A monster stirred under Lebanon last month. Not everyone felt it, but across the country came various reports on May 11 of buildings wobbling briefly like twigs in a breeze. The earthquake, measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, was only a reminder, however, for the people in Saida, Beirut and Tripoli, that the greatest potential threat they face is not civil strife, war or revolution, but rather it is a monster sleeping beneath the sea not 20 kilometers from Lebanon’s population centers. Unknown until 2004, the monster’s existence has been proven with sonar by an Italian expedition and its potential wrath was mapped one year ago by scientists of the American University of Beirut (AUB).
The geological surveyors dryly called the monster “Mount Lebanon Thrust”. The term describes a reverse fault system, a type of crack in the earth’s crust that has the reputation to cause particularly destructive earthquakes. This discovery raises the seismic hazard level for Lebanon’s coastal region from moderate to high according to recognized international standards, with a substantial tsunami hazard thrown in for good measure. The Mount Lebanon Thrust “runs from near Saida in the south to slightly below Tripoli in the north and it is only about 15 to 20 kilometers away from the coastline. We also found out that this fault system is not vertical. It is oblique and it connects with the Yammouneh fault line, like a V,” explained Mohammed Harajli, professor of civil engineering at AUB, who was part of the team that published the study on Lebanon’s increased seismic hazard risk in 2011. [See map]
Scientists had been studying fault lines in Lebanon for a long time and considered the Yammouneh fault, named after a village nestled between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, to be the country’s most active among several seismic faults, all located inland. None of these faults is anywhere near as extensive as the Mount Lebanon Thrust. According to Harajli, the newly discovered system’s length and location means that the entire area from the coast to the Bekaa plains is situated above a major fault and “very vulnerable to earthquakes.”
“We therefore reassessed the earthquake hazards and came up with new parameters especially for the coastal areas where the capital investments are the heaviest,” he said. While the magnitude, or overall energy, of earthquakes is measured on the well-known Richter scale, the devastation that a tremor can cause depends on many factors, including depth of the epicenter, soil structure and population density in the most directly affected areas.
These factors influence the earthquake’s intensity, or locally experienced impact. One method to gauge earthquake intensity is peak ground acceleration (PGA), or the speed with which the ground moves vertically and/or horizontally. This movement (often measured in g-forces or meters per second) is a crucial consideration in designing buildings so as to withstand an earthquake. The 2011 reassessment of earthquake hazards in Lebanon was significant, enough to raise the hackles of the international reinsurance companies that have a vested interest in assessing the economic risks associated with an earthquake.
“What worries me is that according to the study by AUB, you have more or less an increase [in PGA] from 1.5 meters per second to three. This means a lot,” said Italian earthquake risk consultant Marco Stupazzini, who works for global reinsurance firm, Munich Re. “Lebanon needs to review the design standards that we are using. That is a matter of the building code but this may not be enough. We may have to assess certain buildings, for example hotels, which host larger numbers of people, and you have to make these buildings perform better.” Although the region is not nearly as vulnerable as the Pacific Ring of Fire that includes Japan, New Zealand, Chile, and the US state of California, earthquakes are anything but a new or rare threat in the Mediterranean. In fact, Italy has suffered from two earthquakes that struck the Emilia-Romagna region this past month. More than 20 have been killed and priceless historic buildings have been destroyed.
Shared shakedown, varying responses
Italy, Turkey, and Lebanon are three Mediterranean countries whose histories abound with earthquakes. Each has its own seismic story as the fault systems in the three countries represent collision zones between different pieces of the global tectonic puzzle underlying our so-called “terra firma”. But there is also a distinctly non-geological difference between earthquake risks that people are exposed to in each of the three countries.
Italy has a long-established natural catastrophe response system. Turkey pushed through a national catastrophe response framework, including an insurance pool, with emergency legislation within weeks after the 1999 Marmara earthquake killed 13,000. Lebanon has a draft law on disaster response, a building code that needs updating to meet the new hazard levels, and no catastrophe insurance pool, not to mention monitoring shortfalls and widespread corruption in real estate licensing.
“We are preparing the establishment of a disaster management unit. A law to that respect is now being discussed in Parliament.” said the chairman of the Parliament’s committee on Public Works, Water, and Energy, Mohammed Kabbani. As to the concept of a national catastrophe insurance pool, Kabbani said no initiative in that direction exists of yet.
Emergency response legislation and disaster recovery planning are essential in creating a system of preparedness that can reduce the loss of lives in a major earthquake. The absence of a law as a starting point of a coordinated national effort is worrying, and it is no help that the Nejmeh Square area of Beirut has a Bermuda Triangle reputation when it comes to draft laws — they tend to vanish.
Getting concerned? Consider this: Building quality in Lebanon is in itself tending toward a game of hazard. After the famous collapse of a single decrepit apartment building in the Beirut neighborhood of Fassouh in January of this year, the media quoted Kabbani as saying that 20,000 buildings in Beirut are not safe and could crumble like the one in Fassouh that crushed 27 persons to death.
“I did not say 20,000,” Kabbani clarified his assessment to Executive. “I said 20 percent and this is not only in the capital. It is in all of Lebanon.” Based on an estimated population of four million and assumed average household size of five persons, the prospect of one in five buildings being unsafe, means simply that hundreds of thousands of dwellings are prone to become death traps for their inhabitants if the Mount Lebanon Thrust ever gives us another earthquake of magnitude 7.5 on the Richter scale.
Tremors releasing this amount of energy have been observed in 551 and 1202 AD. The frequency of such highly destructive quakes is not high and the likelihood has not increased through the discovery of the Mount Lebanon Thrust, but experts Stupazzini and Harajli equally emphasized that such an event can occur at any time.
Depends on where you live
Starting to wonder if your home is safe? There is some good news. Since 2004, building codes in Lebanon have been upgraded and engineering standards of new, high-end residential structures are more likely than not to include a reasonable measure of earthquake-proofing.
According to AUB’s Harajli, the reconstruction and development of parts of Beirut, notably the downtown and the pricier areas of West and East Beirut, have been carried out in compliance with engineering standards for earthquakes, at least up to the standards that were incorporated in the 2004 building code and which were calculated for the moderate hazard level known at the time.
Solidere, moreover, responded to the recent higher risk assessment by raising the seismic building standard requirements for buildings in the downtown by 50 percent, more than the 25 percent increase recommended by the AUB study, Harajli said.
So if you paid more than $2,000 or $3,000 for every square meter of your newly-built abode in the past five years, your potential earthquake experience may be limited to seeing the chandelier swing and cleaning up the shards of a Ming-dynasty vase or two. However, if your children go to school in Lebanon, or if you attend the prayers on Friday or church on Sunday, consider this: “We have been given the recommendation that public buildings and buildings with a lot of traffic should be strengthened.” Kabbani said. “This includes of course schools and hospitals and buildings where lots of people congregate, such as malls and mosques and churches. We are recommending for something to be done in that respect.” The MP’s comment fits seamlessly with what Harajli told Executive. “There is a committee on public safety and it has recommended strengthening schools against earthquakes. We are recommending that certain buildings which are critical should be strengthened and prepared, [beginning with] public buildings which will accommodate people in the aftermath of an earthquake. But this costs money and the politicians are more concerned about their own interests,” he said.
“Incorporating earthquake resistant design into a new building is much cheaper than making an existing building earthquake proof,” added Harajli. In his estimate, earthquake engineering in a new construction adds about 5 percent to total building cost or, when calculated from the cost of the skeleton, increases cost by 10 or 15 percent.
Making an existing building more resistant to earthquakes is possible if tenants of a building commission an engineer to strengthen the structure, Harajli said, but the costs can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollar for an apartment building with 20 or 30 units.
What is perhaps more worrying is that even if buildings are up to scratch they may not be spared from the effects liquefaction, the process by which solid ground that is not made of bedrock is transformed during an earthquake into a substance that acts like falling water. According to Stupazzini there is a major risk of this in Lebanon. Harajli adds that several parts of Beirut have clay and sand foundations that could cause liquefaction, including parts of Ashrafieh, and at present no detailed studies on this exist. But with awareness lacking and in the absence of legal pressures or financial incentives, landlords and residents of old substandard buildings are extremely unlikely to pursue such steps — in other words, ignoring the potential for disaster until it is possibly too late. “We hope that over the next 20, 50, or 100 years we will not be struck by an earthquake so that these buildings will become very old and be replaced,” Harajli mused, with a note of strain in his voice but added, “We are now forming the Lebanese Association for Earthquake Hazard Mitigation and we hope that we can get a minor earthquake that will bring the politicians to their senses,” as people are more prone to take action if they feel they are in danger.
Aiming to conduct research and raise awareness for making Lebanon safer for earthquakes, the new civil society organization will have a full plate to work with. In the meantime, there are plenty of issues waiting. Geological surveys of soil conditions in densely populated areas where the new seismic map shows increased hazard levels would be in order, and so would be measures to better protect economically vital infrastructure, like the Beirut Port, against the risk of a tsunami. Policy makers would be prudent to concern themselves with urgently updating the building codes, initiating tighter quality supervision of materials actually used in building construction, and institute disaster recovery preparations and, perhaps, a national catastrophe insurance pool.
MP Kabbani recognized these needs with a truly political statement in his discussion with Executive: “We are working slowly and we should work harder and quicker in finding solutions for these problems and I hope that our discussion will be an incentive for me to push harder,“ said Kabbani. “But I am sorry to say that in Lebanon, nobody cares and therefore almost nothing is being done.”
Turkish Catastrophe Insurance Pool
A model that Lebanon could emulate in mitigating earthquake impacts and enhancing preparedness is the Turkish Catastrophe Insurance Pool (TCIP), recommended by European reinsurance experts in April at a seminar for Lebanese insurance companies in Beirut. TCIP provides a national safeguard to help home owners and tenants of buildings restore their basic living environment if they become earthquake victims.
TCIP was created under a national disaster response law passed within one year after Turkey suffered a horrific earthquake in the city of Izmit in August 1999 that cost 13,000 lives and damaged 120,000 homes beyond repair. The pool is designed to cover all private residences located within the jurisdiction of municipalities.
Publicly owned and managed by an insurance company on rotational basis, TCIP is a mandatory insurance scheme with low premiums and indemnities that currently have a ceiling of 150,000 Turkish Lira ($83,000) per insured home. Premiums are determined by construction type and location of a house on a national earthquake risk map. The average annual cost of premiums per insured home was the equivalent of $52 and the average coverage was just under $30,000, the TCIP 2010 annual report said.
The reach of the TCIP climbed to 3.3 million homes in 2010, representing 27 percent of all homes that fall under the mandate. The key purpose of TCIP is to support the continued functioning and resilience of society in case of catastrophe. A core benefit of the program is that it entails awareness building and training for public officials and the general public.