Almaty scrambles to improve earthquake readiness

By bne IntelliNews May 27, 2011

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

100 years after the last major earthquake flattened the city, Almaty residents are living in fear of the next big one. A scare in early May revealed how unprepared the Kazakh authorities are, and a drill on May 24 was hastily arranged.

On May 1, Almaty woke up with a jolt, when an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale, 85 kilometres away, shook the city. With four smaller aftershocks through the day, panic that a major earthquake was imminent swept through Almaty.

Concerns were already high. Throughout its history, Almaty has suffered a major earthquake around every 80 years. By 2011, it was 100 years since a magnitude 10 earthquake - in 1911 - had devastated the city. A study by the University of Colombia released in late 2009 found that Almaty and nearby Bishkek were both among the top-three countries at risk of a major earthquake in the next 10 years.

With no guidance from the city authorities, on May 1 residents had only dire predictions from fortune tellers and the Almaty rumour mill to rely on for information. Many fled to relatives in the nearby countryside, or took to the streets to spend the night in cars, parks or gardens. It wasn't until nearly midnight - more than 12 hours after the initial earthquake - that a statement from the director of the Institute of Seismology, Tanatkan Abakan, was broadcast, urging people to go home and not to panic. "The recent scare revealed that the government was not prepared to respond by giving information in time," says Dinara Kassenova, regional project manager, Prepare Central Asia, at the American Red Cross Kazakhstan, which is working with the Red Crescent to increase preparedness in Central Asia. "It is essential that the government and the media work together to deliver information and prevent panic."

At risk

Central Asia is periodically hit by devastating earthquakes, and four of its five capitals are in areas of high seismic risk. In April 1996, Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent was destroyed by an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale. The quake left more than 300,000 people homeless, and destroyed most of Tashkent's architectural heritage.

More deadly was the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake. At the time, the death toll was kept secret, but in 2007 the State News Agency of Turkmenistan said that up to 176,000 people had been killed - around 15% of the Soviet state's population. They included the mother of independent Turkmenistan's first president, the late Saparmurad Niyazov. "Central Asia is one of the most vulnerable areas geographically located in a zone of high seismic activity. It's even more vulnerable because of the type of infrastructure and construction in this region. Although it is never possible to predict an earthquake, Almaty is in a high risk area, and the world is currently gong through a period of high seismic activity," Kassenova tells bne.

There have been efforts to improve seismic protection in new constructions in Almaty, and to reinforce older buildings. However, a state programme to reinforce public buildings in Almaty came to an end in 2010 and new funding has not yet been available. As a result, only around 40% of schools, hospitals and other facilities have been reinforced.

One of the reasons cited for moving Kazakhstan's capital from Almaty to Astana was the high earthquake risk in the former capital. But while government offices have been moved to the new capital, Almaty remains the business centre, meaning that in the event of a major earthquake a severe shock to the economy would follow.

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