused us much heartache and loss over the years.”
In the classroom on rainy days, Ishwari Joshi, an eighth grader at Luyata Primary School in Jayaprithvi Municipality, worries about the Dilgad River, which has already cut through the foundation of the school building. “As the water flow increases, the whole building starts to shake. Last year I saw the angry river flush away the toilet near the school building,” Joshi said.
The river has already reached three of the school’s five buildings.
“But we cannot afford to close this school as it is the only one in this area. When we close, the local children won’t have another school,” said Dhanbhakta Joshi, the principal of Luyata Basic School. “We have 150 students here and it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect them at school.”
The condition of Ratna Secondary School in Pauta Village, Kedarsyu Rural Municipality is similar. Due to erosion, four of the school’s buildings are constantly flooded. The school, which has about 600 students, is eroded by the Kalanga River.
“The road connecting to the site has been washed away and the river has almost reached the school. The entire structure can collapse at any time,” said Tara Dutt Pant, a teacher at the school.
According to Harilal Thagunna, a resident of Pauta Village in Kedarsyun-5, in addition to the schools, more than 20 local people’s houses around the school are threatened by erosion from the Kalanga River.
Most schools in the upper region of Nepal are at risk of disaster. But this problem has taken a serious turn in Bajhang. Most of the district’s secondary schools and high schools are located on river banks. More than 36 schools are located on the banks of the Seti River and the Kalangagad and Bahuligad Rivers. All of these schools are threatened by landslides, flooding and erosion.
Despite ongoing disasters and loss of life and property, the authorities have yet to adopt a disaster mitigation plan for Bajhang.
According to Sami Bista from Parakatne, Thalara Rural-4 municipality, the locals themselves went to the authorities asking for help to protect the schools against natural disasters, but no help came. “If the authorities had allocated 50,000-60,000 rupees to build embankments along the riverbanks, locals would have contributed manpower,” Bista said. “It would have saved a lot of trouble.”
Santosh Panthi, an engineer and green infrastructure expert at Scott Wilson Nepal, who spent two years studying the roads in Bajhang district and the geographic, environmental and watershed areas, said the roads being built in Bajhang are one of the main causes of frequent landslides. The road network has increased the likelihood of more flooding and landslides, he says.
According to Panthi, 95 percent of the roads built in Bajhang lack the right engineering. The new roads were built over small streams that block traditional water sources and their pathways, causing more flooding and landslides. “Roads built without meeting minimum technical standards have not brought development to rural areas, only destruction,” Panthi said.
“Road construction, which has gained momentum in recent years, threatens the existence of local communities. Excessive use of heavy machinery in road construction has led to more landslides,” said Kamal Thapa, a geological engineer who has surveyed various communities of Bajhang.
The rural community of Saipal is considered to be the most vulnerable in the district in terms of landslide risk. According to a study released in 2018 by GeoHazard International, an international organization that deals with natural disasters, earthquakes measuring more than 7 on the Richter scale will cause landslides in 2,630 locations in the rural municipality of Saipal, causing huge loss of life and property.
“The Disaster Management and Response Plan prepared by the District Disaster Management Committee mentions that schools are used as emergency shelters during disasters such as floods, landslides and earthquakes. But the schools themselves are threatened by disasters,” Thapa said.
Chief District Officer Baburam Aryal, who also chairs the District Disaster Management Committee, says none of the local entities or the provincial and federal governments plan to designate buildings other than schools as disaster shelters. “We know sheltering in schools is not the best plan, but we have no other alternative at the moment,” Aryal said.
Last year, floods and landslides damaged 90 schools in 25 townships and rural communities in 10 districts of Nepal. School buildings worth more than Rs 500 million were damaged in Bajhang, Baitadi, Bajura, Dadeldhura, Darchula, Dhankuta, Doti, Ilam, Panchthar and Rupandehi districts, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority. Baldeep Sharma, an engineer with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, said there has not yet been a survey to find out the risk schools across the country face.
The deputy director-general of the Education and Human Resources Development Center, Rudra Prasad Adhikari, said the government had not conducted a study on how many of the country’s 26,454 state schools were at risk from natural disasters.
“None of the schools in Saipal are safe at the moment,” said Bharat Bahadur Singh of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. “There is no way to predict what kind of accident will happen to which school.”