The eyes of the entire world are fixed on the north-east of Japan; watching as first an earthquake shook the entire country to its foundations last Wednesday and then as a tsunami, with waves as high as ten meters, washed away these very foundations.
With the death toll expected to rise into the thousands and billions of dollars worth of damage expected as well, the magnitude 9 earthquake has really done a number on our Japanese brothers and sisters.
Not only have they had to deal with the vagaries of nature, now they have to deal with a potential nuclear disaster, as the Fukushima I and II nuclear power plants begin leaking radiation into the air; presently, those living within a 20 mile radius of these plants have been asked to evacuate the area and those living further afield have been asked to stay indoors. Survivors have to contend with food, petrol and power shortages and running water is becoming a luxury as well.
Japan is probably the most earthquake-prepared nation in the world but even it took a battering from the fourth most powerful earthquake since 1900, the year earthquake recordkeeping begun.
It was so powerful that it shifted the Earth’s axis by a whopping 10 centimeters.
The resulting tsunami affected Chile, 17,000 kilometers away, as waves two meters high lashed its coastline. This double ‘Act of God’ should reawaken us to the fact that the Earth, our home, doesn’t let us have our own way all the time.
In 2008, a much smaller tremor affected our region. The 5.9 earthquake on the Richter scale on February, with its epicenter 20 kilometers north of Bukavu killed 39 people, including 10 who died as the church they were in collapsed.
Although that was the last major tremor we must realize that we live in an earthquake zone; our positioning on the west end of the East African Right Valley means that we are prone to movements within the Earth’s crust as the different tectonic plates move against each other.
In fact, the largest recorded earthquake in our region measured 7.6. That was a huge one. Putting that in perspective, the 1989 Lama Prieto earthquake in the San Francisco region killed 63 and damaged property (buildings, roads and bridges) worth billions.
And it ONLY measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. What I’m saying is that we should be prepared for earthquakes. But what I must ask is, “are we”? Probably not.
Kigali is aiming to become a city of skyscrapers and that’s great.
But do the architects, contractors and city council officials granting building permits realize that this is an earthquake zone? Everything was hunky-dory when almost every building structure in our capital was single storied, but now that things are rapidly changing I can only hope that building codes have changed as well. Earthquake-proof buildings, which can sway, have to be part of our skyline.
But even if all the new building sprouting right, left and center become earthquake proof I doubt whether anyone actually knows how to keep safe in the event of a serious tremor.
There must be more emergency-situation training. As a child, I was taught in primary school what to do in the event of an earthquake, tornado or fire. Our natural reaction in a crisis is to panic and flee but very often this panicked reaction causes more harm than the natural event itself.
Children should be taught, as early as possible simple things such as ‘stop, drop and roll’, in case of fire or how to protect their vital organs in case of earthquakes or things of that nature.
Secondly, those managing these swanky, new skyscrapers must have emergency exits well marked out and emergency procedures well thought out. While we can continue looking forward with optimism, we shouldn’t forget to protect ourselves from the vagaries of this planet we call home.