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The Myanmar Times

Experts warn Yangon on quake risk

Villagers recover at a makeshift clinic in Thabeikkyin earlier this month. Kaung Htet / The Myanmar TimesVillagers recover at a makeshift clinic in Thabeikkyin earlier this month. Kaung Htet / The Myanmar Times

Earthquake experts have expressed “deep concern” that many buildings in Yangon might not survive even a small quake. At particular risk are high-rises built between 1990 and 2000, when safety standards were poor, they say.

A survey of damage from the November 11 quake at Shwebo found that buildings there had been soundly constructed, helping to minimise damage and casualties in the 6.8 magnitude event.

However, a total of 26 people were killed in the quake.

But U Soe Thura Tun, the secretary of Myanmar Earthquake Committee (MEC), said “soft-storey” buildings, where the open ground floor was used for parking or commercial premises, were at risk. There are many such buildings in Yangon.

The quake at Shwebo and Thabeikkyin was near the Sagaing fault at the centre of the earthquake zone. Though the standard of construction was generally high, low-rise buildings were at risk because of poor-quality steel in their support columns, or there were too few columns, he said.

“Many buildings in Yangon have ground floors of the hall type, meant for parking spaces, like the buildings in the quake zone. From an engineering point of view, this is structurally safe. But that kind of soft-storey building can collapse when an earthquake occurs because of lateral forces. This happened to many houses in Shwebo and Thabeikkyin because the open ground floor was used as a grocery shop,” said U Soe Thura Tun.

Concrete wall slabs were also likely to fall in the event of a quake, he said. “Another cause of the destruction in Shwebo was the collapse of wall slabs because of insufficient strength,” he said.

Thanks to earthquake-resistant measures brought in by the MEC and the Committee for the Quality Control of High-Rise Building Projects (CQHP), buildings of eight storeys and higher in Yangon constructed since 2003 are considered safer. Since 2010, Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) has mandated earthquake-resistant design in buildings of three storeys and above.

However, he said many buildings in Yangon, both high- and low-rise, were still at risk and should be checked. “The buildings should be structurally tested and retrofitted as necessary,” U Soe Thura Tun said.

He warned that buildings that went up between 1990 and 2000 were a matter of “deep concern”.

“That was a boom period for construction. Some of the blocks were built without a structural engineer, or by fake contractors. Most buildings of this type in Yangon are located in Sanchaung and Tarmwe townships. It’s time to check their structure and design,” he said.

“Column strength can be detected only through specialised testing. But some wall slabs are so weak even hammering a nail into the wall could cause collapse,” he said, adding that some Yangon buildings even had cracks caused by the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia. “Even a small quake of magnitude 5 would be quite risky. The need to check is urgent,” he said.

“My suggestion is to form third-party organisations with lawyers to supervise the testing to ensure transparency. Their findings can then be checked by YCDC,” he said.

“What we learned [in Shwebo] is that structurally sound buildings can withstand a 6.8 magnitude quake, thus reducing damage and casualties. Another point is the need for earthquake awareness, so people know what to do,” he said.

A small quake in Yangon could not be ruled out. “The Sagaing fault produces high-magnitude quakes at long intervals. But the Taikkyi fault in northern Yangon region can create small quakes of about 3 to 4 magnitude, and the Dedaye fault can produce magnitude 6 events. There has already been a small quake at Taikkyi this year,” said U Soe Thura Tun.

“Quakes at Taikkyi in 1997-1998 of less than magnitude 5 caused cement slabs to fall from buildings in Sanchaung and Hledan,” he added.

He said the Earthquake Committee was compiling a map showing the potential for quakes throughout the country. People concerned about their building could check with a specialist structural engineer and make other preparations. Residents of high-rises built between 1990 and 2000 should pay particular attention to walls, staircases and emergency stairs.

U Lazarus, managing director of Yadanar Shwe Htun Construction in Botahtaung township, said the safety of buildings constructed before 2000 was a major concern. “Blocks that went up between 1988 and 1995 are structurally weak. Construction quality is poor because of the use of low-grade iron rods and poor concrete slabs. These types of buildings are mostly located in Yangon. There is a very high risk of collapse during an earthquake,” he said.

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