17 September 2009

Presentations on Day 1 of the International Conference in Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the 1999 Chi-Chi Earthquake in Taiwan

Posted by Dave Petley

The Chi-Chi earthquake struck Taiwan on 21st September 1999. To remember that event, a range of organisations in Taiwan have organised a scientific conference aimed at sharing the lessons learnt from the earthquake. I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on landslides triggered by the event – my paper is tomorrow – but I thought I would also post on some of the most interesting presentations as they occur.

This morning there were a number of introductory and keynote speeches. I thought I would focus on two of them. First, Prof. Huang Jong-Tsun, President of the China Medical University, gave an overview of the impacts of the earthquake and the lessons learnt from a governmental perspective. He stated that the final death toll of the earthquake was 2505 people, with damage including the total destruction of 27,273 houses and 293 schools. He highlighted the post-event response with some highly impressive statistics:

  • The national authorities released information on the epicentre location and the magnitude 102 seconds after the earthquake (!);
  • The government mobilised the first army response teams within 13 minutes;
  • At the peak, there were 460,000 people working on rescue and recovery operations.

The demands on the government in the five years recovery period were acute. In total, 17% of GDP was released for rebuilding, which meant that in the first three years 20,000 public engineering projects were required, costing US$3 billion. 10 million cubic metres of solid wastes was produced, about half of which was recycled. Schools were reconstructed using seismic codes that dictated that the should be able to withstand peak ground accelerations of 0.41g, equivalent to the design criteria for a small nuclear power station.

He also touched on some more nebulous but very interesting issues:

  • The government discouraged the desire amongst the people to create multiple landmark memorials. The strong sense was to focus attention on looking forwards not back.
  • Studies showed that the suicide rate amongst those affected by the earthquake increased by 40-50% in the aftermath, but quite quickly returned to normal levels;
  • Full post-traumatic stress disorder affected 9% of the affected population, but reduced to 3% within three years
  • Substantial legal problems arose with redefining property values as the landscape was altered to such a high degree;
  • Landslides and sediment delivery represented major ongoing legacies that in some cases have rendered the reconstruction of infrastructure unviable. In consequence a decision has been made to wait for the landscape to naturally stabilise.

Finally, Prof. Huang highlighted a major problem moving forwards, which is how to make decisions under situations of ambiguity. He gave the example of decisions about the evacuation of landslide-prone villages as typhoons move towards the island. Given the impact of typhoon Morakot, this is an important issue that needs work.

The second presentation that I will mention briefly is that of Prof. Gordon McBean, who holds a Chair at the University of Western Ontario in Canada but who is also the Chair of the Science Committee of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) programme, which is an initiative by ICSU. He used some statistics to demonstrate that disaster impacts are increasing and so to justify (quite correctly) the proposed programmes. The programme aims to drive a shift in focus from response – recovery to prevention – mitigation by driving a series of large science programmes covering characterisation of hazard, vulnerability and risk, and effective decision-making, with a planned legacy after ten years of enhanced capacity to address hazards and to make informed decisions. This is of course a highly worthy initiative that I support fully, but I do hope that they but considerable focus on the translation of knowledge from scientists to practitioners and policy-makers. So often the issue is not a lack of knowledge but rather this exchange process. In my view it is this that is the greatest challenge of all at the moment.