From Timor Leste to Guatemala, How Early Warning Systems (EWS) Save Lives: Lessons from GWB

By Pallavi Bharadwaj, GWB Program Manager

At GWB’s Java MASW project’s location. Photo courtesy of Ron Harris.

GWB Guatemala-HiM volcano project team. Photo courtesy of Steve Roche.

Nepal- Czech Academy of Science EWS device set-up. Photo courtesy of Vaclav Kuna.

Brazil- SGA landslide project team analyzing data. Photo courtesy of Pedro Lourenco Dos Reis.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This became evident in two recent seismic events that occurred in Taiwan and New Jersey, USA. While the New Jersey earthquake was not as intense (a magnitude 4.8), residents still felt that their buildings shook and objects fell. Taiwan’s earthquake was a 7.4 magnitude tremor, which rocked the entire island. The shocks were felt as far away as Hong Kong and Shanghai. Taiwan’s earthquake resulted in fewer than a dozen causalities, with over 1,000 injured, while two were missing. Residents returned to their lives and work within the next 2-3 days. How did Taiwan escape this catastrophic event with a relatively small amount of damage?

The answer lies in the government’s proactive steps since the last extreme event in 1999. This recent earthquake shook more parts of Taiwan with greater intensity than any other quake since 1999, when a 7.7 magnitude tremor hit the middle of the island, killing 2,400 people and injuring 10,000 others. However, the damages from this recent event were little to none.

Following the 1999 event, the Taiwanese government strengthened disaster management laws, improved coordination for rescue and relief, and enforced stricter building codes for earthquake resistance. They issue massive fines and penalties to construction firms that do not follow building codes, and serious investment is made in the safety standards for all new buildings.

In addition to building codes and construction practices, the Early Warning System (EWS) played a huge role in minimizing the damages. Residents were alerted to reach safer places within seconds of the first shocks being felt.

GWB’s recently completed project team has shared similar experiences in Java, Indonesia, as they also highlighted EWS’s significance in saving lives through their local partnerships with Universitas Pembangunan Nasional, Indonesia (UPN) and Indonesian Natural Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD). Two earthquakes occurred while the project team was working in the areas. This project aimed to provide maps and models of seismic amplification and tsunami risk from various regions in eastern Indonesia. Training in Multi-Channel Analysis of Surface Waves (MASW) and implementing seismic disaster mitigation strategies such as the 20-20-20 rule will safeguard lives and property. The 20-20-20 rule is that if you feel the ground shake for >20 seconds, you have <20 minutes to reach >20 m height/ elevation for safety from a catastrophic event like an earthquake or tsunami.

In GWB’s Brazil landslide project, the team’s assessment helped collaborate with civil defense and local government to understand how hillsides behave during the rainy season. This will help implement adequate infrastructure for safety and monitoring and raise awareness of the population about the dangers of occupying steep areas. This project also provided an example of a geotechnical risk assessment methodology that integrates applied geophysics and society’s needs.

GWB’s India landslide project occurred after the southern Indian state of Kerala experienced >140% more rain than normal in August 2018. >1 million people were displaced, 483 were declared dead, and over 1300 landslides affected bridges and roads, cutting off towns, villages, and communities’ livelihoods. This project’s team helped improve landslide hazard analysis in the district of Idukki, Kerala, by using applied geoscience techniques such as Electric Resistivity Survey (ERS), a rain gauge network, and a landslide hazard nowcasting system that provides EWS to the communities in extreme rainfall events and help 1.1 million people in 4150 sq km or 1602.3 sq miles.

Our current volcano monitoring project in Guatemala aims to increase geohazard resiliency and safety by implementing community-based educational workshops about earthquakes and volcanic hazards. The project team is actively working with Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorología e Hidrología’s (INSIVUMEH) [equivalent to USGS] to increase their seismic and volcanic monitoring capacity and reduce disaster response time. Implementation of a regional seismic array consisting of low-cost “Raspberry Shake” 3C seismometer stations in Zacapa near the Motagua-Polochic fault system will significantly improve INSIVUMEH’s earthquake and volcanic monitoring infrastructure, including Early Warning Systems (EWS).

In addition to EWS, low-cost open-source cloud-based systems can also prove instrumental in areas where the possibility of building infrastructure is limited. GWB’s Nepal Earthquake Early Warning System (EEWS) project aims to test this feasibility in central Nepal by establishing a low-cost, real-time earthquake monitoring system based on OpenEEW (Earthquake Early Warning) technology.

For the past 15 years, GWB has been helping build safe and resilient communities with help from teams of experts using applied geoscience, one project at a time, by positively impacting >10 million people globally. This work is done with a collective aim by all those involved (geoscientists, community members, students, local authorities, experts, and many individuals) that during any extreme event, the loss of life and infrastructure will be minimized via EWS and community-based approaches. Learn more and support our work by making a donation.