December 6, 2009 will be a difficult day to forget for the people of Karonga in the northern region of Malawi. Little did they know that what seemed like a simple earthquake at 19:35hrs local time was indeed the beginning of a series of events that left them terribly shaken, helpless, hopeless and some homeless. Some buildings suffered total failure as a result of ground shaking. The extent of damage was high and will cost a lot of Millions of Malawi Kwacha during the reconstruction process.
According to reports sourced from the District Commissioner’s office, 145,436 people out of the total population of 270,960 in the district were affected which represents 53.7%. 5,783 households were assessed, 1557 houses collapsed, 4,226 houses developed cracks. The death toll was at 4, 186 injuries and 17 school blocks affected among other things.
Temporary structures were erected as a mitigation measure. Due to the overwhelming demand for assistance from the District Commissioner’s office, the majority of the victims were left disappointed due to inadequate supplies of aid facilities. Scientific evidence attributes the occurrence of these earthquakes to Malawi’s location in the East Africa Rift System which is an active region for such earthquakes. There have been several earthquakes taking place in the country a major one being the March 10, 1989 in Salima which measured 6.1(Ms) on the Richter scale. Scientists claim that Karonga is heavily faulted and such scenario is not uncommon in such areas. A technical team from Department of Geological Survey which is still monitoring the events in Karonga says that the earthquake sequence is a natural phenomenon associated with active faulting on the western flank of the Eastern Africa Rift System. By third week, a total of thirty two events of magnitudes between 4.0 and 6.2 had been recorded alongside 59 smaller events of magnitudes less than 4.0 on the Richter scale.
The December 20, 2009, earthquake was the major event that took place in the area since earthquakes started on December 6, 2009. From then on, there has several aftershocks being felt in the area and continue to do so up to now. Information provided by Geological Survey indicates that the aftershocks are small in magnitude except for the February 20, 2010 event which measured 4.2 on the Richter scale. They say that these aftershocks play a major role in identification of faults which are currently active.
In response to this, an additional team of ten Geologists, Seismologist, Technician and Analysts visited the area for Geo-mapping with funding from Department of Disaster Management. A report compiled thereafter by the Department of Geological Survey will be made available to all concerned stakeholders to chart a way forward on whether or not people in the heavily affected areas should be relocated to other areas.
Asked why events continue to take place almost four months on, the field team explained that the area experienced heavy shaking from December 6 because many of the events were almost close to the main shock in magnitude. As a result, several blocks were left hanging which means that they have to settle to reach an equilibrium and will eventually subside. ”It’s good that these events are happening at this rate because energy is being released that would have accumulated into one event and that would have been a disaster”, commented one of the team members who opted for anonymity.
But what should the people of Karonga expect out of this? This is a question that begs for answers. According to Geological Survey Department through its Director Dr. Leonard Kalindekafe, this is the right time for Malawi to have a National Building Code. The draft Building Code has been gathering dust in the shelves since 1992. This appeal was also echoed by a team of Seismologists from Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University which installed five Seismic stations for monitoring the aftershocks in Karonga from January 5, 2010. The equipment will be here for a period of three or four months. An appeal for assistance was also made for Malawi to acquire at least ten Seismic Stations to be distributed across the country. Currently, there are only two stations working a thing which is not healthy for earthquake monitoring in a country that sits entirely in the seismically active East Africa Rift System.
All teams from Department of Geological Survey, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and United States Geological Survey Earthquake Disaster Assistance Team put off fears that Kayerekera Uranium Mining was the cause of these events. There was no evidence to support such claims because the epicenters were located far away from Kayerekera.
Slowly, life in Karonga is becoming normal again though under the glaring invitation of reconstruction. Some have already started reconstruction. What worries a few of us is that in the absence of National Building Code, should we trust on our own beliefs that these events are gone?