Friday, January 15, 2010

African Quakes Go Unnoticed

As rescue and humanitarian aid workers struggle to keep ahead of the rapidly growing need for help because of the earthquake devastation in Haiti, the media has missed coverage of an earthquake that occurred in the southern African nation of Malawi the same day as the one in Haiti. In fact, the January 12th earthquake in Malawi was the third in a series of earthquakes there that began in December of last year. Perhaps the major difference was that in crowded, poverty-stricken Haiti, the destruction was so widespread and the death toll was so high. Fewer than 10 people were killed in Malawi because the earthquake didn’t hit a major population center like the Haitian capital of Port au-Prince.

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake, just like in Haiti, struck Mozambique in February 2006. The damage and number of lives lost was limited because it struck in a rural, lightly-populated area of Mozambique, hundreds of miles away from cities such as Maputo and Beira. Three people were killed and fewer than 30 were injured. Similar low death tolls have been experienced in other African quakes. A 2005 earthquake centered in Lake Tanganyika registered between magnitude 6.3 and 6.8 and affected mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also was felt in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. The death toll was two people.

Actually, there are African countries nearly as poor as Haiti, and the continent generally has the highest growth rate for urbanization in the world. Anyone who has been to Lagos or Luanda can attest to the size of the population and the likely unpreparedness for a disaster like a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. Of course, it is Africa’s blessing that the most active zones for earthquakes on the continent do not coincide with major population centers.

The most active areas for seismic activity in Africa are along the Great Rift Valley, running from Ethiopia along the east down through Mozambique. Earthquakes in Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika happen deep below their surface, with less impact on the surrounding land. In addition to the East African Rift Valley area, other sites of intense seismic activity are near the Atlas Mountains in North Africa and in South Africa’s cape region.

African earthquakes may not claim the lives of many people thus far or cause significant property damage, but thousands of people are usually displaced by these quakes. Their plight often goes unnoticed because whatever devastation there is not in a major city where the cameras and reporters are. That could change, however. The seismic hot spot in South Africa is perilously close to Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city and home of its Parliament and 3.5 million residents.

Earthquakes are usually the result of two tectonic plates – sections of the Earth’s surface land mass – that move in relation to one another. The pressure released by the movement of plates not only causes earthquakes, but also volcanic activity and mountain-building. There are several active and dormant volcanoes along the East Africa rift: Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Mount Meru and Mount Elgon. Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira, part of the chain of eight volcanoes known as the Virunga Mountains on the East Africa rift, are active volcanoes.

In the Rift Valley, the African Plate is believed to be in the process of splitting into new tectonic plates called the Somali Plate and the Nubian Plate. This clashing of tectonic plates likely is related to the series of earthquakes in Malawi in recent weeks and could trigger other seismic activity. There has been study of the tectonic plate activity in the Rift Valley, but the countries along this fault line are no better prepared to deal with disaster now than they were before the study was conducted, probably because the history of earthquakes in Africa does not indicate imminent cause for alarm.

Nevertheless, African countries are as disaster-prone as Haiti, which not only experienced the devastating earthquake this week, but never fully recovered from the series of tropical storms and hurricanes from 2008. Africa does not appear on the lists of the deadliest storms or deadliest earthquakes or deadliest volcanic eruptions. So devoting significant funds to preparing for such disasters does not now seem prudent to African governments, bilateral donors or international lenders. In a poor country, preparing for an unlikely event is far down the list of spending priorities.

Of course, the only known limnic eruptions in the world happened in Cameroon. A limnic eruption, also referred to as a lake overturn, is a rare type of natural disaster in which carbon dioxide (CO2) suddenly erupts from deep lake water, suffocating all life nearby. In 1984, 37 people died of asphyxiation when Lake Manoun experienced a limnic eruption, and in 1986, Lake Nyos erupted, causing the death of more than 1,700 people when more than 80 million cubic meters of CO2 was released.

At this point in time, the world community must focus its attention on providing for the immediate and long-term needs of the suffering people of Haiti. Still, the potential for catastrophe is Africa must not be ignored. The logistics being stretched to the limit in nearby Haiti cannot so easily be replicated for Africa without some prior planning.

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