Lessons from Turkiye-Syria Earthquake | Sunday Observer

Lessons from Turkiye-Syria Earthquake

12 February, 2023

“Life finds a way” is a famous line from the Jurassic Park movies and indeed, some people are lucky enough to survive even the most horrific natural or man-made disasters. This was proved when rescuers combing through the rubble in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Turkiye and Syria spotted a new-born baby and an eight-year-old boy who had miraculously survived the ordeal. But more than 20,000 others in both countries, including the new-born baby’s mother, perished in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, one of the biggest natural disasters in living memory.     

Natural disasters – from drought to floods to wildfires – have increased over the last few decades. Experts say that Climate Change has caused some of these, if not all. There is thus greater focus on facing natural disasters, given only some of them can be predicted and prevented early. Awareness is the key in most instances – for example, it is possible to predict whether a seaquake would generate a tsunami and evacuate an entire coastal area.

But the problem with earthquakes that occur on land (and also volcanic eruptions) is that they cannot be predicted with any sort of accuracy. Hence it is not possible evacuate residents to safe areas before an earthquake strikes. This is possible to a limited extent with a tsunami, as the waves take some time to reach the shore. Even then, the time window may not be enough, as witnessed during the 2011 tsunami in Japan. However, scientists are hard at work to perfect a framework for predicting earthquakes at least a few hours in advance.

Seismological data analysis

A newborn baby girl has been pulled alive from the rubble of a home in northern Syria, after relatives found her still tied by her umbilical cord to her mother, who died in Monday’s massive earthquake

In fact, some seismologists have managed to “predict” earthquakes by analysing seismological data that go back several decades. Actually, even those without any seismological knowledge can do this as minute-by-minute seismic data is available on the Internet. A Dutch researcher, Frank Hoogerbeets, has caused a sensation by predicting that an earthquake was imminent in Turkey and Syria. “Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon),” he tweeted last Friday. Hoogerbeets’ tweet came three days before the earthquake.

“My heart goes out to everyone affected by the major earthquake in Central Turkey. As I stated earlier, sooner or later this would happen in this region, similar to the years 115 and 526. These earthquakes are always preceded by critical planetary geometry, as we had on 4-5 February,” he tweeted after the quake.

However, scientists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) have reiterated that earthquakes cannot be predicted at all. “The spot is a site of frequent activity: it is where three tectonic plates converge. As sad as the human toll is, the strong earthquake “wasn’t a shock to any earthquake scientist,” Susan Hough, a seismologist in the Earthquake Hazards Program at USGS told the media. “Turkiye is a known earthquake zone. We have known about these faults, we know earthquakes this size are possible.”

“We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future,” the agency says. “USGS scientists can only calculate the probability that a significant earthquake will occur (shown on our hazard mapping) in a specific area within a certain number of years.”

Monday’s quake and dozens of strong aftershocks hit an area that’s known to be seismically active: It’s in an area characterized by a “triple junction,” the point where three tectonic plates (in this case, the Anatolia, Arabia and Africa plates) meet. Three years, ago, a magnitude 6.7 quake hit in an area northeast of this devastating tremor. The USGS urges people to consider the three elements that would make up a genuine and accurate earthquake prediction: a date and time, a location and a magnitude. So far, no agency or researcher has got all three factors right.

Reducing disaster damage

In the absence of a reliable method to forecast earthquakes, the United Nations (UN) has emphasized the need to construct infrastructure that can withstand even high-magnitude earthquakes under the overall theme “reducing disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services”. The year 2016 saw the launch of the “Sendai Seven” campaign by the United Nations Centre for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), centred on the seven targets of the Sendai Framework, the first of which is reducing disaster mortality.

The campaign seeks to create a wave of awareness about actions taken to reduce mortality around the world. The emphasis on infrastructure is part of the ‘Sendai Seven’ campaign, centered on the seven targets of the Sendai Framework. Accordingly, Target (d) of the Sendai Framework calls on all nations to “substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and education facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030.”

Given the high death tolls, notably in earthquakes and tsunamis, it is especially important that great care is taken to ensure that schools and hospitals are built to last by ensuring that location and hazard-appropriate planning regulations and building codes are enforced. Other areas of critical infrastructure which help to achieve other Sendai Framework targets include potentially life-saving utilities and services such as food and water supply, energy, telecommunications and transport.

The UN notes that the Sendai Seven Campaign is an opportunity for all, including Governments, Local Governments, community groups, civil society organisations, the private sector, international organisations and the UN family, to promote best practices at the international, regional and national level to reduce disaster risk and disaster losses.

No emergency crews

News reports coming from Turkey highlighted that many buildings including hospitals had collapsed. Moreover, emergency services could not reach many quake-hot areas in time in the sub-zero temperatures as roads too had been severely damaged. Many of the cities hit by the quake did not have any emergency crews on standby, which complicated rescue efforts. Survivors also blamed their Governments for the rather slow response to the disaster. “The volunteers were here, but the State was not,” said one survivor who had lost most of his family members.

However, Turkey’s national emergency agency said it has begun an enormous rescue effort to grapple with the disaster and has despatched more than 92,000 tents, 98,000 Turkish and foreign workers and 5,000 vehicles to the affected areas, including excavators, cranes and tow trucks.

But more developed countries such as Japan and Taiwan have always planned for a “big one” and built infrastructure that can withstand earthquakes. They also have a much better response network. This is vital, as natural disasters hit hardest at the local level with the potential to cause loss of life and great social and economic upheaval. Sudden disasters displace millions of people every year.

In 2021, nearly 60 million people were displaced, mostly within their own countries, by various natural disasters. Disasters, many of which are aggravated or even caused by Climate Change, have a negative impact on investment in sustainable development. The very fact that we are witnessing changed rainfall and drought patterns is an indication of Climate Change at work. Disaster experts have realised the need to climate-proof all infrastructure facilities, be they schools, bridges or hospitals. In the coming decade, the world will invest trillions of dollars in new housing, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. The UN has noted that climate resilience and disaster risk reduction must be central to this investment. There is a strong economic case for such steps: making infrastructure more climate-resilient can have a benefit-cost ratio of about six to one. For every dollar invested, six dollars can be saved. This means that investing in climate resilience creates jobs and saves money.

Tremors in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan authorities must investigate whether these safeguards have been ignored in the ongoing construction boom. While one cannot expect many of these measures to be retro-fitted to existing buildings, all new buildings must necessarily conform to climate and disaster preparedness guidelines. Several tremors have occurred in Sri Lanka over the past few years.

In fact, a tremor measuring 3.0 on the Richter scale was reported from Pelwatte, Buttala on Friday between 12.10 p.m. and 12.13 p.m. A spokesman for the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) said the tremor was felt in the vicinity of the Pelwatte Sugar factory and plantations. No loss to human life or property was reported, although residents of Buttala, Pelwatte, Waguruwela and Wellawaya said they experienced the tremor.

While Sri Lanka is not a part of an earthquake ring per se, we cannot be in a comfort zone either, if the 2004 tsunami is any indication.  We should be prepared for an earthquake or another tsunami. We should also ponder whether the number of tsunami shelters in the coastal areas is adequate.

A recent documentary on NatGeo TV revealed that the Indian state of Odisha has as many 800 newly built shelters to house people in the event of natural disasters. TV news bulletins have also exposed how sub-standard bridges have been constructed in many rural areas which may not withstand raging floodwaters or another natural disaster. Thus it is essential to conduct frequent inspections on construction projects to ensure that they can afford some safety to people using those facilities if a natural disaster strikes.

One of the best ways of creating awareness on natural disasters and their prevention/mitigation is to catch them young – schoolchildren should be taught the basics of facing natural disasters and climate resilience should form the basis of a subject for higher grades such as Grades 8 and 9. This is par for the course in many countries such as Japan and Chile, where tsunamis are frequent. Chile regularly conducts drills for students from primary grades on how to successfully deal with a tsunami scenario.

Religious institutions, generally used as shelters in times of natural disasters, should also guide their flocks on natural disasters. Religious dignitaries of all denominations should be taught the basics of dealing with natural disasters. The simple act of sounding the bell in a place of worship in case of looming danger is enough to summon villagers. Most places of worship are on higher ground a little away from the village itself, so there is a greater chance of survival if villagers were to gather there until the disaster loses its steam.

Predictions with accuracy

Scientists are working on predicting natural disasters with greater accuracy, so that more lives could be saved. Most weather events can now be predicted thanks to satellite coverage. Some disasters such as floods can sometimes be prevented with better flood mitigation methods – it is thus important to keep looking at preventing natural disasters altogether, though this may be impossible in the case of earthquakes. But our best chance of facing natural disasters is still education, awareness and resilience. And it is important to build back better after any natural disaster. Sri Lanka was somewhat successful in this regard after the events of Boxing Day 2004.

In this respect, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkiye made his first appearance in the earthquake-affected zone on Wednesday, acknowledging the gravity of the crisis and calling for perseverance from millions of suffering people. “We are face to face with a great disaster,” he said. “My citizens, my people always have patience. I am certain my nation will show patience again.” Only time will tell whether Turkiye and war-torn Syria can rise again Phoenix-like from this disaster.