When the threat of a strong earthquake and its consequences are discussed, attention is usually drawn to the poor condition of old residential houses in Almaty. Interestingly, previously this issue was discussed from time to time, and lately many governmental bodies pay more attention to the problem, and at the same time land prices are increasing… However, the question is: what can you, as a specialist, list as other potential threats in the case of a major earthquake?
In case of an earthquake rating seven or higher on the Richter scale, about 50 to 60 percent of the city could be destroyed, which would lead to the death of half a million people. In addition, this may be exacerbated by factors that traditionally get little attention.
Our city is a technically developed megapolis with various types of infrastructure; for example, petrol filling stations. There are about 260 of them in the city, and between 25,000 and 35,000 tons of petrol is contained. At the time of the USSR, it was prohibited to build a petrol station in a densely populated area, but now the restriction is lifted. Practically, the petrol stations are unequipped for fire fighting, except for the usual powder-type fire extinguishers. Once we asked the senior engineer of one of the chains of petrol stations, what actions do they expect to take if a petrol containing vessel catches fire? He answered that the operator-girl should cover the vessel’s mouth with the special carpet. I can hardly imagine this happening; it is more likely that the girls would run away and the vessel would burn until the fire brigade arrives.
In case of an earthquake, most of those vessels will catch fire; petrol fumes are always present if the vessel is damaged, and sparks may also appear easily from wiring or if a metal construction falls. The city is not ready to fight a great number of fires. The example of the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, where after the earthquake more than 400 fires emerged simultaneously, shows that the situation described above is possible. Adjusting for the size of the city, amount of petrol and flammable objects, more than 1000 fires could start in our city. Nobody has tried to count how much coal gas would be released in such a situation. Probably the gas and many conflagrations would make the hollow, where the city is located, unsuitable for life.
Even though the picture is already apocalyptic, we shouldn’t forget that in addition to the petrol stations, there are industrial constructions and other factors of infrastructure that are flammable. What can you say about these?
Yes, there also is the gas danger. There are 18 chlorinator stations, which belong to the water supply system, in Almaty. The amount of chlorine there is not big, but it is present! And any of the gas-cylinders can become depressurized in case of an earthquake. By the way, this happened in the Chemistry Institute 20 years ago. The gas-cylinder just fell and its cover flew off… then there were serious problems with the localization of the cloud. After that, the same accident happened on one of the chlorinator stations, when one person died.
Besides, more than 100 tons of ammonia is contained in the city’s different sites which use freezing equipment. There is a possibility for most of these containers of chlorine and ammonium to become depressurized. According to the specialists, if these gases get out into the atmosphere, it may lead to the death of about 90,000 people. All of the objects are marked in the emergency brigades’ maps. However, nobody knows what the situation would be with the direction of the wind and temperature inversion, and consequently, how fast and in what directions the clouds would expand. The appropriate agencies would not be able to even inform the population. The city’s regional emergency agencies wouldn’t have enough vehicles to attend the sites and assess the situation on the spot, and there are not enough resources to start the evacuation of the population. Therefore, the 260 vehicles with loud-speakers would be useless, since nobody would undertake the responsibility of notifying the population without collecting the information, which, as mentioned above, would be impossible to do.
Then, how can all these threats be treated?
There are ways to fight the problems. For example, the ammonium cloud should be irrigated by the fire engines with water, which absorbs it. Partially, this also applies to chlorine. There are also some special approaches developed to fight such problems, and some of them are developed in Kazakhstan. However, all of them require the proper and continuous preparation of the infrastructure and personnel. Unfortunately, the situation with the petrol stations is typical of the general picture. They should be equipped with modern automated fire fighting systems with engaging seismic-sensors. Any specialist, having studied the problem, would tell you this. However, nobody does it. The owners of the petrol stations don’t want to increase their costs, and those members of the state body, who can influence the owners, do not take action.
Another problem in the city is drinking water. A physiological norm for one person is 3 liters per day. Hence a city of 1,5 million people would require 4,5 million liters. It would be impossible to supply such a volume of drinking water in the case of a devastating earthquake. Most of the underground wells would become dysfunctional and the mountain rivers may change their course or go underground. The irrigation vehicles can supply the city with water, but there are not enough of them. Even collecting the cisterns from various companies wouldn’t resolve the problem.
By the way, let’s remember that disorder in New Orleans, USA after the devastation created by the hurricane Katrina started from the problem of a lack of drinking water. People started to break into shops to get water, and this stimulated the marauding. Military action to restore order was deployed only after one week! And this happened in the well organized and rich USA… Here, the problem of water supply is not being resolved at all.
Is it possible to resolve it? What can be done in this case?
Yes, there are some methods. For example, advise the population to buy emergency water purifiers. However, people would have to buy the water purifiers themselves, and some of them may not do it. Anyway, we need to inform them about the necessity. This would decrease the severity of the problem.
Another problem in the city is the power and heat supply. If an earthquake happens during a cold time of year, the city would lose 100% of its heat supply and 70% of its power supply; the pipes in the heat-power stations would fail, and boilers and power generators would be out of order. Even international experience doesn’t have a practice of fighting this problem, and Almaty is unique in the combination of such features as size, seismic danger in the region and temperature fluctuation reaching low points. Other big cities in seismically dangerous regions are situated in warmer climates. Even then, if we remember the earthquake in Pakistan, just after the event there were many statements that the victims need to be supplied with heating facilities and food. Later, the discussions faded away. However, most likely these problems existed.
Without getting into the details, I believe that there are methods of fighting these threats. The important thing is to have the political will to act. The city authorities are informed about all of the aforementioned problems, but there are no real systematic actions being taken to solve the problems. I would offer the following method to diminish the threat, which is not costly at the initial stage; announce an open competition for projects which would solve the problems. We still have effective potential among our scientists and engineers.
It is clear that the situation with the infrastructure is poor. What about construction? We have witnessed an unprecedented construction boom in the last 30 years, and people often doubt if the seismic danger is taken into account.
These doubts are well grounded. These doubts can even be called anxiety. Construction quality is a big problem in our city. Let’s start by noticing that there are more than 100 houses in Almaty that are taller than nine floors, while, in 1989, State Construction of Kazakh SSR issued a resolution prohibiting the building of houses taller than nine floors in this city. Each building with nine floors should have been closely studied and constructed by a special individual project. Theoretically, the resolution has not been cancelled. The constructors argue that they employ new construction schemes. However, I think Mr. Ashimbaev, the Director of the Kazakh Seismologic Construction and Architecture Institute, who once pointed out that, using these schemes, the buildings in seismically dangerous regions abroad are built from concrete with a strength of measure 800 to 1200. Here, the strength measure of the concrete used is 400, and sometimes even 200 or 300. The constructors say that by using special plasticizers they increase the concrete’s strength to 600, but it doesn’t work always.
What would you say to the argument that tall buildings in Almaty are built using imported cement of a higher quality?
No. All concrete plants here use imported raw materials, which come from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Russia. These cements don’t allow a high strength measure to be reached. Many inert materials are used, such as ashes (waste from the heat-power generating plants), which cannot create a high strength.
Then, let’s consider the reinforcement bars. They are imported from Uzbekistan and China. Often it is low quality product, which sometimes can be called grooved wire; nevertheless, it is used in construction. The conscientious construction companies have quality control departments that check the presence of the certificate for production of the reinforcement bars; however, we all know how sometimes these certificates are obtained… Sometimes the quality control units find out about the use of low quality materials, and then some floors of the buildings under construction are destroyed. While this happens if the fraud is discovered, what if it isn’t?
That’s why the cases of buildings collapsing even without an earthquake take place. I will not name many of those, the specialists know about them. Let’s just remember one typical example; the construction within the elite school at Astana collapsed several years ago.
There is the state control service, isn’t there?
Yes, there is. However, it is unlikely that it completely fulfils its responsibility, with the large amount of construction work going on in the city.
Is there a systematic way of diminishing all of these risks? Clearly, there are some specific actions to take in each case, but can there be a systematic approach?
Well, first of all, we need to take these specific actions. Regarding the petrol stations, introduce the fire fighting systems. For the water supply, inform the population about the need to have water cleaning equipment readily available; and so on down the list.
Regarding the higher level of solving the problems, here I’d like to quote the words about devastation by Professor Preobrajensky, created by the author Bulgakov: “The devastation is in the mind”. These problems need to be given more attention by the state bodies that can do something about them.