Strong quake is a wake-up call for Thailand

Strong quake is a wake-up call for Thailand

The earthquake that shook the North on Monday, causing widespread damage to areas around its epicentre in Chiang Rai, was a wake-up call for Thailand. Measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, the quake was the strongest ever recorded in the Kingdom.

Thailand is by no means a "hot spot" for earthquakes of this magnitude. In a region situated amid a crosshatch of geological faults, Thais suffer fewer and less severe quakes than their neighbours in Indonesia and Myanmar.

The law once stipulated that Thailand's tall buildings (15 metres or higher) must be built to withstand a 6.0-magnitude tremor. In 2007 that bar was raised to magnitude 7.0 for new buildings. Nevertheless, experts reckon that more than 20,000 buildings across the country would be severely damaged in a strong earthquake.

Monday's tremor left many houses in the North uninhabitable and put alarming cracks in the walls of multi-storey hotels, schools and government offices. Thais, unfamiliar with such a strong geological jolt, were shocked to see roads subsiding, houses collapsing and temples crumbling. For residents in and around Chiang Rai, the trauma was prolonged by more than 100 aftershocks.

The incident also shook us out of our complacence: we now know that Thailand is not safe from strong quakes. Hence, we need new measures to protect ourselves. Residents in areas at risk should be educated about what to do if an earthquake hits, such as diving for cover from falling masonry and evacuating buildings at the first opportunity. There should be regular "disaster" exercises in quake-prone areas.

Monday's tremor was unusual, but there's no telling when another of its strength will occur again. As such, all buildings, whatever their height, should be required to withstand an earthquake of up to 7.0 magnitude. Strengthening existing structures with braces or other forms of added support now seems essential, if not urgent.

Authorities should also examine transport infrastructure, including mass transit systems, to ensure they can withstand strong seismic activity.

No cracks have been reported in the dams in the quake-hit provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Phayao, but authorities must monitor their structures for any signs they were damaged in the tremor and aftershocks.

Further studies would also be useful to identify which areas are at high risk of earthquakes. Scientists have identified the location of several faults in Thailand, most of them in the North, though certainly not all of them. They have admitted, however, that the geological picture is far from complete.

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