Of tremors and their fault lines

Tectonic shifts and other factors contributing to earthquakes take centuries before unleashing. However, it has become easier to understand their scale, intensity, and predictability

By Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Wed 8 Feb 2023, 10:03 PM

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The devastating news and visuals of a series of earthquakes causing death and destruction in Turkey, Syria, and other parts of the region have strangely ushered in the sense of déjà vu. News of such large-scale tragedies often trickle in and leaves a bizarre feeling – we have survived, but for how long? One also gets a horrifying sense that the death toll will only increase gradually, and the scale of devastation will be measured only after the aftershocks are over.

Following nature’s fury that struck Turkey and Syria – reportedly due to the over 100km rupture between the Anatolian and Arabian plates – the aftershocks have been as intense and potentially devastating. Visuals of collapsing buildings, mangled metals, bloodied bodies, and the ripped ground beneath have been all over, bringing the tragedy too close for comfort. Some of us are sensitised to these images, while others don’t pay heed to them anymore.

Whichever way one responds to the loss of precious human lives, the destruction of properties, and its other large-scale consequences, such as displacement, poverty, and hunger, we cannot wish away the fact that earthquakes will continue to strike. More importantly, it will not be at a time and place of our convenience. We hope to escape it by a quirk of fate, keeping an eye on the fault lines and working out probabilities. While prediction is best left to seismologists and earth scientists, the least we can do is inform us of our past experiences with earthquakes and how best to keep ourselves prepared.

Tectonic shifts and other factors contributing to earthquakes take centuries before unleashing. However, it has become easier to understand their scale, intensity, and predictability. From 1900 to 2014, the Middle East experienced 200 moderate to severe earthquakes, resulting in the deaths of nearly 250,000 people and impacting 10 million others. Studies on past occurrences give us a better understanding of what might unfold. Some studies are more specific. For instance, the Lloyd’s City Risk Index predicts that the next decade could see $ 85 billion in potential economic loss for the region’s 22 leading cities due to earthquakes.

The index’s seismotectonic model simulates thousands of earthquake events in the Middle East, incorporating data dating back to 400 BC. Although even such research may not provide a perfect prediction of seismic activity, it can aid in creating a long-term urban development plan that reduces risk. Its 2017 report states that nearly 30 million people in the countries covered by the model, approximately 20 per cent of the population, are at risk from earthquakes. It is perhaps even more important to study these cycles intensely because, with earthquakes, tsunamis are not very far behind.

As concrete jungles sprung across our rapidly urbanizing region, they concentrated high-value assets and populations in a relatively small area. The expansion of major cities, population growth, and increasing wealth have all increased exposure to hazardous areas. To protect inhabitants from the impact of natural disasters, it is crucial to have urban planning based on dependable hazard mapping. If seismicity is expected to continue, so should our preparedness to deal with it in the long run.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do.” The jury has been out on this hypothesis. It is true that collapsing buildings consume human lives in the hundreds. However, people died of earthquakes even when skyscrapers didn’t exist. It is almost akin to suggesting that a plane crash should bring flights to a halt. There is no running away from the fact that when the earth moves, it devours lives. Moreover, human beings’ survival instinct remains intact and is fueled by perseverance.

The Middle East would do well to learn from Japan’s tryst with earthquake-proof buildings as the possible answer to our vulnerabilities. It could be argued that they have made buildings in Japan totally secure; the technology seems to have limited the calamitous consequences due to the frequency and intensity of earthquakes in Japan. As buildings in Japan grew taller, the country implemented stricter measures to ensure earthquake-proof structures. The study of the ground beneath is equally important alongside the diagonal dampers.

It is one thing to make the latest technology available, but ensuring its adequate use requires regulatory compliance and persistence. Then comes innovation and investment into these cutting-edge technologies to keep them relevant and effective. These requirements should be embedded into the ethos of urban development so that one city or country doesn’t remain more vulnerable than another. We are perhaps not very far away from more accurate earthquake predictions. Whenever that happens, we would still need secure buildings to survive, besides the quirk of fate, of course.

- Ehtesham Shahid is an editor and researcher based in the UAE

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