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Northeast earthquake: 5 concerns India can't ignore

The Manipur tremors are a wake-up call not just for other hilly states in the same seismic zone but also for rest of the country.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  4-minute read |   04-01-2016
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An earthquake of magnitude 6.7 has jolted the northeast India. Its epicenter was just 29 kilometers West of Imphal, the capital city of Manipur. Tremors were felt in several cities and towns across the region, including as far as Kolkata. Reports of destruction and death caused by the earthquake are still pouring in. Like every disaster, the Manipur quake too is a wake-up call not just for other hilly states in the same seismic zone but also for rest of the Indian states which regularly face natural and man-made disasters.

Manipur is located in the seismic zone V which has the most prone area for earthquakes. Monday's quake occurred due to ongoing seismic activity in the plate boundary region between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The Indian plate is moving towards the north-northeast with respect to Eurasia at a velocity of about 48 mm a year. The regional plate boundary in eastern India, known as the Indo-Burmese Arc, is an active zone. Manipur keeps experiencing minor tremors regularly. Based on past patterns, seismologists have predicted that a major earthquake is overdue in this part of the region. Last big quake in Manipur was in 1988, with magnitude 7.2.

Areas in central Manipur are particularly vulnerable to damage during earthquakes as they are located in the Imphal valley, the lowest point of which is the Loktak Lake. Much of the valley floor is prone to strong shaking from even far off quakes since its soft soil amplifies wave motions. Besides quakes, the state has been witnessed disasters like floods, landslides, fires and drought, with floods causing most damage in recent years.

In the past couple of years, India has seen a series of disasters - Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Visakhapatnam, Chennai, and now Manipur. While now we have administrative machinery in the form of the National Disaster Management Authority and disaster management agencies in almost all states, but preparedness for disasters is still lacking, as proved in recent events. Here are five key steps we need to adhere to in order to minimise impacts of disasters:  

1. Structural safety of buildings: The whole country has been divided into different seismic zones, and standards have been set for buildings constructed in these areas. For instance, the Imphal Municipal Corporation has notified building bylaws that specify standards for earthquake resistant design for construction of buildings and guidelines for repair and seismic strengthening of buildings. Many city bodies have developed such guideline, but the question is: are they being enforced?

2. Securing lifeline buildings: Successive disasters have shown that lifeline buildings - hospitals, government buildings, schools - in our cities are not secured. They are supposed to remain functional even during disasters. In both Srinagar and Chennai, floods affected hospitals and made them dysfunctional. People in ICUs died because power failed and there was no back up. The World Health Organisation has been coaxing governments to retrofit hospitals and make them fit enough to withstand disaster impacts, but very little has been done. Simple steps like not locating key facilities in basement and ground floor can help save lives.

3. Emergency response system: Every state is supposed to have a functional emergency response system in place, starting from disaster warning agencies like the met department to villages. It exists on paper in every state, but in practice there are gaping holes in the system. The cyclone warning system in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh is a good example of how timely communication of warnings and measures like evacuation can save lives.

4. Disaster risk reduction awareness:  It is the people who will have to implement and make success an emergency system. Therefore, massive disaster risk reduction awareness campaigns have to be run round the year, not just for awareness but also training people and communities for emergencies. Such exercise, wherever carried out, have paid rich dividends.

5. Strengthening warning systems: In the past one decade, India has made tremendous progress in cyclone warning and its communication to people, through large scale investment and modernisation. The same should be extended to warning about droughts, floods and landslides. It is only through combination of these steps that we will be able to reduce risk from disasters in future, save lives and protect property.

Writer

Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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