Ready to Rumble?


Weekend investigates the sleeping giant underneath Yangon.

It’s not a matter of if, but when.

This verdict comes up time and time again when speaking to local and international experts on the likelihood of Yangon’s next big earthquake.

Why? The largest city in Myanmar is currently facing twin threats of bad location and bad timing.

Yangon, along with the rest of the country, straddles the Alpide Belt, one of the two main earthquake belts in the world.

Deep underground, the Indian Plate and the Burma Platelet are slowly colliding at a small – only a few centimetres each year – but highly consequential rate.

Tectonic movements have meant that several faults splinter out across the country, including the most active Sagaing Fault, which runs from the mountains of Kachin State into the Gulf of Martaban.

And unbeknownst to many of the city’s almost six million residents, the Sagaing Fault passes just 40 kilometres east of Shwedagon Pagoda, although it hasn’t seen any major activity since the 1930 Bago and Pyu earthquakes.

“There is a possibility that a portion of the Sagaing Fault near Yangon might rupture in the next two or three decades,” said Hiroyuki Tsutsui, a published author on the subject from Kyoto University. Based on his research around the epicentre of the Bago disaster, he said that “even the same section of the fault that moved in 1930 could rupture again”.

Weekend spoke with Mr Tsutsui and numerous other experts on the tectonic movements in and around Yangon, and they all agreed that the city is at risk from a wide array of potential scenarios.

Though the Sagaing Fault poses the likeliest threat of a magnitude 7 quake or higher, less severe quakes are also probable from a cluster of smaller faults that pass even closer to the city.

Max Wyss, director at the World Agency of Planetary Monitoring and Earthquake Risk Reduction, published a 2008 study on the ramifications that quakes could have on what was then a smaller city of 4.5 million inhabitants.

The paper, titled Estimated Human Losses in Future Earthquakes in Central Myanmar, calculates potential fatality ranges for nine earthquake scenarios in and around Yangon Region, with most looking survivable and a few looking catastrophic.

Mr Wyss wrote that “the number of fatalities and injuries in a single future earthquake may exceed 100,000, probably by quite a bit”.

And yet, it’s hard to gather a sense of dread when sipping lae phet yay on a sidewalk.

The relative stability of Yangon over recent decades seems to have lulled many into a false sense of complacency.

Mark Cutts, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar, said the 6.8 magnitude Central Myanmar earthquake in August should serve as a wake-up call.

“While the damage from the August quake was relatively small, an earthquake of that size in a place like Yangon … would have devastating consequences for millions of people.”

What has experts especially concerned is the way Yangon has developed over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Yangon is now a maze of “congested high-rise buildings [with] potentially hazardous infrastructure like electricity and water supply, waste and sewage disposal … dams, bridges [and] oil storage tanks”, to quote the Myanmar earthquake manual from UN-Habitat.

It’s the kind of urban environment that keeps seismologists up at night.

But the sheer volume of construction isn’t the main concern – it’s the way that so many Yangon structures have been built.

Disaster specialist at ActionAid Myanmar Thura Tun said that “most buildings from the British colonial period were constructed properly with building codes that have proved resilient”.

That’s where the good news ends.

“The lack of Myanmar’s own building code and strong enforcement mechanisms around construction regulation or rules meant that poor quality construction has occurred over the last few decades,” program manager of disaster risk reduction at UN-Habitat Myanmar Shashank Mishra said.

“[At times] there were not enough urban planners, architects and engineers to meet demand, hence quality of construction has been diluted,” he said, adding there was also constant “pressure to deliver construction projects on time”.

It’s a sobering assessment, especially considering one passage from another UN-Habitat earthquake resource: “Earthquakes don’t kill people – unsafe buildings do”.

Some limited seismic mapping of the city was completed in 2005 and Myanmar adopted its first National Building Code in 2012.

Although this has not yet inspired widespread confidence.

“Even after 2005, many developers don’t follow the rules. Only a small percentage consider earthquakes while designing,” secretary of Myanmar Earthquake Committee U Myo Thant told Weekend.

And Tint Lwin Swe, a geotechnical expert who is another secretary at the Myanmar Earthquake Committee, added that many “important structures like hospitals, school buildings and gasoline stations are also not designed [according to relevant seismic standards] … [and will likely not] withstand a strong earthquake”.

So what exactly would a major earthquake here look like?

“Chaos,” engineering specialist and secretary of Myanmar Earthquake Committee U Saw Htwe Zaw bluntly predicted.

Director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center Peeranan Towashiraporn said the city could “face a similar fate to Kathmandu if a large enough earthquake strikes within the city’s proximity,” referring to the April 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured around 22,000.

“That [event] reminded us that a moderate-to-large earthquake can create widespread destruction when a city is not well prepared for earthquakes,” Mr Towashiraporn said.

And Tint Lwin Swe added that there was no clear strategy around where and how to shelter after a quake. In other words, if the whole city left their dwellings, where is there space to go?

“Traditionally, people in trouble always go to nearby monasteries as they think that place is safe for everyone,” Tint Lwin Swe said.

But it would only take a fraction of the city’s millions to quickly overwhelm these facilities.

“Authorities [should] make more open spaces rather than [constant] building,” Tint Lwin Swe warned.

And there’s mixed reactions as to whether the general population is properly educated in what to do before, during and after a quake (Jump to our full Earthquake preparedness infographic).

Earthquake awareness activities have been adopted in most Yangon schools and universities are soon to follow suit.

Some townships have volunteers to prepare and respond to disasters but Thura Tun from ActionAid said there is confusion around the potentially life-or-death 3-15 seconds when an earthquake actually occurs.

“When an earthquake hits, most people [are likely to] panic,” he said, and not know the “simple steps of drop, cover, hold”.

The Yangon City Development Committee, who was repeatedly unavailable for comment, is taking tentative steps such as supporting earthquake safety analysis for certain buildings in Yangon.

And there continues to be a steady stream of earthquake-related symposiums and discussions held around the country.

But it remains to be seen how much of this will have lasting and meaningful real-world effects.

U Saw Htwe Zaw of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee said there is a severe lack of follow-through and distilling information to the general public.

“Projects from NGOs and international firms are held to discuss these concerns. But discussions stop after the project.”

Experts agree that there needs to be a dramatic increase in the time and resources spent on this issue by all levels of government – starting with retrofitting Yangon’s at-risk buildings and properly enforcing stringent design provisions for new buildings.

And the point of no return may come sooner rather than later, as Yangon’s 21st century construction boom may be only just beginning.

“If the construction sector is not regulated soon … Yangon may become a concrete jungle of seismically unsafe building stock,” Shashank Mishra of UN-Habitat said.

“All the development gains in the coming years could be eroded with just one single medium-sized earthquake.”


Source: Myanmar Times

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