He triggers 'earthquakes' every day

He triggers 'earthquakes' every day

The ground shakes, beams crack and walls fall apart.

At the "disaster zone" which is Associate Professor Li Bing's lab, earthquakes are a daily affair.

For years, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) don has been simulating natural disasters there, to figure out the best way to make buildings quake-proof. His efforts have already helped save thousands of lives in places such as Nepal, China and India.

In Nepal, for instance, six school buildings which had their beam and column structures wrapped with low-cost materials like wire mesh and glass fibrewithstood April's 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

Although Singapore is relatively sheltered, it has become a thriving centre for natural disaster research, whether it is predicting when one will happen, or how to rescue survivors fast.

There is good reason for this.

More than half of the world's 226 natural disasters occurred in the Asia and Pacific region last year, according to a United Nations report, causing over 6,000 deaths and affecting almost 80 million people.

NTU Assistant Professor of Sociology Saidul Islam, a coordinator of the Environment and Sustainability Cluster at NTU's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said that it is in Singapore's interests to help. "With no vital natural resources of its own, Singapore needs other nations for its economic growth and political stability."

Assistant Professor Adam Switzer from NTU's Asian School of the Environment, an expert in storms and tsunamis, said tropical cyclones affect Singapore's economy "every single time they happen in the region".

Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, the Philippines, for instance, drove up coconut prices in the region when 44 million coconut trees were destroyed in 2013.

NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) director Kerry Sieh said: "We are interested in helping our neighbours understand their geohazards. The better they understand geohazards in their countries, the safer we are likely to be when we visit or have other interests there."

Disaster research here is happening on many fronts.

Since 1999, Prof Li has been subjecting brick and concrete walls, columns and beams, to ground motion, and "push-and- pull" forces, trying to tear the structures apart, to test how brittle they are and what makes them break.

At EOS, there are 45 projects studying plate tectonics, oceans, atmosphere and climate science in and around the region, with close to $300 million in government and university funding.

And when disaster strikes, Singapore is often among the first to send rescue missions overseas. Meanwhile, the Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Coordination Centre helps disaster-affected areas by coordinating multi-national military relief efforts.

Prof Li is looking at developing light but tough building structures which can weather an earthquake.

"It is good when the structures crack - it shows that the building is able to absorb the energy rather than collapsing," he explained.

Which is exactly what happened in Nepal. There may have been some cracks, but the six schools stood firm.

Student Laxmi Thapa, 17, who studies at one of the schools - Kanya Mandir Higher Secondary School in Kathmandu - said her family of nine is staying at a temporary shelter there.

Hers is among the 30 families there.

"After the earthquake, my family and others whose houses were not usable also used our school as a shelter. Our school is seismic resistant and we feel safe."

Prof Li is also expanding his work to quake-prone northern Thailand. The idea is not just to retrofit buildings but also to train locals to build safer structures on their own.

"The ultimate aim is to save people's lives. We're just like medical doctors, except that the surgery we do is not on people's bodies, but on buildings."

Recent quakes


A 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck deep under the seabed off the coast of Japan.

There were no reports of casualties or serious injuries.


The 6.0-magnitude earthquake killed 18 people on Mount Kinabalu, including 10 Singaporeans.

Since then, the Malaysian state has experienced at least 90 tremors, with the worst measuring 4.3 in magnitude.


The 7.8-magnitude earthquake (above) is said to be the country's worst in 80 years. It killed more than 8,000 people and left more than 17,800 injured. Another 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the country in May.


This article was first published on July 3, 2015.
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