Monday 23 January 2012

Guest Blog: Earthquake Education in Central Asia

Claire Fyson is in her fourth year at the University of Cambridge, reading Natural Sciences and specialising in Geology. Last year she became one of GfGD's first University Ambassadors - leading the GfGD Cambridge group with co-student Tim Middleton. Claire has kindly written a very interesting guest blog following a GfGD seminar they organised in Cambridge.

Solmaz Mohadjer
 Having been taught bits and pieces about the way the Earth works since I started secondary school, I’ve never quite realised how lucky I’ve been. Natural hazards such as tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have been explained to me in great detail - I’ve even learnt what to do in the event of such disasters. Sadly, it is often the people who live in regions prone to earthquakes and other natural hazards that are the least informed and prepared to respond appropriately. In the first of our Geology for Global Development seminars at the University of Cambridge, Solmaz Mohadjer from the ParsQuake Project highlighted how little the people of Central Asia know about the earthquakes that they experience on a regular basis. She also talked about how to tackle the problem – how a basic understanding of Earth sciences and local geohazards can save lives if disseminated and used in the right way.

The region of Central Asia is experiencing deformation as a result of the collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates. Unfortunately, regions with the highest strain rates are often heavily populated. As part of the fieldwork for her Masters in geophysics, Solmaz spoke to the locals to find out how much they knew about earthquakes and earthquake preparedness. For a variety of reasons, many people in the region find it difficult to reconcile their cultural and religious beliefs with the need to prepare for earthquakes. For example, some people in Pakistan believe earthquakes are divine punishments for sins. By contrast in Tajikistan, some believe that living or dying in an earthquake is part of a divine plan, and therefore, preparing for earthquakes strikes them as pointless. This seems akin to the evolution debate in the US, but in this case the consequences are considerably greater: – people’s lives are at risk.

Why does the earth shake?
Of the students who participated in Solmaz’s research, none knew how to prepare for an earthquake, and yet all had felt at least one in their lifetime. The locals had become so accustomed to the tremors that two earthquakes felt by Solmaz during her first night in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, went un-noticed by her students and neighbours. When asked how they dealt with earthquakes, 37% of her students took no action – a worrying statistic given how dangerous the consequences of doing nothing might be. As for the mechanism behind earthquakes, a common explanation is that there is a giant bull inside the Earth that shakes its head when a mosquito lands on it.

Using a wooden block model
Here’s where the geologists come in. In response to her research, Solmaz created a 12-step education plan. This included simple but ingenious experiments covering topics such as the unpredictability of motions along faults (using wooden block models, see picture), liquefaction (using sand and water) and how to build an earthquake-resistant wall (using craft sticks). It is easy to see how such a programme could inspire locals to put some of their new knowledge into action.

Teachers Without Borders was asked to address a similar knowledge gap in the education system in Sichuan, China. Many teachers in this region lost loved ones in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, so the task of educating them about such events was a sensitive one. Having been asked to do that by Teachers Without Borders, Solmaz focussed on making her assistance as sustainable as possible: she chose four dedicated geography teachers who she worked with over a year to build and implement an education programme about earthquakes and school safety. This is far better than a fly-in-fly-out approach, which has a much smaller impact. The involvement of local teachers means the education will continue in Solmaz’s absence, and that language and cultural barriers will no longer be a problem.

Returning to her own heritage, Solmaz has recently set up an organisation called ParsQuake ( ParsQuake’s mission is to raise levels of earthquake awareness, education, and preparedness in Persian-speaking schools and communities around the world. Through its website, ParsQuake provides education materials in Farsi, Tajik, Russian and English, and its members conduct training sessions in which the trainees eventually become the trainers. The theme of sustainability is clear, and Solmaz has future hopes of an earthquake education workshop in India, to be run by the trainees from Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Ye Zhiping
Personally, I found this to be a very inspiring seminar. We hear all too often about the tragedies that result from natural disasters, but little about the wonderful people who are helping to save lives through education and action. Solmaz is one of those people, spreading her knowledge and love of geophysics to those who need it most. One of the stories that she shared at the seminar was of another such person in Sichuan, China. Appalled by the poor construction of his school, Ye Zhiping (right), the principal of Sangzao Middle School, raised over $60,000 for an earthquake retrofit project. The school subsequently survived a magnitude 8 earthquake in 2008 which killed about 10,000 children in classrooms around the region. All 2,323 of Ye’s students survived. This is an excellent example of how a little awareness and perseverance can help to avert tragedy. The message of Solmaz’s talk was clear: we have no excuse not to share our knowledge, especially when a lack of knowledge can have such a high cost.