Urgent need to prepare for earthquakes

News and Press Release
Originally published

YANGON, 23 May 2011 (IRIN) - The recent 6.8 quake that shook Myanmar's northeastern Shan State, killing 74 and affecting 18,000 [], serves as a stark warning for this largely unprepared, earthquake-prone country, say experts.

Myanmar rests on one of the world's two main earthquake belts, with one of its many fault lines running 1,000km north to south through the country's agriculturally rich central plain, placing major Burmese cities, including Mandalay, Bago and Yangon, at risk.

Historically, strong earthquakes have resulted in rural temple damage but relatively few casualties. However, research shows that increased urbanization, without attention to disaster preparedness, could lead to higher death rates in the event of a major quake.

"There have been earthquakes in the past but the impact was not substantial in areas that were sparsely populated, but if a big earthquake happened to one big city, that would be very devastating because they are not very prepared," said Peeranan Towashiraporn, a senior project manager and earthquake expert at the Asia Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) in Bangkok [], citing poor construction quality.

ADPC deemed the northern city of Mandalay - home to one million inhabitants and located on the main Sagaing Fault - as the most at-risk.

The ADPC's Hazard Profile of Myanmar, published in 2009, [] reports that the fault, part of the Alpide Belt, and the cause of 13 of 17 major earthquakes in Myanmar in the past 172 years, has been mostly quiet for 75 years. This could mean accumulated stress will be soon looking for a release.

Among predictions of imminent earthquakes is a geophysical study by researchers in Japan [] , who warn that an earthquake with a magnitude of up to 7.9 could shake central Myanmar, near the newly built capital, Naypyitaw, at any time.

"But I'm not worried about the new capital, as the buildings there were well built," Soe Thura Tun, secretary of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee, a subdivision of the Myanmar Engineering Society [ ], said. He was more concerned about the 4.4 million inhabitants of Yangon, who reside in old buildings constructed in a zone considered to have strong seismic potential. The Sagaing Fault, Dedaye Fault and Western Bago Yoma Fault are all close by.

When a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck Bago in 1930, many buildings were destroyed and 500 people died. The tremors were felt 80km away in Yangon, resulting in 50 more deaths.

Many buildings in the former Burmese capital built before the 1990s would be at risk, while those constructed in the past two decades are believed to be resistant, as happened in the recent quake in Shan State, Soe Thura Tun explained.

A case study of Myanmar's earthquake preparedness presented at the 2010 New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering Conference states, "Before 1988, most major structures were designed by the government and seismic resistance was optional." [ ] Furthermore, soil investigation before construction work began, an initial step in earthquake preparedness, was not mandatory pre-1999.

In addition to a proliferation of unsafe commercial buildings, Shihab Uddin Ahmad, country director of ActionAid, an international anti-poverty organization [ ] in Myanmar, said the public sector had neglected to design a disaster plan.

"There is no hospital that has the capacity to handle mass casualty management. Children in school are not trained to deal with earthquake evacuation... Civil population and rescue volunteers are not yet trained [for search and rescue]," he said.

In a bid to reduce high risk of fatalities and casualties, risk assessments, such as the one ADPC is doing, should be conducted in the quake-prone cities, Soe Thura Tun said. Then, risk-management should be planned, he added.

Ahmad said, "DRR [disaster-risk reduction] is very new in Myanmar. A few agencies have started working with the government to include earthquake knowledge in the education curriculum, but coverage is still very low."