BY RICHARD CHIROMBO
Dancing buildings. Defaced landmarks and road infrastructure. General panic. Lost lives.
It did not take Karonga District residents and public officials long to find the suspect- an earthquake.
The signs were there, long before the devastating earthquake of December 19, 2009 showed to the world how serious the problem is for Karonga, a district the Geological Surveys Department indicates lies above an area prone to faulty rock movements arising from deep within the earth’s crust.
The price people and infrastructure pay for playing tenant to the Great East Africa Rift Valley System areas.
The first quake, almost prophetic, struck early during the month of December, forcing people to abandon their houses for the unpredictable open ground during the night, and back into their houses wearing the safety of day light.
Then, on December 19, 2009, it happened. At four-years old, Agnes Sambo was in the morning of her life, and yet she died. Sambo was hit by falling walls of a house she, and other family members, were sleeping in, according to Karonga District Police Public Relations Officer, Enock Livason.
Sixty-year old Tereza Kilembe, 15-times Sambo’s age, had a long way to go before the sunset of her life. She, along with one more Karonga resident, became part of Sunday, December 20, 2009’s statistics: Quake kills Three.
United only by the fact they both hailed from the area of Paramount Chief Kyungu, they were later joined by one more productive citizen of the district, all because of a natural phenomenon originating from a distance of remote impossibility from Karonga’s bustling district life.
John Saiwa-Kilembe, one of the people hard hit by the earthquake disaster, lost a house to the unstable earth that Saturday night. He, like most of the people affected, wondered aloud why the quake chose to wear the mask of darkness and strike at night, when most people were peacefully asleep.
“That brought general confusion. Nobody understood it any more than anybody else. What pains me is that I spent over K600, 000 to construct my house. After the earthquake, its value went down to practically nothing- reduced to rubble,” said Saiwa-Kilembe.
Most of the net worth of Karonga people, even during these days of changing lifestyles and Western culture infiltrations, lies in their firm belief to uphold traditional values. Often, these values do not come in cash terms; they are measured in units of integrity and respect. However, the one factor affected people seem to have come to peaceful terms with is that, during disasters and panicking moments, even values go down regardless of worth. Even the most respected community members may find themselves crammed with commoners in donated tents.
Michael Chatsika, who now has to grapple with the fact that his Toyota Carina family car is damaged beyond repair as garage walls fell over it, acknowledges this fact better than many. He spent three days sleeping in tents.
“Just in November 2009, I could not imagine myself being in this situation. Once disaster befell us, there was no choosing where to sleep or what to eat. I would, however, love to thank all well-wishers for coming to our rescue. I have now come to understand the gift of giving better than before,” said Chatsika, who originally comes from the Central Region district of Dowa but settled in Karonga. He says he will never leave Karonga, his new, lovable district. Nothing, not even earthquakes, will separate him from it.
Now that the quakes are come and, God forbid, may continue to disrupt normal life during the rainy season- and relief items continue to trickle down for the quake victims: should public authorities and us just sit on our laurels and wait for the next disaster?
“No, that would be sheer recklessness. It is high time we started planning against the earthquakes big time. Malawians must now join hands and see how we may minimize property and life loss in future,” says Undule Mwakasungura, publicity secretary for Karonga Earthquake Victims Trust.
Sheer recklessness it would be, agrees Dr. Ignacio Ngoma- president of the Malawi Institution of Engineers (MIE). Why does he rush to comment, anyway; what do engineers have to do with earthquakes?
“Earthquake mitigation mechanisms wear a multidisciplinary face. Many disciplines are involved including engineers, seismologists, architects, public administrators, risk analyzers and managers, economists, building conservation technologists, as well as material testing and inspection experts,” argues Ngoma.
Ngoma says no future planning efforts could really work without incorporating engineers because this crop of people considers earthquakes a type of load that exerts forces on infrastructure they build and operate. They have also come to know, through experience, that the force created by quakes may be either static or dynamic, depending on the ground motion.
“By far, the most serious earthquake damage is structural. What engineers do is design and construct buildings that will withstand various degrees of earthquake exposure. In addition, we also have building codes that cover such areas as the largest earthquake magnitude ever recorded in any particular area and any such probability,” says Ngoma.
He is an angry man, though, at the lack of appreciation for engineers’ work and usefulness in reducing quake and winds damage, at least in Malawi. Just look at the general lack of public works engineers in most Town and District Assemblies, he says, not to mention government departments, and takes a shot at long-standing public engineers’ vacancies in most institutions.
It is like courting death, in real terms, he warns.
When disaster strikes, there is one face that shines above all faces; a voice above the noise. This is Lilian Ng’oma, Commissioner for Disaster Management Affairs.
Ng’oma does not cherish it when the Department of Disaster Management Affairs comes to drawn all faces and voices in the aftermath of disasters; she dies for a time when Malawi will establish comprehensive disaster alert systems, especially on earthquakes, so the Department may concentrate on the task of warning people in advance before disasters of the Karonga magnitude.
“It is better to warn people in advance than rush with relief items. That is why we would love the Geological Surveys Department, for instance, to map out earthquake-prone areas in, say, Karonga so we may have an effective earthquakes’ early warning system. That will make our work easy as we will be able to forewarn people, and possibly evacuate them, before disaster strikes,” says Ng’oma, who cited the Lower Shire as one of the areas this system really works.
Not that she wouldn’t like to help- soliciting maize floor here, Soya for children, salt, beans, tents, cooking oil, blankets, kitchen utensils, plastic sheets, poles for temporally houses and jerry cans there.
But the running around, it cannot last forever. When will it end?
“When we begin to plan properly. This includes routine checks on structures like bridges and buildings. We should also promote the construction of mad huts, which has shown strong resilience against earthquake damage,” says engineer Hutchson Mthinda. He has never seen the face of an earthquake, but has planned against more than a thousand in his lifetime.
As it is, Karonga will continue to experience earthquake occurrences because, geologists say, it lies at a point where two arms of the Rift Valley meet to form a Y-junction of two other rifts- one from the Red Sea and the other from Zambia.
This adds to Malawi’s continued susceptibility to earthquakes. The last great quake to have caused great damage came in 1989, and heavily affected Salima district. The Chitala Earthquakes, seismologists and geologists call them over a drink.
Earthquakes are measured on a scale christened Richter, after the name of the person who came up with the innovation, but human beings do not normally feel earthquakes with a magnitude of less than 2.0. There is no upper limit on the scale though earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 8.0 are described as ‘great’ and, on average, only one of these will occur in the world each year.
Most earthquakes occurring in Malawi are moderate, of less than 6.0 in magnitude on the Richter scale, though those above 6.0 and 7.0 occasionally occur.
A geologists’ map for Malawi is replete with dots of earthquake black spots all over, but the dots are much darker for Karonga and brother-in-disaster Salima.
And MIE president, Ngoma, offers little hope when he says: “It is important to note that all engineering solutions are limited by economic and political considerations.”
The only consideration politicians- including the incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika, former Heads of State Bakili Muluzi and Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda- ever made was declare affected areas ‘Disaster Zones’ while the economists merely went to such zones and counted the losses and costs. Nothing like planning for the future.
Mutharika has declared Karonga district a disaster area already, but the question remains: what next?
Detecting earthquakes is, for now, a business of remote impossibility because they are creatures of short-notice mannerisms. They can only be detected within seconds- too late for any early warning system to be effective. Neither can they be blocked by placing a huge stone in their way.