Earthquake damage in Sichuan Dujiangyan, China

+ Engineers must take time to discuss earthquake risk and other natural hazards with clients – so clients are better informed and the world a safer place.

As engineers we have a responsibility to use our knowledge to help reduce earthquake risk, both human and economic. But do we do enough?

Sure, we do to some extent. As part of the Aceh post-tsunami reconstruction one of the critical issues was explaining to the NGOs and local population what the risk was and how this could be avoided in the future. And the REDi Rating System gives owners, architects and engineers a framework for earthquake resilience. Yet I think we simply don’t talk enough about risk.

How many engineers tell their clients that a code-based design could leave their investment damaged beyond repair? Current building codes do not focus on earthquake resilience – the ability of an organization or community to quickly recover after a future large earthquake. The code’s objective is only to protect the lives of building occupants.

This means significant damage to the building structure, architectural components, facades and other elements is allowed as long as the code objective is met. It is therefore not surprising that when a major earthquake strikes an urban region the losses are large and the general public is left to wonder why. The Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 is a prime example of this.

How many of us point out that there is a chance that the earthquake ground motion could be much bigger than prescribed in the code? The code ground motion is based on a chance of occurring, such as say getting four numbers in the Lottery. However, there is always the chance you may get five or, if you are very lucky, six numbers. There is also a degree of uncertainty in what is still a very young and developing science.

These are difficult conversations to have, but they’re essential if we are to open people's eyes to the risk.

Why don’t we all ask to talk to our children's schools to explain what they can do to mitigate earthquake risk?  By doing this people will become more aware of the natural environment  and how they can protect themselves. For example it is statistically safer to stay in a building and cover yourself rather than running out and being hit by flying masonry. 

And how many engineers have attended conferences, such as the recent 2ECEES in Istanbul and learnt new things but then not communicated these to their colleagues back home?

I spoke at 2ECEES and also learnt new things, such as the extensive experimental testing work carried out under the SERIES project and will try my best to help disseminate this knowledge.

If I had one piece of advice for my fellow engineers it would be this: Please consider these questions and take some time to discuss earthquake risk and other natural hazards, so your clients are better informed. Hopefully, it’ll make our world a safer place.