Himalayan region unprepared for mega quake, India yet to learn from past mistakes: scientists

"Loss of life occurs due to building collapse and damage, we need to engineer structures with proper building codes"
Representational Picture
Representational Picture

A mega earthquake of magnitude 8.5 or more is long overdue in the Himalayan region but India has not learnt from past mistakes and is far from being prepared for such an eventuality with no strategy to minimise loss of life and property, scientists say.

The government must ensure seismic safety, scientists fromall over the country who gathered here last week for a global workshop said.

The April 18-20 International Workshop on Climate Change andExtreme Events in Himalayan Region, hosted by the Indian Institute ofTechnology (IIT) Mandi, was aimed at understanding the effects of climatechange, melting of glaciers, increased frequency of extreme events, atmosphericpollution, pollution due to crop residue burning in Himalayan region andapplications of remote sensing.

Scientists from various fields of expertise concurred thatan earthquake of the magnitude of 8.5 or more is likely to rock the Himalayanregion.

One of the many topics discussed at the event was that theHimalayan region was not prepared to reduce loss of lives and properties whenthe 'big one' arrives.

Numerous research groups, including one at IIT Roorkee, arein the process of developing earthquake early warning systems which could givepeople up to a minute of warning before the quake.

However, such short term predictions are not best wayforward, said Dr Supriyo Mitra from Indian Institute of Science Education andResearch (IISER), Kolkata.

"I would prefer being a society that is prepared,"Mitra told PTI.

Even if seismologists are able to provide an early warningto enable people to safely vacate their buildings before an earthquake, ourhomes would still be destroyed, turning a whole society into refugees, he said.

"We have the expertise to know what the hazards are.Engineers can work out the vulnerability of the structures and tell you themechanism by which they can be made resistant," said Mitra, one of thespeakers at the workshop.

Implementing these would reduce the risk to human lives andproperty in the event of a disaster.

"Science can tell you where an earthquake may strike,and with what magnitude, but 'when' is a bad question to ask," Mitra said.

He added that earthquake predictions shift the onus ofresponsibility of disaster preparedness completely to scientists.

However, to ensure preparedness, the public needs to beinvolved in questioning whether their buildings are safe.

Participants at the workshop also raised questions on howsocio-economically weaker sections would invest in building earthquakeresistant buildings.

Dr Durgesh C Rai from IIT Kanpur said it is the right ofevery individual to have seismic safety, and the government has to ensure that.

"Seismic safety should not be an optionalrequirement," Rai told PTI.

While presenting his research, Rai focused on howpublicly-funded government buildings in Himalayan states such as Sikkim andManipur could not survive even low intensity earthquakes.

According to him, we continue to repeat the same mistakestime and again, and have not learnt any lessons from the failures of the past.

Giving the example of the 1993 earthquake that struck Latur,Maharashtra — killing over 9,000 people — Rai said government agencies andacademicians were of the view that buildings which collapsed werenon-engineered.

"So the deaths of people were linked to theirpoverty," Rai said.

"In 2001, the Bhuj earthquake — 120 multi-storeybuildings collapsed in Ahmedabad — killed over 900. This was engineeredconstruction. The investigations showed that every building code was flouted,"Rai said.

"Earthquakes need not be deadly or destructive if weuse the right designs and materials," he said.

Rai said seismic safety should not be an optional featurethat people have to ask for. Rather, all buildings should be built to beearthquake safe by default — much like medical instruments are sterilisedbefore use, irrespective of whether a patient is rich or poor.

He pointed out that many older buildings in the Himalayanarc have survived earthquakes for decades, and these could serve as lessons forour future.

"Loss of life occurs due to building collapse anddamage, we need to engineer structures with proper building codes," saidRamesh P Singh, coordinator of the workshop, and visiting professor at IITMandi.

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