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Interview on Almaty earthquake preparedness

[Kazakhstan] An Uzbek rural community outside Almaty.
An Uzbek rural community outside Almaty (David Swanson/IRIN)

The Kazakh commercial capital Almaty, which was last destroyed by earthquakes in 1887 and 1911, is likely to suffer a major quake in the next 10 to 15 years, experts say. In an interview with IRIN, the deputy Director of Seismology at the National Academy of Sciences, Askar Ospanov, and Baurzhan Iskakov, the chief of local emergency services, outlined the dangers. But with sound preparation, loss of life and damage to buildings and infrastructure could be kept to a minimum, they say.

QUESTION: Askar Ospanov, how susceptible is Almaty and southern Kazakhstan to another devastating earthquake?

ANSWER: Serious seismic activity in our region tends to occur every 80 to 100 years. The last period of seismological activity happened between 1885 and 1911. During that period there were serious eaarthquakes at Belovodskoye in 1885, Vernenskoye two years later and Keminskoye in 1889. These quakes dissipated the accumulated energy in the earth's crust. Today the crust has accumulated enough energy again and that energy is most likely to take the form of another series of earthquakes around this period - within the next 10 to 15 years. We do not know for sure that a strong earthquake will happen during this period, but the probability is high.

Q: Already last year a large earthquake happened in the Zhambyl region. Was that the start of this new seismic activity you have just spoken about?

A: According to preliminary findings, the earthquake in Zhambyl region did not release any energy from the earth's crust around Almaty, although this needs additional study. Our calculations predict that an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.5 on the Richter scale could hit the Almaty region. But this kind of shock is survivable without significant human and material losses if preparation is good.

Q: What sort of earthquake preparedeness are you advocating?

A: The Institution of Seismology has worked out a special programme for 2005-2010 at the instance of Almaty city authorities. It will be expensive, but it will save lives and will be lower than the cost of repairing the earthquake damage.

Q: Baurzhan Beysenovich, in the case of a serious earthquake, how many people in Almaty could be injured or made homeless?

A: In the case of such an earthquake, at least 5 percent of the population could be killed or injured and around 40 percent made homeless.

Q: How many buildings in the city are effectively earthquake proof?

A: That's difficult to predict and would depend greatly on the intensity of any quake. We estimate about 10 percent would be fully destroyed, 20 percent we think would be partially damaged and and about 70 percent would come through more or less unscathed. Most constructions in Almaty are enough strong and stand the earthquake not more than 9 scores. These are standards of construction. The firmness depends on [the quality of] soil any one district of the city.

Q: What should be done now to reduce the number of victims you have predicted in any quake?

A: Firstly, there are more than 1,000 houses in the city that are in very poor conditon - these should be knocked down immediately as they are death traps. More than 2,000 other structures need emergency repairs to strengthen them in the event of an earthquake. These measures would save many lives. Vast stocks of tents, blankets, food, medicine and water purification equipment need to be put in accessible places, these measures would also reduce death considerably. But city residents should have emergency rations of foodstuffs and medicine in their houses if they are to have a chance of surviving the inevitable shortages that would follow a big quake.

But another issue here is the lack of awareness among the population - people in the city are generally not so serious about safety concerns. We need more active involvement from people in earthquake exercises and trainings. Only 40 percent of companies and organisations have purchased tents and have trained employees on what to do in the event of a crisis of this nature.

Q: Will there be any warning of a serious earthquake?

A: We hope so, the equipment for research and early warning has improved and the network of the seismic monitoring around of the city of Almaty, [set up] in cooperation with Japanese seismologists, is now comprehensive. A system which allows authorities to disconnect gas and electricity supply lines at the first signs of an earthquake will be installed in 2005. But being prepared is the key to survival.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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