Not so safe from disasters


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  • Friday, 12 Jun 2015

IT has been a shocking week literally.

Last Friday a magnitude 5.9 quake struck near Mount Kinabalu, sending landslides crashing down from its summit as more than 150 hikers were at the peak enjoying sunrise views.

The earthquake, some 16km northwest of the town of Ranau and in Kinabalu Park, is the largest to have hit Malaysia. Some reports put the magnitude at 6.0.

The death toll from the earthquake is now officially 18, including six Malaysians, 10 Singaporeans and one Chinese and Japanese national each. There is also damage to buildings in Ranau and surrounding areas.

My heart goes out to the families of the victims.

I am shocked, especially as I assumed that Malaysia is relatively safe from natural disasters, including earthquakes. I believe that most Malaysians, including our authorities, have the same assumption and are equally complacent.

However, according to Earthquake Track, a website that tracks earthquakes around the world, there have been a total of 15 earthquakes with at least 4.0 magnitude that have struck Sabah in the past 25 years. That is a significant number!

We are not that far from the notorious Pacific Ring of Fire, it seems. This naturally starts to raise concerns about the safety of our dams and tall buildings.

One of the earthquakes listed actually hit Limbang on June 30, 2005 with a magnitude of 4.5. This is very near to the Bakun and Murum dams.

On May 20, Sarawak Energy Bhd announced that it would construct the Baleh and Baram HEP dams simultaneously in northern Sarawak, right next to Sabah.

Its chief executive officer, Datuk Torstein Dale Sjotveit, ruled out the necessity for seismological studies. He was quoted as saying that the studies were basically not relevant and that whether it was one dam or more it would not cause any earthquake.

I am very disappointed by the statement that we do not need seismological studies and the way he brushes off the concerns of Sarawakians.

The concern is not that dams cause earthquakes, just like I don’t think that posing nude on top of Mount Kinabalu caused Friday’s earthquake.

What is of utmost concern is what damage would earthquakes cause to dams? Especially dams that are built without seismological studies and therefore not designed to withstand earthquakes, which we assume will not happen? What will happen to those people living downstream? I can’t believe that he simply brushed off our concerns just like that.

It is such attitude that has caused so much opposition to the building of dams to power heavy industries and for export to other countries, at huge social, ecological and environmental cost.

I note that Sarawak Energy is promoting electrical/hybrid cars. I have written before that such electric cars only serve to increase demand for electricity and the need to build more dams.

In a typical reaction to the earthquake, we have arrested some of the tourists for allegedly stripping naked and urinating on Mount Kinabalu. They are believed to have been among a group of 10 foreign tourists who stripped naked and posed for photos on the peak of the mountain prior to the deadly earthquake.

They may face charges of performing an obscene act in a public place.

Mount Kinabalu is a World Heritage Site, popular climbing destination and considered sacred by Sabah’s Kadazan Dusun tribal group, who believe it is a resting place for spirits. In the wake of the disaster, social media users and some Sabah officials have focused on the nudists, suggesting their actions angered the spirits and led to the earthquake.

“This will certainly bring misfortune... we can’t play with the spirit of the sacred mountain,” according to Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

Certainly I don’t condone such acts and being a avid mountaineer in my younger days (I have climbed Mount Kinabalu), I believe respect and observation of local customs and practice is of utmost importance. Disrespect them at your own risk.

However, do we really need to arrest them? Let’s focus on improving our search and rescue operations and ensure we really take into account earthquake risks in our development planning.

Maybe it is this fear that JPJ officers in Selangor insisted that a woman put on a sarong to cover up her knees before she can be served. Are they worried another earthquake will hit? I don’t think it is an isolated incident, otherwise why would they have a sarong ready?

Again, let’s focus our efforts on doing our job well instead of blaming disasters and our own failings on exposed limbs.

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