INTERVIEW: ‘All new constructions should follow latest earthquake-resistant construction guidelines’

  • Majid Maqbool
  • Publish Date: Dec 19 2016 1:15PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 19 2016 1:15PM
INTERVIEW: ‘All new constructions should follow latest earthquake-resistant construction guidelines’File Photo

Ahmad Wani is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of One Concern company which was started by Stanford-educated scientists and engineers ‘with the aim of making our homes and cities safer.’ He holds a graduate degree in Structural and Earthquake Engineering from Stanford University's School of Engineering. 

Ahmad was named by the Forbes magazine as one of the world's top thirty innovators, in its Forbes 30 under 30 (2016) list for founding the venture backed One Concern. At Stanford University, his research at the Blume Earthquake Engineering Research Center has been largely in devising damage detection algorithms for structures, inelastic torsional-flexural instability problems, and community-level response prediction leveraging machine learning.

Before coming to Stanford, Wani performed civil engineering duties in power plants for National Thermal Power Corp. He is an alumnus of National Institute of Technology, Srinagar.

At One Concern, what do you actually work in the field of earthquake engineering? 

After a large earthquake, there are hundreds of thousands of help calls within minutes. Rescue is carried out by emergency operation centers through fire, police and paramedic teams on a first-come-first-serve basis. However, most of the help calls do not emanate from the most badly damaged areas since communication networks are down in such areas. Thus, currently first responders end up prioritizing the most critical resources, towards regions, which are not the worst hit. 

In the first critical moments after an earthquake, One Concern’s artificial intelligence algorithms can predict the extent of damage, and thereby recommend response priorities to emergency operation centers. One Concern’s platform can also run scenarios for the most realistic earthquakes possible on nearby faults, and help the city prepare for the next earthquake, thereby enhancing community resiliency. 

Kashmir floods had a similar scenario wherein rescue was adhoc, and there was no scientific basis to efficiently prioritize or figure out which homes need help first.

There have been alarming reports of a recent study carried out by Oregon state University scientists, which says that the Kashmir region can be struck with an Earthquake of magnitude more than 8. How do you see such studies and do people need to worry and take precautionary measures?

 The study is a published piece of research. As is clear, there have been no major earthquakes on the Riasi fault since 4000 years building up significant slip deficit. 

Thus, it is very much possible, as per the study, that a M8 earthquake could take place. Since earthquakes cannot be predicted ahead of time (except for a few seconds through early warning systems, currently in place in a few countries), the only way out is to prepare ourselves for the next event. This should be a matter of concern for both, people as well as the administration. Having said that, it is important to realize that the risk of a large earthquake has always been there in the region and, it is very much possible to have a M8 earthquake. 

Thus, as popularized in California for the San Andreas fault, the Riasi fault could be ‘locked, loaded and ready to roll’.

What is the role of state government when it comes to disaster preparedness, and what was found lacking in their response as was evident during the September 2014 floods? 

Region-wide resilience building has to be driven by the administration, and the community should participate in all the efforts in order to make it a success. Pointing fingers regarding flaws in response during the 2014 floods would not serve any purpose. It is important that they take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again in another natural disaster.

What are some of the short-term and long-term measures that can be taken to save lives and prevent damage to houses and buildings in case of a major earthquake in our region? 

Firstly, apart from homes and buildings, as pointed out in the Oregon State University study by Meigs and Gavillot, the Riasi fault is close to several dams, tunnels, bridges and other infrastructure, which, if affected, could cause several levels of slowdown in the region, significantly higher than the 2005 earthquake. 

There are no short-term measures for reducing community level risk. At the most, all the new construction should follow the latest earthquake resistant construction guidelines outlined in the relevant building codes. 

As a seismic advisory board member for several cities in California, I believe most of the measures are long term and should aim at community-level resilience building.

The roadmap for carrying this out should look something like this: 

1. Carry out an analysis of the building inventory-stock and natural environment and create data repositories for the same. 

2. Perform seismic scenario simulations for the whole community for several probable earthquake events on nearby faults in the region, by leveraging the data collected in step 1, and existing local seismological/geophysical research. 

3. Analyze the extent of damage to communities, critical infrastructure like roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, etc. 

4. Create a seismic policy for the region, and enforce/advise risk reduction measures for private/public infrastructure. This could be followed by informing communities of their relevant risk, and potential ways to mitigate it. 

5. Create a vehicle to implement the policy from the community side (which may include measures like spreading awareness, incentivizing people who retrofit their homes, etc), and the public infrastructure side (enforcing up gradation of dams / bridges and other lifelines, etc). 

6. Plan emergency response (both at the community and administrative level) in accordance with the extent of implementation of the seismic policy, at any point. 

As is clear from the above, this process is more of a long-term project rather than a quick fix solution, and would require scientists, engineers and public policy leaders to work together towards a disaster resilient state, so that we are prepared for a flood, earthquake or any future catastrophe.