Whether or not you feel them, earthquakes are a daily occurrence in Lebanon.
Moreover, the scenario of a major earthquake hitting Lebanon in the future is a certainty rather than a possibility, experts warn, while highlighting the country’s lack of preparation to handle such a disaster.
“The one thing we are sure about is that major earthquakes will happen again in this country.
We know that not only the country but the entire region – Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria – is going to witness major earthquakes soon, because the cycle of earthquakes on the major fault line that passes through this country, is now active,” explains Ata Elias, assistant professor of geology at the American University of Beirut, referring to the Dead Sea fault zone stretching from the Gulf of Aqaba up to Turkey.
While the fault system within Lebanon has experienced normal seismic activity of late, the more immediate risk may result from the system in the eastern Mediterranean, which has logged a significant increase in activity since May, producing tremors felt from Egypt to Lebanon.
Last week Lebanon experienced the minor effects of a 5.6 magnitude earthquake that originated off the Greek Island of Rhodes produced by a fault line known as the Hellenic Trench.
The problem, Elias points out, is that even a minor quake could cause significant damage. “In a country like Lebanon, even a magnitude 4 or 5 [earthquake] can be a threat. That’s because of the lousy structures we have … the building conditions are very poor,” he says.
After the tragic building collapse in January in the Ashrafieh neighborhood of Fassouh, it’s certainly no surprise to any Beirut resident that structures around the city are crumbling.
As United Nations resident coordinator for Lebanon Robert Watkins points out, events like the Fassouh building collapse expose Lebanon’s lack of emergency preparedness.
“When you have incidents like the Ashrafieh building collapse, everyone is up in arms and demanding that we do something about this. They want a study of all the buildings in Beirut and want to see if they can resist an earthquake. And the government says yes, this is a matter of national urgency … and then slowly things move on,” Watkins says.
In 2009, the prime minister’s office established a Disaster Risk Management Unit: a UNDP-led project established to begin the process of “risk mapping” the country that will culminate in a “national disaster risk reduction strategy that involves all of the ministries and all of the bodies in the country that are responsible for responding to disasters.”
The task of the unit is threefold, Watkins explains: create a structure within the government for coordination among the different government ministries and first responders; train a cadre of experts in response and preparedness within each relevant ministry; and raise public awareness.
With the cooperation of 246 municipalities, the unit has undertaken a mapping project to assess the hazards facing Lebanon in the event of earthquakes, forest fires, tsunami, floods and landslides which will be discussed and translated into recommendations within the national strategy, expected to be completed in December.
In the disaster risk mapping, earthquakes have emerged as a significant threat, in Watkin’s assessment, “the biggest emergency, apart from conflict, that Lebanon is subject to.”
Indeed, Lebanon is rife with tectonic features, including three major fault lines: the Yammouneh Fault, the Serghaya Fault and the recently discovered Mount Lebanon Thrust Fault that lies just off shore and was likely the source of one of Lebanon’s largest earthquakes in 551 A.D., when Beirut was hit by a tsunami and leveled.
“There is a range of risk, but we know by looking at previous experience, earthquakes in this country and elsewhere, that in the case of an unprepared country loss of life can be around 30 percent of the population,” he says.
The key factor in mitigating loss of life is how much the country has invested in preparedness – both in awareness levels and earthquake-designed structures – says Elias, contrasting the case of Haiti, where 250,000 people were killed by a 7.0 magnitude quake in 2010 and California, where a 6.9 magnitude earthquake in 1989 resulted in less than 100 deaths.
“Where does Lebanon sit in this model? In fact, we are closer to Haiti than the case of California,” Elias says.
Lebanon’s building regulations do include a seismic code, first developed in 1994 in the aftermath of the Civil War and upgraded in 2005, says AUB civil engineering professor Mohammad Harajli who was involved in the seismic assessment.
The regulations require that buildings above four stories must be designed to withstand earthquakes, and engineers must submit a report on the seismic design.
However, Harajli says, “these reports can be flying around, simply cut and paste, and nobody is really checking them – you need to look at the drawings, at the maps, at the structural design, tiered reinforcement and you have to have a committee [to do this].”
According to Harajli, since 1994 government-sponsored buildings and the Downtown redevelopment by Solidere have all followed seismic regulations. Beyond that, seismic design is limited to new, expensive real estate projects.
“Buildings that are in poor areas, that are not constructed with any engineering supervision, without seismic design, these are the buildings that are at risk.
Especially in dense areas and heavily populated areas where the buildings are very close to each other … also in areas where the soil is not very good and is not rock, like sandy soil or clay soil where the ground shaking is magnified,” he explains. He notes that while central Beirut sits on solid rock, its outskirts, such as the southern suburbs, Dora and Burj Hammoud all sit on unconsolidated soil.
While the cost of constructing a building from scratch in accordance with seismic codes is low – Harajli estimates an additional cost of 3 to 5 percent on the total price tag – retrofitting can become extremely expensive and must be determined on a case by case basis.
Watkins believes that in the case of retrofitting, Lebanon must prioritize and invest in preparedness rather than costly reinforcement of old buildings.
“The kind of retrofitting that would have to be done in Beirut alone is in the billions of dollars. No politician is going to say we’re not going to do it, but the reality is that it’s never going to be done because it’s just staggeringly expensive.
“So what you have to do is you have to go through priorities – do you have hospitals, large apartment blocks, municipal buildings that house thousands of workers?” Watkins says, adding that the DRM unit has recommended and will assist municipalities to do such evaluations.
Aside from the planning work by the DRM unit, the Lebanese government has yet to undertake any significant action, says Elias, such as setting up a committee to enforce seismic construction codes or even working on a tsunami warning system, which is timely now given the growing seismic activity in the eastern Mediterranean.
“The problem in this country is that we don’t have enough knowledge or experience in this domain, on all levels – the research level, the management level and the political level. Nothing. We’ve acquired long experience dealing with war but our administrators don’t know how to behave during a natural disaster,” says Elias.
To bridge this gap, UNDP has also assisted Lebanon in creating a National Response Plan to form standard operating procedures for different disasters. It is working with government ministries, the Lebanese Army, the Civil Defense, HRC and the Lebanese Red Cross.
Currently awaiting comments from ministries and endorsement by the Cabinet, UNDP hopes that the plan will be approved and the project can move to the next phase of running disaster response simulations.
As Watkins points out, disaster risk reduction moves slowly in Lebanon, lapsing until another calamity reminds the public and the authorities to take action. “Everyone understands the adage of prevention is better than cure, but to actually move forward takes a lot of patience and constant reminding.”