Lebanon’s failed state: What if it had been a high magnitude earthquake?

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Members of the National Center for Geophysical Research carry out tests with the limited equipment they have. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Monday, July 7, 2014

Lebanese government efforts to protect us from earthquakes are as fast as tectonic plates, which move from zero to 100 millimeters per year. Government performance, however, scores closer to zero, which could lead to terrible destruction.

"An earthquake with a 4.2 magnitude on the Richter scale occurred at 12:41 am local time, followed by an aftershock of 3.6 magnitude at 1:25 am. They were followed by five additional aftershocks of decreasing magnitudes," the National Center for Geophysical Research announced early Sunday morning.

People in areas around Saida, all the way to Iqlim al-Kharroub and Iqlim al-Tuffah, heard a loud thud and felt the earth shake for several seconds. This means the earthquake originated inland and not in the sea. The sound was caused by friction in the fault at a certain point, which could have resulted in a break inside the Earth's crust, of uncertain depth. While the US Geological Survey announced it had occurred at a depth of 14.8 km, the National Center for Geophysical Research said it was it was closer to the surface at 5 to 6 km deep.

Alarming rumors

The only national maneuver to protect us from earthquakes and tremors in Lebanon occurred in 2008. The recent tremor did not seem strong enough to make Lebanese officials budge. However, several senior officials called the responsible authorities to inquire whether they should leave their palaces and luxury apartments.

Former director of the National Center for Geophysical Research in Bhannis, Alexander Sursok, told Al-Akhbar that the aftershocks stopped at 8:00 am on Sunday. This indicated that the reverberations of the first event are diminishing quickly.

Secretary General of the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) Mouin Hamze informed Al-Akhbar that the monitoring station in Deir al-Qamar in the Chouf was able to accurately determine the epicenter of the earthquake. It was located in al-Mghairiye in Iqlim al-Kharroub, south of the governorate, which is around 8 km northeast of Saida.

Hamze indicated that the first tremor and its aftershocks were near the Roum fault line close to Iqlim al-Kharroub and Iqlim al-Tuffah. The second tremor and its aftershocks were centered in Daraya in Iqlim al-Kharroub. "The first aftershock that had a 3.6 magnitude causes more concern than previous times when we had earthquakes," he explained. "We received warnings from dozens of monitoring stations around the world, saying that this was an unusual and atypical earthquake. We concluded this could be the beginning of an active seismic period. In 2008, almost 1,000 earthquakes were registered in Srifa and the Litani basin, which indicated large seismic activity."

Hamze criticized the rumors spread on WhatsApp, using fake names such as the Lebanese Observatory for Earthquakes and Geology. These types of rumors are a threat to Lebanese national security, he said, and should be investigated to apprehend the perpetrators. He revealed that he called the office of the prime minister requesting action by the cybercrime division of the judicial police to catch those behind the rumors and deliver them to justice.

A few minutes after the earthquake, a text message began being spread, which said that a second earthquake will be hitting Lebanon and northern Palestine at 4:00 am. "All citizens in the quake's location, in case it occurred, should head directly to open rural areas and avoid urbanized areas," the message warned.

According to Hamze, the message caused a state of alarm, especially in Iqlim al-Kharroub, where many people spent the night outside, fearing the second earthquake. When the earthquake failed to happen at 4:00 am, another message was sent, saying it will occur at 6:00 am, which caused additional alarm, although to a lesser degree.

Looted observatories

Hamze explained that the National Center for Geophysical Research has a staff of only three people, one of whom is about to retire. Out of the 21 observatories set up in various Lebanese regions, only five are currently functional: Bhannis and Deir Houqa in the north, Bir Hassan in Beirut, Hasbaya, and Deir al-Qamar in Chouf.

The CNRS director complained about the lack of necessary funds to install new stations or maintain the current ones, saying that some of the stations had been looted and were forced to close. "I informed the prime minister's office of the situation and requested the necessary funds for the geophysics center," Hamze continued. "They cannot ask us for precise measurements of seismic activities with the modest means we are provided."

He also announced that the Civil Defence, the Red Cross, and the Higher Relief Council were put in a state of alert after the earthquake. Finally, he hoped that all the administrations and authorities responsible for managing disasters will be ready in the event of stronger earthquakes in the future.

According to Sursok, however, the National Geophysics Center does not have the necessary level of capacity. "There is a lack of information due to the shortage in monitoring equipment and we cannot perform the necessary maintenance work. There are machines in Bhannis, which have not been replaced in 40 years. The situation two years ago was much better than today. The funds allocated are too small and they keep decreasing every year."

"Three people work in Bhannis: Rashid Joumaa, Marlene Brax, and I," Sursok continued. "What will happen if anyone gets sick? Where is the younger generation who will carry the task after we go? In Syria, despite the devastating war, seismic monitoring continues and is better than Lebanon. We currently receive some data collected by Turkey. But the task of detecting the epicenter is crucial to analyze the situation and take necessary measures."

"The solution and measure to be taken should be the application of the urban planning system, through the construction of earthquake-resistant structures," Hamze said in a press conference held on Sunday. "According to the seismic map of Lebanon, seismic activity is distributed all over the country. Tremors occurring in the nighttime are felt by citizens more than those happening in the daytime. However, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake is worthy of studying."

Early warning system

According to Majdi Saad, publisher of Ilm wa Alam scientific magazine, the time has come to benefit from Lebanon's scientific qualifications in the diaspora to strengthen Lebanese capacities to monitor tremors and earthquakes. The country could reach a stage where activity around the faults could be predicted, Saad told Al-Akhbarl.

"NASA's jet propulsion laboratory is run by Lebanese Charles Achi. One of its divisions includes a geophysics research center, which studies earthquakes. It predicted 15 out 16 earthquakes in California. Scientifically speaking, we are able to make general predictions about earthquakes. However, a scientific database about the faults might indicate certain threats," Saad explained.

"Lebanese scientist Atallah Elias discovered the Mount Lebanon fault line running from Akkar to Tyre in the sea. We have the right to demand a precise scientific explanation. Until today, no one knows about the tremors in the sea, because there are no scientists or equipment to tell us about them. If we are to review seismic activity in the past few years, it is clear that the inland Roum fault line and Mount Lebanon's coastal fault line are active. Funds should be allocated to strengthen the monitoring centers, especially in the sea."

"We could also make use of the expertise of the Lebanese Academy for Sciences, headed by Edgar Choueiri, a physicist at Princeton University, and includes Achi in its membership. Such cooperation could allow for the establishment of an advanced geophysics center, with a qualified cadre, and scientific capacities who worked in Lebanon."

"One such expert on fault lines is Paul Tapponnier, a geophysics professor at the Institut de Physique du Globe in Paris. He worked in Lebanon in the past and in 2008 warned of the likelihood of a major earthquake in the country."

"The center should be equipped with the latest technology available. It should also cooperate with NASA's geophysics center, which is possible with Dr. Achi, in addition to other centers in Japan, Taiwan, and Italy, countries suffering from recurrent earthquakes."

Saad called for teaching school students about the subject, as well as creating programs through the municipalities and governorates, training security forces, and providing equipment to rescue people from under the rubble. In addition, rescue teams and the army should be prepared as a priority. In case of a disaster, they should be able to leave their centers and begin rescue operations.

It is no exaggeration to say that Lebanon lacks the minimum preparedness for such a disaster. Old buildings, which could collapse during a magnitude 6.5 or more quake and must be evacuated immediately, have yet to be mapped out. Even several of the new public buildings suffer from defects in construction materials and are prone to collapse.

The disaster management unit of the United Nations Development Programs works with the office of the prime minister on improving disaster management and developing strategies to mitigate the expected risks. Although the unit was established years ago, officials are not eager to propose a bill establishing a national committee for disaster management, which sits in the drawers of parliament. They all seem satisfied with keeping UN agencies in control of national projects and programs, in a clear indication of the "failed state" definition applied to Lebanon.

Follow Bassam Kantar on http://about.me/bassam.kantar

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

It's actually very difficult in this full of activity life
to listen news on TV, thus I simply use internet for that reason, and
obtain the most recent news.

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