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Seismic risk: Guided by the past

Arup has led a team which has used 1,000 years of earthquake data to help Central Asia’s Kyrgyz Republic assess seismic risks.

Arup has looked back at over a 1,000 years of historical records and used the most up-to-date seismological information held by a range of global organisations, in an astonishing project to map a Central Asian country’s exposure to earthquakes.

The consultancy led an international team of experts, supported by the World Bank, on a two-year programme to create a seismic hazard and risk management study for the government of the Kyrgyz Republic.


An area of the Kyrgyz Republic after a major earthquake in 2008

Its work, handed over in a final presentation to a multitude of ministers and national and local bodies this spring, gives the best picture yet of the likely impact of earthquakes in the country.

As well as helping central and local government to mitigate this risk, and plan recovery strategies, the study allows architects and engineers to build-in resistance as they create new buildings and infrastructure. 

“We have looked at where all the earthquakes have occurred over the last 1,000 years and all the recent data that is available, to get a good idea of the levels of ground shaking likely across the country,” says Arup geohazard and risk management director Matthew Free. “Our work covers every building and piece of transport infrastructure in the land.

“In a developing world context, this is an unusual level of detail. It is very forward thinking of the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic and very helpful for the country’s development.”

Arup had 10 people on the project, often flying in and out of the country and working long hours. They worked alongside the Geoscience Institute from the University of Potsdam in Germany as well as the Global Earthquake Model Foundation. Importantly, there was also a heavily involved local partner, the Central Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences.

“It would be pointless to put all this effort in just for the study to sit on a shelf somewhere,” says Free. “It needs to be implemented and updated as required by local organisations.”

The ambitious project was instigated by the Kyrgyz government, which approached the World Bank for help improving its understanding of the detail of the country’s earthquake risk.

The country, sandwiched between its far bigger neighbours Kazakhstan and China along most of its northern and southern borders, has a population of about 6M. The World Bank has estimated that on average about 200 people are killed by earthquakes each year, with capital losses of about $100M (£77M) per annum.

Arup led the bid to carry out the study, and its team was awarded the work at the start of 2015. 

“Our client was the Kyrgyz government. The World Bank provided funding and organised the logistics and stakeholder engagement as they are very efficient at that,” says Free.

The daunting work was divided into five components, beginning with work to understand the seismic nature of the landmass.

“Our work covers every building and piece of tranport infrastructure in the land”

Matthew Free, Arup

“We built up an earthquake catalogue and made sure we understood the different ground conditions, which can affect the way an earthquake impacts on communities across the country. We also required the location of all the hospitals, schools, houses, bridges and other structures across the country.”

Although some of this information existed, it had oft en not been collected systematically or centralised. 

“Working with our project partners from the University of Potsdam and the Central Asian Institute of Applied Geosciences, we had to use satellite images, drive the streets and use our network of contacts in international organisations to build up a picture,” says Free.

Even uncertainty had to be accounted for methodically, with any buildings of unknown construction as assigned a probability of being, say, concrete frame or unreinforced masonry.

Once it was satisfied with the picture of the ground and what was built on it, the team looked at how vulnerable these buildings would be in the event of certain magnitude earthquakes.

“We looked at historic data from around the world,” added Free. “I am a member of the UK’s Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, which sends a team off to each earthquake event to survey the damage caused to different buildings. We used that data to calculate how certain buildings might be aff ected in by similar events.”

Then a risk calculation exercise was carried out to bring together all the information into a useful prediction. 

“We do this in two ways: first, what are the losses likely to occur from one specific hypothetical earthquake. This is intuitively easier for ministers and other decision makers to understand”.

“We also do a technical set of calculations to say what the probability is of certain levels of damage occurring in different areas of the country over a period of time. This is done in great detail and is important but is harder to explain quickly to non-technical stakeholders.”

The fourth element of the huge, carefully managed project involved pulling together a strategy with recommendations for which buildings and structures should be strengthened.

“We were working for very logical, practical people. They knew they couldn’t fix every house, but they had clear priorities, which we could work to. We also advised them in some areas, such as to think about protecting cultural heritage and emergency response facilities.”

Communication was critical.

“This was the last element of the strategy but we did it from day one; we were holding stakeholder meetings within a month of being appointed.”

Getting the local stakeholders to believe in the validity of the project was seen as critical to its success, as these were the people who would ultimately decide how and when to use it.

Everything was considered. “There are even two places in the country where we store the study results – we wouldn’t want all this information to be lost in an earthquake.”

The study paints a detailed picture of earthquake exposure in the republic, and gives calculations of likely impacts before and aft er certain recommended spending programmes.

In this context, impact was measured twice – in terms of lives; and the cost to the economy.

“A minister of finance will have to make decisions,” says Free. “Given a certain budget, they have to decide how much to spend fixing hospitals compared to, say, a programme of immunisation: both would save lives. Our programme allows them to make decisions in an informed way.”

It also helps remove the inbuilt biases that human decision makers have.

“The key politicians live in the capital, which is near an active fault that is on everyone’s mind. But other parts of the country have higher risks and often less developed infrastructure so the situation is actually worse. They need the broader perspective that we provided and they were very appreciative of the regional breakdown.”

All the natural hazard and risk information has been translated into Russian and uploaded on open source soft ware so it can be updated by the local partner and other stakeholders. 

Arup and its project partners ran a number of one week workshops to help the stakeholders use all of the systems and information.

“Everybody was very complimentary at the end, they appreciated the results and the eff ort,” says Free.

“We are now working in a range of sub-Saharan African countries, looking at different natural hazards, such as earthquake flooding, landslides and coastal change as required. We use a consistent quantitative risk assessment approach so that decision makers are provided with the consistent information they need to make choices that will allow their countries to become more resilient to natural hazards.”

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