100% quake prediction is impossible: Experts
Six seismologists and a bureaucrat in Italy are facing criminal charges of manslaughter. Reason: they failed to warn the residents L'Aquila of the earthquake that killed over 200 people in 2009. KumKum Dasgupta reports.delhi Updated: Sep 27, 2011 11:54 IST
Coming days after last Sunday's 6.8 Richter earthquake in Sikkim is the news from Italy of six seismologists and a bureaucrat facing criminal charges of manslaughter.
Their alleged crime? They failed to warn the residents of the Italian town of L'Aquila of the impending earthquake that killed over 200 people in the area in 2009.
While it seems rather extreme for seismologists to be accused of murder for not predicting an earthquake considering seismology is an inexact science, the question in India is: do our seismological experts do enough to reduce chances of earthquake damage in terms of warnings or safety measures?
Experts say that 100% earthquake prediction is impossible.
"We can predict an earthquake the same way we can predict an obese man having a heart attack," explains Sudhir K Jain, director, IIT, Gandhinagar.
"We know it will happen, but we cannot predict the time, day or intensity."
But Jain, a stalwart in earthquake engineering, adds that India is severely underprepared to tackle quakes and the only way we can minimise damage and ensure that buildings don't become "weapons of mass destruction" is by constructing houses according to the codes set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
Unfortunately, the codes are regularly flouted.
Studies have shown that more than 60% of India is vulnerable to earthquakes and most deaths during a quake occur due to the collapse of buildings.
Alpa Sheth, seismic advisor, Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, agrees with Jain.
"Take for instance Gangtok. It had no business building houses like they have there, as it has complexities of sloping terrain and high seismic hazards coupled with poor access to good structural engineering."
Sikkim falls in Seismic Zone IV of the earthquake hazard map of India, a high damage risk zone.
Seth laments the rejection of traditional knowledge suited to quake-prone regions.
"In the North-east, they have stopped making bamboo houses after the PWD (Public Works Department) stopped its use because bamboo was considered a scarce resource. Instead of discarding it, we could have gone for re-using bamboo or planting bamboo forests."
Pankaj Bajaj, a member of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Associations of India, however, insists that it is the unorganised sector that flouts guidelines.
The BIS codes are recommendatory; they are made mandatory by municipal building byelaws.
And what about those whose job is to warn people about the chances of earthquakes in their area? Are they doing their job?
At any given point of time, seismologists may have a lot of information which is passed on to the administration for further dissemination.
Many times, this information is not sent out in order to not "create panic".
Scientists, on their part, also don't know how to translate this information and use it for making habitats safe. They need engineers to do it for them and there is a synergy problem between these two groups that is common across the world.
There is also serious paucity of political will and a resistance to fund seismic safety programmes.
Shailesh Nayak, secretary, ministry of earth sciences, agrees that these problems exist. But he says that all is not lost and certain measures are being undertaken to improve detection of quakes and information dissemination.
"We are increasing the density of seismic stations and have now set up labs in the Himalayas in Shillong. Two more are coming up in Jabalpur and Port Blair."
All seismic stations will be brought under one grid and there will be a back-up grid so that there is no loss of information.
In addition, Indian scientists are spearheading an international project that is expected to provide new insights into the processes that cause earthquakes.
As part of the project, a 7-km deep borehole drilling has been planned in Koyna, the best known example of reservoir-triggered earthquakes.
Nayak says that like tsunami prediction, in earthquake prediction too, there is international sharing of information.
But can seismologists in India be charged with negligence as they have been in Italy?
Jain feels that often officials are often made scapegoats when the responsibility lies with those trained to make predictions or suggest and implement safety measures.
Sheth says that technically, builders and governments can be made liable if they are found to have been negligent or have committed an act of omission.
"But It does not happen as often as it could."
Jain believes, though, that the 'blame-game' will not help; instead everyone needs to be responsible and cautious.
"But above everything else, we need proactive and not reactive governance," he adds.
After the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in Bhuj, there was much soul searching. Engineers were trained and for the first time maintenance of seismic codes were made necessary.
"But as other things took over, we lost interest and the tempo," says Jain.
1) Three main organisations that track seismic activity in India are: Indian Meteorological Department, Institute of Seismological Research and IIT Roorkee.
2) Three seismic maps: The Bureau of Indian Standards map divides the country into zones; the seismo-tectonic map of the Geological Survey of India; and Seismic microzonation of a particular city that gives information on the nature of soil and rock. Very soon, the ministry of earth sciences will release city-specific maps.
3) Coming up: The National Centre for Seismological Research in Noida. This facility will decode information and coordinate between different organizations
4) Disaster management: Each state has an Act that defines who had what roles and responsibilities in a disaster. Before the Disaster Management act was formed, the revenue departments of the states used to take up the responsibilities in a disaster. The collector/administrator has to first declare the zone as a disaster zone.
5) The National Disaster Management Authority is the nodal that is supposed to coordinate all information regarding earthquake safety.