Responding to earthquake threats in Nigeria – Punch

Despite the continuous push to expand the frontiers of science and technology, man has not been able to tame the rage of nature; natural disasters remain one of the world’s most enduring scourges. Be it flooding, hurricane, mudslide, volcano, earthquake or tsunami, they always leave a trail of misery and untold devastation. In one fell swoop, natural disasters can unmake what has taken a lifetime to establish. They can make mountains to sprout up from the plains or turn dry land into an expanse of water.

Cases such as the recent hurricane in the United States, the earthquake and tsunami that ripped through the coastal areas of Indonesia and the slightly less deadly one experienced in Haiti, have only reinforced the notion of man’s vulnerability to the forces of nature. Weeks after the deadly 7.5 magnitude earthquake that triggered tsunami waves of up to 10 feet high in Indonesia, the death toll has continued to mount, surpassing the 2,000 mark, just as many missing people are yet to be accounted for.  Luckily, Haiti which, in 2010, lost over 230,000 people to one of the most devastating earthquakes ever, according to government figures, only reported about 14 casualties this time.

But while Indonesians were still reeling from the impact of the twin disasters and the aftershocks, a third one reared its ugly head in the form of a volcano, which erupted a week after in the northern tip of the country. It is believed that the mount Soputan eruption, which spewed a column of ash nearly 20,000 feet into the sky, must have been triggered by the earthquake; but the link has not been conclusively established. So, as the country and international aid agencies partner to prevent an epidemic from unrecovered decomposing bodies, plans are also afoot for a possible evacuation of those that might be affected by the volcano.

However, for those who rarely suffer natural disasters, events like Indonesia’s provide some lessons on how to survive if confronted by similar circumstances. For instance, there has always been the belief that Nigeria is not in an earthquake zone and Nigerians should, therefore, not lose sleep over the prospect of any such occurrence. A geography lecturer in one of the higher institutions in the country was quoted recently as saying, “Nigeria is on a stable geographical spectrum, so we are not likely to experience earthquake.”

That claim is debatable. Recent cases of earth tremor – a minor seismic convulsion that causes minor or no damage – in many parts of the country have shown that Nigeria may not be totally immune to earthquake. Historically, earth tremor in Nigeria dates back to 1933; a Senator, Danjuma La’ah, told the Senate in 2016 that the country had experienced earth tremors in 1939, 1964, 1984, 1990, 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2006.

Beyond the speculation, the National Space Research and Development Agency has been more categorical about the possibility of experiencing major earthquakes in Nigeria by hinting at places of likely occurrence. According to Seidu Mohammed, a professor and Director-General of NASRDA, Mpape in Abuja;  Kwoi in Kaduna; Ijebu Ode in Ogun; Shaki in Oyo and Igbogene in Bayelsa State feature highly among such  places.

Besides, some African countries have experienced earthquakes before, reinforcing the belief that Nigeria could one day be hit by either an earthquake or a tsunami. For instance, on December 22 and 26, 1983, an earthquake followed by a strong aftershock claimed more than 443 lives in Guinea; Egypt, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Morocco, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique are among countries prone to earthquakes.

Natural disasters are hardly events anyone should look forward to, but the possibility of their occurrence makes it compelling to prepare for them. In the US, for instance, there are already elaborate preparations to develop capacity to deal with a possible occurrence of a tsunami. At a 2016 annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America, Rick Wilson, the Science Coordinator, California Tsunami Preparedness and Hazard Mitigation Programme, revealed that identifying evidence of past tsunamis would help to refine estimates of tsunami risks.

The main point is to be able to predict an occurrence so that a proper response could be mobilised. In the Indonesian case, there were reports of the failure of the alert system. After a tsunami warning was sent out, it was later lifted, according to a Reuters report. If the alert system had not failed, perhaps many people would have been evacuated and lives saved.

Apparently, the country was guilty of not learning from the past after it emerged as the main victim of the most destructive tsunami ever recorded. Over 225,000 people across 11 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Maldives, died in the December 26, 2004 incident. Estimates by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, quoting Indonesian officials, put the death toll from Indonesia alone at over 200,000.

Nigeria needs to develop the capacity to monitor and predict an earthquake accurately, even though it is said to be very difficult to do. Writing in the MIT Technology Review, its Senior Editor, Will Knight, noted that alerts were issued through the television and cell phones after the “first less harmful shock wave” was detected in the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan, triggering a tsunami on March 11, 2011; it provided enough opportunity for people to respond.

Following the Abuja tremor, it was revealed that the proliferation of boreholes was responsible for the earth movement. With the failure of public water system, the whole of Nigeria is at risk because practically every household in every city in the country relies on boreholes for its drinking water. As a matter of urgency, the government has to revive the public water system to save the environment from this unsavoury practice.

The emergency agency of the government should also be well equipped to be able to respond in times of emergency. What has been noticed during the occasional flooding in the country is not good enough; a lot more needs to be done.

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