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Minister, please reassure us – Does South Africa have a quake disaster plan?

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Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

Are we as a country equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with an earthquake disaster? South Africans some information.

On Sunday, 11 June Gauteng experienced an earthquake at about 2.30am that left most people and their pets quite rattled by its intensity.

The quake measured 4.4 on the Richter scale – enough to cause quite a stir. People described doors rattling, beds shaking and dogs going crazy. A friend even said: “I thought the house was going to fall on us.”

Thankfully, I was far enough away from its epicentre not to have felt the quake, as I’m not quite sure what my response would have been, having a) never experienced an earthquake and b) never been taught what to do in the event of an earthquake, as I’m sure is the case with most South Africans.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Gauteng residents jolted by strongest quake in years

When I was growing up in the East Rand mining town of Germiston, however, what we did often experience were earth tremors, which are a relatively innocuous cousin of the more dramatic earthquake. Earth tremors are quite common in mining communities as a result of underground mining.

Eldridge Kgaswane, chief scientist at the Council for Geoscience, provided a more technical description of an earthquake versus tremor: “By South African standards, an earthquake would be seismic activity roughly registering around the magnitude of 4.0 and higher, and a tremor would be seismic activity less than a magnitude of 4.0. In a sense, tremors are minor earthquakes. Internationally, especially in countries that are more prone to earthquakes than South Africa, the standards could be different.”

While earthquakes are quite unusual in South Africa, as we have relatively stable tectonic plates, they are not unheard of and, according to the National Geophysical Data Center, go back as far as 1950. Our most recent quakes before this month’s one were in 2017 in Stilfontein, registering 5.2, and before that in 2014 in Orkney, measuring 5.5. These were worse than Sunday’s quake.

What’s the drill?

What concerns me is whether we as a country are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with an earthquake disaster.

If this had happened during the day when children were at school, how sure are we that school staff would have known how to handle the situation? What would patients in hospitals do?

What are the evacuation and safety plans that we should be aware of? And do we need a disaster to happen before measures are put in place?

The only evacuation drill I personally know how to do is in the case of a fire. I don’t know how to deal with a crumbling building, falling trees and cracking roads.

Read more in Daily Maverick: In images: A 7.8 magnitude monster earthquake hit Turkey and Syria

I think the Covid-19 pandemic has made us more wary of whether South Africa and our officials are indeed able to effectively and efficiently handle a disaster and dedicate the necessary resources to the protection of people’s lives and their livelihoods. In fact, a good disaster plan needs to be pre-emptive and able to warn people ahead of time.

Now would be a good time for our minister of cooperative governance to take the country into her confidence and not only assure us that we do in fact have an earthquake disaster plan, but to walk us through said plan so that we can sleep easier at night. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • virginia crawford says:

    No. Our government doesn’t do plans.

  • ak47.king ak47.king says:

    South Africa’s worst earthquake was actually in Tulbagh in 1969 at 6.3 on the Richter scale.
    South Africa doesn’t have a major subduction zone plate boundary or transverse plate boundary so large earthquakes aren’t really a problem in SA. An earthquake caused by mineworking underground without proper hazard identification and safety protocols in place is much more likely to occur. SA’s mining safety standards are pretty good and comparable to first world countries as we have some of the deepest mines in the world. We need to be more worried about flooding and fires in this country and as we’ve seen in the last few years, government doesn’t really have the rights protocols in place to deal with these type of disasters. They may have good policies in place but don’t know how to implement them. Case in point, Durban.

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