Lessons from Bhuj Earthquake

Lessons from Bhuj Earthquake


Ravi Sinha and Alok Goyal

The Gujarat earthquake has thrown tremendous challenge to the information systems community of this country

An earthquake with magnitude Mw = 7.7 occurred at 8:46 AM on January 26, 2001 near the town of Bhuj in western Gujarat. This earthquake has resulted in the death of over 35,000 people and has devastated the region. Four major urban areas of Bhuj, Anjar, Bachau and Rapar have suffered near total destruction. Several other urban areas such as Gandhidham, Morvi, Rajkot and Jamnagar have also suffered damage to major structures, infrastructure and industrial facilities. The rural areas in the region are also very badly affected with over 800 villages almost totally destroyed.

The Bhuj earthquake has also caused considerable damage in Ahmedabad, located over 300 km from the epicentre. More than 75 multi-storeyed reinforced concrete buildings collapsed in the city killing over 200 people. Most of these buildings were relatively new, and were constructed less than 10 years ago in the suburbs outside the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation limits. The damage of these buildings was unusual since isolated buildings collapsed while their adjacent structures suffered only minor damage. In some situations of multi-block apartment complexes, some blocks suffered total collapse while the other blocks continue to stand without apparent damage.

Gujarat is the second most developed state of India with a high level of industrialisation and the presence of several major corporations. The state has also taken initiative in computerisation of their administrative records and had taken up a project to develop the base map of Kuchchh region in 250,000 scale. Several other efforts were also initiated to develop GIS-based information system of particular areas. However, due to procedural issues dealing with maps of border areas, these efforts have not been completed successfully.

Post-Earthquake Response
The initial response of the government following the earthquake was noteworthy due to its absence. The rescue and relief efforts were initiated almost 24 hours after the earthquake. One of the main reasons for this delay was lack of credible information on the damage due to this earthquake. All the major communication links such as telephone system, cellular phone systems, police wireless system and the air-traffic control system in the affected areas had been disrupted. In fact, only one channel of police communication from Bhuj was active after the earthquake and was used to send preliminary information to Ahmedabad. The common people had no access to any communication system in both urban and rural areas. The first concerted effort to assess the losses was made through an aerial survey almost 24 hours after the earthquake. The aerial survey was followed by massive mobilisation of rescue and relief efforts in the urban areas and several rural areas. Specialised search and rescue teams from different parts of the world moved in, and were able to save several dozen people buried under the debris. However, most people were saved during the first few hours following the earthquake by their family and neighbours. The effectiveness of professional search and rescue teams were considerably diminished due to their absence during the first 24 hours after the earthquake. Another factor that reduced their effectiveness was lack of necessary information and strategy for their mobilisation. Due to lack of information with the local authorities, these teams were not deployed in the most optimal manner that considered the probability of finding survivors depending on the type of collapse and the number of trapped residents. Availability of suitable GIS-based information system would have greatly enhanced their effectiveness during the search and rescue missions and may have saved many more lives.

Disaster Response Issues
Information and Communication: One of the main reasons for slow response after the earthquake was lack of credible information from the affected areas. During earthquake disasters, the loss of communication network is a known problem and aerial survey is often the only alternative. However, the aerial survey is most useful if initial information about the region, including its demographic, geographic and economic data is readily available. It is interesting to note that the little information that had been compiled in a GIS format of the Kuchchh Region was not available in the stae Government for planning.

Loss Estimation: Accurate information on the extent of losses due to this earthquake are not available anywhere. The government has released their loss estimate as Rs. 21,500 crores. However one of the industry chambers has estimated loss to industry alone exceeding Rs. 25,000 crores. Several other bodies also vary greatly in their estimate. Loss estimation is of great importance following a disaster. This information is used to assess impact of the disaster on the economy. This information is also used to estimate the required investment for rehabilitation measures.

One of the reasons for wide variation in the loss estimate from different bodies is due to the different database that they have employed. The industry associations mainly use the data that is provided by their member organisations. Government’s estimate is primarily based on the information provided by the revenue officials. There is a need to develop comprehensive database of economic, social and demographic information by credible independent bodies. This information will be invaluable for several purposes, including planning of relief and rehabilitation measures after a disaster. Gujarat now has a golden opportunity to develop such information base that will assist in planning long-term rehabilitation measures. This information base will also assist the government in monitoring the effectiveness of rehabilitation measures over time. The necessary information base can also be integrated with suitable GIS-based system for use by local administrations, social scientists and planners.

The Gujarat earthquake has thrown tremendous challenge to the information systems community of this country. While damage due to such disasters can only be reduced by implementing structural and non-structural measures beyond the purview of this paper, the response mechanism following a disaster can be made more effective by taking assistance of GIS-based tools. It is therefore essential that suitable GIS-based database and tools be developed for different regions of the country. These datasets will require information from several different sources and require constant updating, and should ideally be taken up by independent institutions. It is hoped that the rehabilitation program after the Bhuj earthquake will also take advantage of GIS-based tools and provide the necessary momentum for development of necessary databases and decision support systems.