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Living through earthquakes

September 20, 2011 12:14 am | Updated November 17, 2021 12:44 am IST

As a natural calamity, powerful earthquakes are in a class of their own, able to strike without warning and capable of creating widespread devastation. So it was with the magnitude 6.8 temblor that struck near the Sikkim-Nepal border on Sunday evening. At least 66 people have been killed and many more injured in India as well as in neighbouring Nepal and Tibet, China. Buildings and roads in Sikkim have been badly damaged. Reports from Tibet speak of landslides disrupting traffic, power, and water supplies. Rain and landslides have hampered relief efforts, and the central government has sent in military and paramilitary units, along with aircraft and helicopters, to help the civilian authorities. Tremors from the quake, which could be felt hundreds of kilometres away, caused panic in many cities, including Kolkata, Patna, and Lucknow. In Delhi, which experienced a magnitude 4.2 earthquake near the Haryana border earlier this month, the latest episode left many with jangled nerves.

This quake should serve as a wake-up call. Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do, goes the old adage. But human-made structures — buildings, bridges, power plants and so forth — can be designed and constructed to withstand the sort of quakes that might hit a place. An earthquake quickly exposes failures in construction. Valuable infrastructure is destroyed and falling masonry can crush people to death. “In recent earthquakes, buildings have acted as weapons of mass destruction,” remarked one leading seismologist after the calamitous quake that hit the Caribbean island of Haiti in January 2010, killing tens of thousands of people. Poor quality construction on the island made the earthquake twice as lethal as any previous magnitude 7.0 event. As the crustal plate bearing India steadily pushes against the Eurasian plate, some experts fear that enough stress might have accumulated to unleash a great earthquake in parts of the Himalayas. Such a quake could have disastrous consequences across the highly populated Gangetic plain. Nor are places away from the plate boundary necessarily safe. The powerful quake at Bhuj in January 2001, for instance, claimed thousands of lives and caused havoc across a considerable area in Gujarat. Safety lies in ensuring quake-resistant construction. The Bureau of Indian Standards has laid out earthquake engineering codes for various structures. In addition, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) and the Union Government's Building Materials & Technology Promotion Council have published guidelines and brochures on quake-safe construction. Turning a blind eye to such safety requirements will extract a heavy toll when an earthquake strikes.

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