Last week, Thailand experienced a 6.0+ magnitude earthquake. The earthquake was located near Chiang Rai, the northern part of the country straddling Myanmar and Laos, and is definitively one of the largest to have occurred with its epicenter located within the Thailand boundaries. This was a big and (literally!) shocking news. It was everywhere, on TV, the papers, and on social media. The news became part of the greeting for a while, going something like “Sawasdee khrap (or kha, depending on the gender)” followed by “Hey, did you feel the earthquake?” But now, this major event, which thankfully did not become a major disaster, seems to be slipping away from our attention and even memory. We have seen it too often that a catastrophe or disaster leads the public and the government into action, when the damage has already been done. Do we really need big shocks to wake us up? Should we not heed the warning shots and take pro-active actions?
Having moved to Thailand some 20 years ago, I’ve witnessed firsthand how most dismissed seismic risk for a country with minimal fault lines. The general public, and some experts, were confident that no significant earthquake could possibly occur in the Kingdom. At that time, building codes did not make much reference to seismic activity and no specific provisions were made to make the buildings and infrastructure safe from this risk. The eighties and the early nineties saw significant development in the country, with many infrastructure projects and tall buildings being designed and built. But most of these did not (or did not need to) consider the effects of earthquake risk.
It was only after a decade during my stay that I experienced a shocking experience. December 26 2004, a Sunday morning, proved to be a terrifying day when our apartment building started shaking. Water was running down the ducts and a crackling sound was coming clearly from the ceiling. We all rushed downstairs, utterly confused as to what was going on. The thought of an earthquake was the farthest from our minds.
What it was is simply referred to now as the Indian Ocean Earthquake, an undersea mega-thrust earthquake that started near Aceh, Indonesia, thousands of kilometers away. The earthquake triggered a tsunami and ground waves that upon reaching Bangkok were greatly amplified by the soft ground below the surface. This shook our 40-story building, and many others in Bangkok that were not designed to withstand such an event. Unfortunately, my personal experience is a far cry from what many who were by the coast of the Andaman Sea had to endure.
One of my colleagues at the AIT, Dr. Pennung Warnitchai, is one of the few leading experts and advocates who believed that Thailand was in fact prone to earthquake risk, both from within Thailand, and from neighboring countries. He and his team tirelessly led the development of earthquake risk maps and their incorporation into the Thailand Building Code, which in itself is big step towards helping to reduce the risk to human life and extensive damage to properties and communities at large. However, much more needs to be done to create built environments resilient to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Looking ahead, first and foremost, the public should be the driving force, demanding that the buildings and structures we live and work in be safe from earthquakes and other risks, as a basic right. This needs awareness amongst all walks of life. Next, the government bodies need to make policies and regulations together with the means for enforcement, to ensure this threat is taken seriously. In the academe, experts need to prioritize more research in disaster resilience (and environmental suitability) an integral and important part of what is taught and developed into the curriculum. And then, finally, professionals and the industry responsible for designing and building the structures need to make this a part of their business strategy.
I personally feel a triple responsibility to continue to do something about this issue, being fortunate to be part of three of these four primary stakeholders. At AIT, I have the responsibility to teach a post-graduate course on the design of tall buildings and carry out research on earthquake resistant structures. As the head of the consulting and engineering software development arms of the same Institute, I have the opportunity to be closely involved in seismic safety and disaster risk reduction initiatives in several countries in the Asia-Pacific region amongst many other projects. For more than a decade now, I also have been working with a leading company, based in the United States, that develops well-recognized computer-aided tools and technologies that help engineers design buildings and structures to effectively resist the forces of earthquakes and wind.
Performance-based design (PBD), one of such technologies, is changing the traditional way of designing buildings and structures. In addition to, and sometimes instead of blindly following the prescriptive building codes that do not guarantee a safe structure, a more systematic, explicit, and simulation-based approach, such as PBD, is used to find the most suitable, safe, and cost effective solution. This however requires an advanced level of knowledge and the availability of powerful computing tools that are capable of handling such simulations, in a meaningful manner. This approach is especially suitable for evaluating and fixing millions of existing buildings that have not been designed to resist earthquakes, short of having to tear them down and rebuild.
So, let us, the public, the government, the academia, and the industry, join hands to do more about the impeding disasters from earthquakes and other natural hazards, before they occur. We know there are many challenges in achieving this enormous task, including political, social, economic, and technological. But at least, we have the tools and technologies help us. What we need is increased awareness and the continued will and commitment to improve the resilience of our communities to disasters in order to protect lives and properties and continuity of our livelihood.
Let’s not wait for another big shock to wake us all up.