Is Malaysia prepared to deal with quakes?


PETALING JAYA: At dawn on April 25, Malaysians living on the west coast of the peninsula woke up to phone notifications alerting them about an earthquake.

The tremor originated around 600km away in Sumatera, Indonesia, prompting them to take to social media to share their rare “shaky” experiences with other Malaysians.

Despite the immense distance from the epicentre, the Institution of Engineering Malaysia (IEM) said the incoming wave frequency might have caused some tall buildings located on softer grounds in the region to wobble as well.

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Following the incident, which was not the first, IEM president Prof Dr Norlida Buniyamin called for more stringent measures to be taken to ensure the safety of buildings in Malaysia in the event of an earthquake.

“One preventive measure is to enforce seismic design standards for all engineered buildings, with a minimum seismic design loading of 0.07g on a rock site.

“However, the use of contour maps relying solely on conventional probabilistic seismic hazard assessment based on limited data in Malaysia may not guarantee the safety of building structures in occasional or rare earthquakes in low-to-moderate seismic regions,” she said in an interview.

In June 2015, a six-magnitude earthquake in Ranau, Sabah, prompted Malaysia to introduce a new building standard two years later known as National Annex: 2017.

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Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Prof Dr Azlan Adnan said that the standard has been in practice since 2017 by the Public Works Department for government and public buildings.

However, he said that the practice was not emphasised enough for private buildings by the local authorities.

“The regulations should be strengthened by including them in the uniform building bylaw of that particular city or district,” said Dr Azlan, who is the Engineering Seismology and Earthquake Engineering Research group leader.

He also said that according to the bylaw, buildings that need to undergo changes in usage and renovation work must also follow the new seismic design standards, although this is not compulsory.

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“Important and critical buildings such as schools, hospitals, oil and gas facilities, as well as chemical plants, should be strengthened in the case of earthquake events,” he added.

Dr Azlan said methods that can be used to make a building earthquake-proof include installing dampers and base isolators in the structure.

Seismic dampers are devices that are installed in buildings to control floor vibrations and building displacement, while a base isolation system is where the structure is separated from the foundation.

Dr Norlida said that before retrofitting can be done, a risk assessment should be performed.

“Some of the techniques that can be used are jacketing, bracing, installing stiffer internal structural walls with openings to allow passageways, dampers, and base isolations,” she said.

However, she said that the techniques may be architecturally intrusive and tricky to apply to older buildings.

“Unfortunately, there is no 100% earthquake-proof technology,” she added.

According to Malaysia’s Seismic Disaster Zone Map by the Mineral and Geoscience Department, Sabah has been identified as having the most areas that could potentially record earthquakes of 5.6 to 6.5 on the Richter scale.

The areas include Kudat and Ranau on the north and west coasts, as well as Lahad Datu and Kunak on the east coast.

Along the peninsula’s west coast, the locations that can potentially record a 5.1 to 5.5 Richter scale include Kuala Lumpur, Klang in Selangor, Bukit Tinggi in Pahang, Seremban in Negri Sembilan, and Pangkor in Perak.

Separately, the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) said several key steps have been taken in anticipation of disasters, including earthquakes.

Among them is having the Mineral and Geoscience Department produce hazard maps to identify areas that are at risk should an earthquake happen in Malaysia or neighbouring countries, its director-general Datuk Khairul Shahril Idrus, said.

He also pointed out that PlanMalaysia (Town and Country Planning Department) has issued guidelines on how construction and development should be carried out in disaster-risk areas.

“Our construction industry is also tightly regulated so that our buildings can better withstand risks caused by earth movements.

“The Special Malaysian Search and Rescue Team (SMART) has the skill and experience to deal with damaged buildings caused by earthquakes.

“They have participated in a number of rescue operations abroad. SMART has been certified by the United Nations as an elite and world-class heavy urban search and rescue team when it comes to collapsed structures,” Khairul Shahril said.

He said Nadma’s actions to prepare for any disaster, including earthquakes, are based on the Arahan MKN (National Security Council Directive No. 20).

The directive outlines the roles of government agencies before, during, and after disaster events. Nadma’s preparations will be based on the directive, he added.

When asked about building awareness among the people about earthquake readiness, he said awareness programmes are ongoing for Sabah and will be expanded to other states.

“We have conducted a number of simulation exercises to increase awareness of earthquakes and improve people’s responses when facing earthquakes,” he said.

Fire and Rescue Department deputy director-general (development) Datuk Nor Hisham Mohammad said efforts are being carried out to deal with current and future risks, especially weather changes and contingencies, including earthquakes.

Firefighters are always training to handle collapsed buildings.

“The Special Tactical Operation and Rescue Team of Malaysia that we have set up is specifically created to deal with urban rescue. Team members were sent to Turkiye recently to help with the earthquake there.

“Our K9 Unit is also trained for urban search and rescue discipline. A total of 12 sniffer dogs are being procured as part of the department’s efforts to handle collapsed building operations,” he said.

He also said that the department is expected to receive five Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) machines worth RM7.5mil over a two-year period from now until the third quarter of 2024.

Nor Hisham earlier said the USAR machine was worth RM1.5mil per unit and was designed for the team to carry out operations in the area of structural and building ruins.

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