ENVIRO NOTES: We’re better off, but still unprepared

We must be ready for an earthquake, writes PAN environmental columnist Dr. Roy Strang.

By a strange coincidence of timing, the auditor general’s report on earthquake readiness came out soon after release of an international assessment of global vulnerability to natural phenomena, and recently we had another local, magnitude-six earthquake to consider.

The provincial report criticized successive provincial governments for failure to prepare for the major earthquake which, according to the geological record, will strike B.C. at some future, unpredictable time.

The assessment – Mind the Risk: a global ranking of cities under threat from natural disasters – was prepared for the Swiss international insurance organization, SwissRe. The authors considered 616 conurbations which together house 1.7 billion people and contribute 50 per cent of international gross domestic product.

They noted that, by 2050, 70 per cent of the world population will live in cities.

The study looked at five events – earthquakes, river floods, storm surges, tsunamis and windstorms.

Their general conclusion is that cities in China, Japan, Philippines and Taiwan are the most at risk.

Africa, Australia and eastern South America are perhaps the safest areas.

While the San Andreas fault in the Pacific Northwest is well recognized, the North Anatolian fault in the Middle East threatens Tashkent and Tehran and deserves attention.

Beside the immediate physical damage earthquakes cause, they may also result in soil liquefaction which can itself be very damaging.

To put their findings in perspective, the authors cited Hurricane Sandy, which killed 72 people and caused damage estimated at $68 billion – and it was just an average wind force storm!

Damage by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan was assessed at between $210 and $300 billion, while that same year the Bangkok flood, the largest freshwater flood on record, resulted in $47 billion worth of damage.

Eight of the 10 cities most at risk to windstorms are in east Asia, and the only North American city listed, Miami, ranks 23rd.

East Asian cities rank highest for storm surge damage. Amsterdam/Rotterdam is also at risk, but it is well protected, unlike New York, which as Hurricane Sandy showed, is ill-prepared.

Japan is most in danger from tsunamis, and our Pacific Northwest is at medium risk.

Subduction earthquakes result in bigger, stronger tsunamis than are caused by slip/slide  quakes; both types are possible along B.C.’s coastline, and even quite small tsunamis can cause major local damage.

Amongst the 10 cities most vulnerable in terms of area and people affected, the only North American one, Los Angeles, is ranked ninth.

Rated for work days lost because of their locations, size and economic activities, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco rank sixth, seventh and eighth, below Amsterdam/Rotterdam and above Paris.

Metro-Vancouver rates quite low on the global scale of vulnerability, but that is far from signifying that preparations are unnecessary. Seismologists expect that the area will experience a major earthquake, possibly an eight or nine on the Richter scale, sometime in the future.

Perhaps the only question is when will it happen? If the recent San Francisco quake isn’t a precursor, it’s at least a reminder of the Boy Scouts’ motto to ‘be prepared.’

Is it time for us to emulate Mexico City’s MultiCat bond program of risk mitigation, risk modeling, with trade and parametric insurance? This allows government to prepare against earthquake and hurricane damage.

There’s also the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction release, ‘Making Cities Resilient.’

Experience and advice are readily available. Are we prepared to heed and apply them communally and individually?

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca