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Opinions of Thursday, 22 April 2010

Columnist: Allotey, Nii Kwashie

Wake Up Ghana; We Could Go The Way Of Haiti

By: Nii Kwashie Allotey, Ph.D., P.Eng., Email:

On 12th January 2010 at approximately 5.00 p.m. local time, the Republic of Haiti, specifically, its capital, Port-au-Prince, was hit with a 7.0 Richter scale Magnitude earthquake.

There is no need to elaborate in detail about the destruction which this earthquake has caused; we have all seen images of it on TV. This certainly is not the first time in recent years that earthquakes have caused such havoc in a developing country. We remember the 2001 Gujarat Earthquake that hit India, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake that hit Pakistan, and the great 2004 Sumatra Earthquake that generated a tsunami and wiped out whole communities in East Asia.

That evening I had about four friends of mine call me and ask what I thought about all that had happened in Haiti. The main question each of them asked was whether what happened in Haiti could happen in Ghana, and for that matter Accra. The simple answer is YES! The issue is not could it happen, but rather, WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN?! Imagine the lines of destroyed buildings shown on TV; translate this to your neighbourhood. Would Auntie Christie who lives next door be around to say hello on her way to the market; would Kofi and Kwabena be playing football on the street when you have told them not to do so; would the tro-tro mate who is always screaming, “Circle, circle” be able to keep doing what he does after the earthquake, or would there be despair everywhere

As an earthquake engineer who spends most of his day working on lofty forms of computer analysis for structures such as nuclear power plants, dams, and high-rise buildings, I am aware of what earthquakes can do, how they are generated, how the waves travel through the earth, how they excite a structure, how structures respond to them, and what can be done to make structures respond better in order to avoid heavy damage.

The real problem for an earthquake engineer is how to have an audience in a developing country like Ghana where anything goes for a building. I realize, however, that the earthquake in Haiti and other recent ones have awakened Ghanaians, and to the extent that, most left their houses to stay outside when there was a rumour of an impending earthquake.

With this new awakening, I intend to write a series of articles on various topics relating to earthquakes. These would include discussions on why buildings fail in the “pancake” manner such as the way those in Haiti failed, the complexity of seismic risk, who is responsible for what, what policy initiatives and government structures need to be put in place, and current global trends in seismic risk reduction.

I hope that through this series of articles, we will learn more about earthquakes, good design and construction practices, and important policy initiatives that need to be taken to help our beloved country avoid heavy human and material losses in event of a big one.