Thursday, October 29, 2015

The missing bye laws and killer quakes

Last Monday, October 26, 2015 a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. While the epicentre was in Afghanistan at the depth of more than 200 kilometres, the effects of the earthquake were felt all the way till India. More than 390 people have died in the natural disaster, which triggered several landslides and a glacial lake outburst flood in the northern areas of Pakistan. The highest casualties have been reported from Pakistan with at least 272 dead and 2,123 injured. This is the third major earthquake to hit the South Asian region this year after the May 12, 2015 tremor in Nepal that killed more than 200 which followed the April 25, 2015 earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 9,000 people.
Earthquakes are a part of life for people who live on seismic zones. The only problem is that at times, the infrequency of tectonic activity gives people temporary amnesia and they forget to use the age old ‘disaster-resistant’ construction techniques and safety measures their forefathers mastered over millennia. Let’s forget the moral judgements for now, and focus on the scientific causes of earthquakes and how one can actually try to survive through such a catastrophe.
It is for the governments to enable people to understand the natural disasters that can befall and why. So the authorities need to conduct early study of geologic deposits, seismic monitoring and create early warning systems as a few of the necessary things to mitigate disasters. The second is to create awareness on safety measures necessary for each disaster.
Such measures include fire alarms, fire drills and ‘drop, cover, and hold on’ drills, public awareness campaigns, print and electronic media advertisements for public safety, and educating teachers and children about safety measure. Throughout my schools years, I remember having a fire drill only once, when internationally it is mandatory to have at least one fire drill in an academic year.
Installing early warning systems is also important. However, the problem with earthquakes is that they don’t give enough time before striking, unlike cyclones, tidal waves, tsunamis, hurricanes, and bushfires. So, while an early warning system may work to evacuate before a tsunami, hurricane, or cyclone, it would not work in an earthquake because earthquakes strike suddenly, almost always without any warning.
Therefore, people living in seismic zones, especially on fault lines must be aware of the looming threat of a simple shake when the earth desires.
Mostly, earthquakes do not kill people, buildings do. So it is important that building by-laws incorporate construction techniques that help increase friction in a building, which in turn will increase the time of ‘collapse’ allowing occupants to safely exit. In short, earthquake resistance needs to be taken into consideration when planning a city and designing any infrastructure and buildings in a seismic zone.
Incidentally, almost the whole of Pakistan is situated in a seismically active zone. And while we do have an active Pakistan Meteorological Department and a National Disaster Management Authority, both leave much to be desired.
The magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck on October 8, 2005, was a major catastrophe to hit the nation. With 80,000 people dead and three million people displaced, the destruction was of epic proportions. The epicentre of the trembler was near the city of Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, which lies in the collision zone of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plate. This collision zone is also responsible for the giant Himalayan Mountain Range.
It seems Pakistan learnt no lessons from the catastrophe. Building bye laws still remain neglected, and while the governments, both central and provincial are keen on bringing in foreign investment in the real estate sector, working out the necessary technicalities is at the bottom of their priority list.