Sichuan earthquake, 10 years on

Enforcing building rules will save lives

A new warning mechanism deployed in mainland China in the wake of 2008’s devastating quake may have helped save lives in the latest disaster, but non-compliance with building regulations is still a bigger killer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 12:54am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 12:54am

Flood and tsunami, storm and tempest take a terrible toll of humanity, despite the fact that these days they can usually be forecast with some precision. Without warnings, of course, the loss of life would have been much higher. What has set earthquakes apart among forces of nature that remain bigger than mankind’s capacity to shape them has been the lack of warning. That in itself has been a killer, because a minute or two or even seconds could be enough time to flee a dangerous structure, or find shelter from falling debris. In the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 80,000 people, one expert estimates a warning system could have saved 20,000-30,000 lives.

That disaster prompted the China Earthquake Administration to develop and install an early warning system similar to those used in the US, Japan and Mexico. It was put to the test on Tuesday by a deadly magnitude 7 quake that hit Sichuan province, killing at least 20 people. Reports from the quake zone suggest that some lives may have been saved by the system. It gave people in the provincial capital of Chengdu up to 71 seconds warning via messages sent to mobile phones or transmitted on public address terminals. Similar early warnings of between five and 38 seconds were given in 11 schools in six cities across Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

China’s early earthquake warning system gives people life-saving seconds to prepare for tremor

The system works by detecting fast-moving but mostly harmless P waves created by a quake, giving warning of the slower-moving but more dangerous S waves that follow. The administration plans to have 15,000 monitoring stations across the country by 2020. The system cannot predict the exact timing of quakes, but it can allow people to take immediate action. This calls for education and training in avoiding panic and taking the right action, given that it is buildings that kill, not quakes, according to Wang Tun, founder of Sichuan-based Care-Life, a government backed organisation set up after the 2008 quake. That said, the biggest potential saving of lives in rural areas lies in compliance with better building standards, so that homes and schools do not collapse so easily. Currently, according to the administration, just 6 per cent of homes in rural areas conform to earthquake design standards.