South West Pacific earthquake resilience


New Zealand is exposed to high risk in the case of earthquakes and tsunami and so, too, are the south west Pacific nations. A lot of what we have learned from the Christchurch earthquakes could be shared with other countries including those in the south west Pacific. Clark Hyland, of Hyland Fatigue and Earthquake Engineering, writes about a 2011 workshop that discussed ways to increase earthquake resilience through regional cooperation.

The nations of the South West Pacific are located in one of the most seismically active regions in the world. These nations are small but strong, beautiful, and vibrant and are attracting increasing numbers of people from all over the world to visit and enjoy their natural wonders and hospitality. The recent earthquakes and tsunamis in the region, however, have led to a growing realisation that the hazards presented by such events need to be better addressed so that lives are not lost and significant damage is not done to their vulnerable economies.

During a regional workshop in 2011 in Wellington, experts from throughout the region gathered to discuss the challenges facing the South West Pacific nations in improving their resilience to earthquakes and tsunamis. The aim was to build regional awareness and consensus on what the priories appeared to be.

The workshop considered cooperative disaster management strategies, seismological studies, tsunami mitigation systems, earthquake engineering guidelines, joint codes and standards, education, continuing professional development, and building control systems. The gathering was facilitated by the New Zealand and Australian Societies of Earthquake Engineering, Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand, and the South Pacific Engineers Association, with assistance from the New Zealand and Australian Aid Programmes.

The disturbing picture emerged that the region is struggling with the technical and policy challenges the recent events have thrown up. For example, the sparse network of strong motion instruments located in the area are oriented towards global seismological matters rather than serving local needs.  Minimal strong motion data relevant to local engineering applications were reportedly available and no standardised system existed to allow easy sharing of data between one country and another.

Of all the countries, only Papua New Guinea had an earthquake loadings standard that had been specifically developed for it. However, it is now considered to be outdated and in desperate need of revision. The other nations use ad hoc comparisons with New Zealand or Californian loadings. This means that at a time when economic development in these nations is accelerating, their buildings, bridges, wharves, and airports are being designed for questionable levels of loading.

A lack of adequately trained staff in each nation means that there is little capacity for each to individually develop earthquake hazard maps and standards that can allow better engineering decision-making to be made. As a consequence, in an age when huge advances are being made in the assessment of earthquake hazards and engineering in New Zealand and other places around the world, these nations are being left behind.

New Zealanders are well aware of the limitations of being a relatively small and isolated nation, so we can empathise with the situation faced by these nations. We also are aware that this limitation does not deny the potential for better communication and cooperation. It was in this spirit that the workshop delegates came to the view that a regional cooperative approach, including both New Zealand and Australia, was the best way forward to increasing earthquake resilience in these countries. Some progress has been made since the workshop, but much more remains to be done.

South West Pacific Earthquake Resilience Workshop attendees

L to R:

Back row: Luke Allen, NZSEE; Clark Hyland, NZSEE; Brendan Donnell, NZSEE; Harry Rini, Solomon Is; Brian Jacob, Fiji; Pradap Singh, Fiji; Jimmy Nuake, Solomon Islands

Centre row: Margaret Findlay, IPENZ; Kevin McCue, AEES; Sen Hugo, PNG; Garry Gibson, AEES; Sione Taumoepeau, Tonga

Front row: Elsa Fruean, Samoa; Tenga Mana, Cook Is; Tessa Tafua, Samoa; Esline Garaebiti Bule, Vanuatu; and Seventeen Toumoua, Tonga



Published in engineering.