When Yangon is shaking

Is the former capital ready to resist a strong earthquake?

Ko Kyaw Zin Latt lives on the 7th floor of a seven-storey building. On a normal day, he relaxes and enjoys the view over Yangon. But on January 12, he enjoyed the shakes instead.

That day, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 on the Richter scale had yangonites jiggled for a few seconds. Ko Kyaw Zin Latt thought of running outside the building. But he paused and wondered: was he safer in his tiny street where all buildings like his are just a few meters away from each other? Luckily, no second seismic wave happened that day. But other such incidents will in the future.

A series of earthquakes has hit the country since last December. The strongest this year was in Bago, 39 kilometres of Pyu on January 12. Its magnitude reached 6.0 on the Richter scale, a method to measure the intensity of earthquakes which goes up to 10. The wave rocked Pyu, Nay Pyi Taw, Bago, Kyo Pin Kaunt, Zegone, Pyay and Natalin towns.

The ground never shakes just once. “That quake was followed by about eight strong quakes per minute and caused 40 aftershocks that were felt until January 31” says Daw Hla Hla Aung, senior researcher and patron of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee. The aftershocks were of magnitude 3.5. “This is of concerns” Hla Hla Aung adds.

Myanmar falls on a seismic belt and the country is prone to many quakes – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

In 2011, the Tarlay earthquake of 6.8 magnitude damaged between 224 and 305 houses. In Thabeikkyin in 2012 a seismic wave killed 26 people, damaged 201 houses, 25 schools, 13 hospitals and around 45 pagodas. The ground shook in Yangon in 2013. There were strong earthquakes in Kani, Monywa, Mawleik, Chauk, Htamathi, and Taikkyi in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Part of Myanmar’s rich cultural heritage is also in danger. In 2016, 6.8 magnitude wave in Chauk caused extensive damage to a dozen of ancient temples in Bagan.

What you gonna do when they come for you?

Earthquakes cannot be predicted, explains Daw Hla Hla Aung. But their consequences can be mitigated. According to her, Myanmar is not doing nearly enough on that side.

Buildings do not respect the necessary safety norms. People like Ko Kyaw Zin Latt are simply not prepared.

The authorities are waking up to the danger. The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) has been conducting checks on existing private housing. Priority has been given to the Pazundaung, Botahtaung, Kyautada, Pabetan, Lanmadaw and Latha townships as they are the most heavily populated.

YCDC has started to strengthen the foundations of buildings which can be used as a shelter. First aid and rescue teams have been training in case of immediate needs. Particular attention is given to the sewage system as leakage would have dramatic consequences to the environment.

But Daw Hnin Ei Win, an engineer working for YCDC, says that, for now, only a visual recognition is being performed. “We visually check the appearance of buildings to decide if they are resistant”. A full check would entail a full analysis of the building structure, but this is too costly for the authorities – Myanmar has one of the lowest tax takes in the world.

Buildings built after 2003 are considered safer, on paper. Regulation has been in place since that year, but Daw Hnin Ei Win reckons that such guidelines were not followed scrupulously and promoters used unskilled labour and cheap material.

But things are changing she says. “We closely monitor full compliance with the law. If a builder does not comply, we do not issue a permit for building. On the ground, the department performs checks again,” she asserts.

The penalty for breaking the law ranges from a simple fine to the withdrawal of the engineer license issued by YCDC – some offenders were punished already.

Heard anything?

Earthquakes are not new in Myanmar. In 1929, still in Bago a seismic wave killed 500 people and set the surrounding on fire. The Swar quake as it was known, reached 7.6 on the Richter scale.

Paradoxically, Yangon was more prepared back then. The former capital had no high-rising buildings. Most of them were made of timber structures – less rigid than concrete, timber foundation would not break. More importantly the city was not as populated as it is today, says Daw Hnin Ei Win.

Ko Kyaw Zin Latt, who went through a terrible fright, thinks the government should do more. “Measures on earthquake safety are unsatisfactory. Action should be taken at state level,” he says.

But some government companies are doing their bit. Ko Tin Lin, who sells lottery tickets on Bo Aung Kyaw Road, has never felt any earthquakes. But he has learned about them when MPT, a publicly-owned company, sent him messages on his mobile phones.

For now, locals rely on popular wisdom. “I learnt from my elders that if an earthquake begins, we should sit or run outside. Last month, I ran outside when a strong shake happened,” said Daw Aye Myint (50) who lives on the third floor of a high-rise building in Thaketa township.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has launched an earthquake awareness campaign across the country and in 47 township in Yangon – the UN-Habitat, the Myanmar Earthquake Committee and Myanmar Red Cross Society are taking part too.

But he public is not alarmed, says U Win Shwe from the Department of Disaster Management. He says the participation in public events is not satisfactory. Material is being distributed (see next page). Information is being broadcasted on TV and radio. The department has also created a mobile application named “Disaster Alert Notification” that can be downloaded from Play Store on Android mobile phones and includes tips on what to do before, during and after natural disasters.

However, the information doesn’t seem to reach Yangonites. “We have full cooperation of the public involved in villages. They express interest and listen to what we have to say. It is different in Yangon,” he says.”Yangon is just 35 kilometres away from Sagaing Fault,” he warns.

Yangon is poorly prepared for an earthquake, Yangonites even more so.

“If the public fully participate in drills, they can respond accordingly if a disaster strikes the country,” he said.

Source : Myanmar Times

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