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BEHIND THE QUAKES - 'Give seismic hazards climate priority'

Published:Thursday | January 30, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake walk by motor vehicles crushed by a collapsed building shortly after the disaster which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in that country four years ago.

WITH MEMORIES of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 still fresh in people's minds, there is a call for seismic hazards to share in the priority currently given to climate change in Jamaica.

"We need to be aware of the fact that climate change is not the only problem we need to solve," said Franklin McDonald, former coordinator for the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and now visiting scholar at York University in Canada.

Through entities like the Planning Institute of Jamaica, the island has in recent years focused much of its energies on accessing international climate finance to bolster readiness for climate impacts, including sea level rise, warmer temperatures and the attendant loss of livelihoods in agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

It has simultaneously established the Ministry of Land, Water, Environment, and Climate Change, which is now leading those efforts; and has in place a Climate Change Advisory Panel. More recently, work on a climate change policy was completed.

No conflict

According to McDonald, preparedness for seismic hazards warrants some of this attention.

"There is really no conflict between addressing climate change and the seismic hazards because in the case of tsunamis and storm surges, you are going to be dealing with inundation of coastal areas. The only difference is that the tsunami is going to come fairly quickly," he told The Gleaner via Skype from Canada.

"The problem is climate change is an internationally agreed upon problem and so there is a lot of funding available to deal with climate change [while] the seismic challenge is sort of a more local, national, regional challenge," he added.

The situation, McDonald said, requires Jamaica "to find an all-hazards and all-risk approach to deal with climate and seismic hazards in an integrated way".

A starting point, he suggested, could be a budget process sensitive to developments in science, as reflected in the work of researchers, such as former head of the Earthquake Unit, Dr Lyndon Brown.

"The budget process should be a time for strategic policy and programme priority setting. The ministries themselves are not focusing on scanning the issues in their mandated area, but in a sort of 'we did it last year so it is good enough for this year' way. The products of science are not utilised when all you are doing is using the processes of the past," he said.

Brown, a geophysicist, has supported McDonald's call.

"Most of the proposals that are written for [financial and technical] assistance focus on climate change and environmental changes, but not exactly on the impact and potential impact if we have an earthquake. So climate change is taking serious precedence over earthquake research and seismic hazards," he noted.

Yet, Brown said there is no question of the need to give seismic hazards prominence. For one thing, Jamaica shares the fault - the Enriquillo Plantain Garden Fault - that ruptured to cause the devastation in Haiti four years ago, leaving some 250,000 people dead.

Jamaica has also experienced earthquakes similar to Haiti in 2010 - in 1692 and 1907. The 1962 event destroyed Port Royal while the 1907 quake cost the lives of 1,000 people in Kingston.

"The 1907 Mw [moment magnitude] 6.5 earthquake occurred when Kingston's population was only 50,000 and resulted in 1,000 deaths. In the past century, no significant earthquake has occurred in Kingston and, meanwhile, the metropolitan population has swelled to nearly a million people. Thus, future earthquakes here could cause significant destruction and loss of life," warned Brown in a 2011 paper he co-authored with researchers from the University of Texas, titled 'Assessing geohazards near Kingston, Jamaica: Initial results from chirp profiling'.