I know many optimists in Ghana and beyond will have issues with my rather gloomy title for a write-up. Please indulge me as you read along and you will come to the realisation that I mean well — I seek to bring our national focus on the current situation in Turkey and Syria and ask ourselves: As a leadership and people, have we “put a cup of water by our side, as our neighbour’s beard is on fire”, as the old adage says?
The week brought along with it much not-too-good news as citizens were welcomed with increased fuel prices and utility bills, pensioners picketing the Finance Ministry to protect their investments and the state of a seeming “hopelessness” as we prayed that our beloved son, Christian Atsu, was rescued from the rubble of the earthquake in Turkey, alive. As I monitored international news channels on developments on the latter, I asked myself many weird and real questions: If Atsu had known that the disaster awaited him, would he have gone home that dawn? Would he survive if he weren’t on the 9th floor of the building?
How much preparation can avert an earthquake’s huge impact? Did the leadership of Turkey fail to plan? Were there signs and expert voices pointing to imminent disaster? Then I began to convert some of these rather mundane questions into indicators and earthquake checklists for Ghana. Have we started thinking to pick lessons from the situation in Turkey and Syria, should we find ourselves in a similar natural occurrence or Ghana is exempt because we are a “Christian” nation, loved by God? Hahahahaha!
Earthquake Data in Ghana
I experienced the first earthquake in my life on December 12 2022, whilst at a function at the Calvary Methodist Church, near the National Museum, in Accra. For a moment, I felt the earth shake under my feet and my first reaction was to “insult” the construction workers on-site at the event ground. It was a chapel under construction. Conscious and attentive to details, I am always nosing for news. I quickly picked up my phone to read news from the many news portals and social media handles. There I saw tweets and news reports of an “earthquake” just as I had experienced it, being reported as moving underground in some parts of Accra. At long last, I believed that Ghana is earthquake-prone. I had taken with a pinch of salt reports that environs like McCarthy Hill, Gbawe etcetera in Accra have been experiencing earthquakes.
Thankfully, data is available on earthquakes in Ghana, since the 17th Century.
Cities like Accra, Tema, Ho, Cape Coast, and Takoradi, as well as important installations in the south of Ghana such as those for communication, water, oil and gas, electricity and some iconic national infrastructure all lie within areas exposed to earthquakes.
Earthquake hazards in Ghana are generally determined by three main sources, the coastal boundary fault, which lies parallel to its Coast, the Akuapim fault zone made up of a series of faults along the Akuapim Mountain range, and the Ivory Coast fault, which occurs in the South West corner of the country.
Past earthquakes in Ghana and the examination of current conditions by the Ghana Geological Survey Authority (GGSA) have shown that the full range of secondary effects like fires, flooding from broken pipes and dams, tsunamis, landslides/rock falls and liquefaction is all possible from strong ground shaking in the country.
In April 2021 the Director-General of the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), Eric Nana Agyemang at a conference to deliberate on the report by a special committee which was tasked to develop a comprehensive framework for ‘Refocusing National Earthquake Preparedness and Response within the country’, noted that the West African earthquake fault zone in Ghana gets to Ho, moves through Eastern Region and through Greater Accra to Nyanyano in the Central Region. It is bewildering to know that almost all critical state infrastructures are on the fault line. Namely Tema Harbour, Kotoka International Airport, Akosombo Dam, Weija Dam and, unfortunately, our Jubilee House,”.
Seismic codes or earthquake codes are building codes designed to protect property and life in buildings in case of earthquakes. The need for such codes is reflected in the saying, “Earthquakes don’t kill people—buildings do.” Or in an expanded version, “Earthquakes do not injure or kill people. Poorly built manmade structures injure and kill people.
Seismic codes were created and developed as a response to major earthquakes which have caused devastation in highly populated regions. Often these are revised based on knowledge gained from recent earthquakes and research findings, and as such, they are constantly evolving. There are many seismic codes used worldwide. Most codes at their root share common fundamental approaches regarding how to design buildings for earthquake effects, but will differ in their technical requirements and will have language addressing local geologic conditions, common construction types, historic issues, etc.
In the case of Turkey, all the global indicators and standards on the seismic code met the standards and looked good on paper but the reality on the ground proved otherwise. Are our buildings and structures in Ghana strong enough or meet the standards? We better start thinking about this.
Citi Fm, a private radio station in Accra, on 24th January 2021, reported on a presentation by an expert, calling on the nation to rise to prepare for an unforeseen higher magnitude of earthquake in the country.
Former Head of Seismology & Earthquake Engineering Division at the Ghana Geological Survey Authority, Dr Sylvanus Tetteh Ahulu, said a report, after the 1939 destructive earthquake in Ghana, stated that buildings in Accra, in particular, should not go up vertically beyond two storeys because of the inconsistent geology of Accra and the fact that Accra’s soil profile cannot withstand earthquakes with a high rise building regime. However, with rapid urbanization, engineering solutions and population growth, buildings more than two storeys are springing up within the city.
He said most of the buildings in Accra, including some heritage-listed sites, are well over 50 years old which is deemed to be the full lifespan of a building and therefore seismically vulnerable and may be a major threat to both life and property when an earthquake strikes.
“Such buildings and many others all need to be subjected to the current code and standards of buildings as enshrined in the Ghana Building Code which was launched by the Ghana Standards Authority. This is in line with its current building code and standards and adherence to its recommendations will protect lives and keep Ghanaians safe.
Dr Ahulu called on professionals to, as a matter of urgency, conduct threat, vulnerability, and risk assessments to determine the need for upgrading selected buildings for the protection of occupants and other services concerns. This must be followed by a mandatory requirement for a certified earthquake/seismic assessment as part of every single building permit that will henceforth be processed at Metropolitan Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs).
Paulina Ekua Amponsah of the Geological Survey Department, Accra, Ghana, in a paper presented to the ANNALS OF GEOPHYSICS, VOL. 47, N. 2/3, April/June 2004, on “Seismic activity in Ghana: past, present and future”, observed strongly that with the current local events registering more than 4.0 on the Richter scale, education on earthquakes to the general public and schools should be intensified. She further suggested that engineering infrastructures be designed to meet the requisite standards and also properly located to avoid any catastrophe in the near future if a major earthquake should strike.
The people of Turkey are angry with their political leadership for lack of foresight and their failure in putting in place proactive measures to avoid the deadly outcome of the April 6th 2023 earthquake (as I write this piece, over 23 ,000 people have perished).
Let me admit that leadership in recent times has shown a level of commitment to set in motion measures to prepare a response for a future “stronger” earthquake in Ghana.
President Akufo-Addo in April 2021, asked the Engineering Council of the Ministry of Works and Housing to conduct a comprehensive integrity audit of all public buildings to enable government to effectively plan for earthquakes and other natural disasters. He has also urged the Ghana Geological Survey Authority to give government the needed advice on its logistical needs and equipment to undertake round-the-clock monitoring of seismic activities for urgent action.
Good attempt, but what action has been taken since this directive was issued?
I have always hazarded a wild guess of what would happen to casualties in the event of a major catastrophic incident in Ghana. I recount the Melcom disaster at Achimota where people were trapped under collapsed structures. Which rescue team do we have in Ghana — Fire Service?
Usually, specialist teams arrive from around the world to help. The USA and Israel are busy in Turkey and Syria now.
Rescuers are specially trained and work in pairs or bigger teams, while local people are often involved as well. When rescuers first arrive at the scene of an earthquake, they assess which collapsed buildings are most likely to contain trapped people.
They do this by looking for “voids” – spaces under large concrete beams or stairwells where survivors can be found.
The possibility a building could collapse further also needs to be taken into consideration, as do other dangers such as gas leaks, flooding and hazardous items, like asbestos in roofs.
While rescuers attempt to reach survivors, support workers watch for building movements and listen out for strange sounds.
Buildings that have completely collapsed are usually the last to be searched because the likelihood of finding survivors is very slim.
Can we say we have such skills and competencies in Ghana that can be set in motion before help comes from anywhere?
Should I raise the issue about equipment? To shift rubble, rescue teams use heavy machinery – including diggers and hydraulic jacks. Large concrete slabs on the outside of buildings can be pulled aside by diggers, enabling rescuers to get a view of any people trapped inside. Have we prepared well enough as a country in this regard?
I will not hesitate to rehash the words of the experts – “as a matter of urgency, conduct threat, vulnerability, and risk assessment to determine the need for upgrading selected buildings for the protection of occupants and other services concerns. This must be followed by a mandatory requirement for a certified earthquake/seismic assessment as part of every single building permit that will henceforth be processed at Metropolitan Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs).
Also, the Ghana Institution of Engineers developed a scheme that would entail homeowners retrofitting their homes to make them resistant to earthquakes
I reiterate calls for NADMO to liaise with the Ghana Education Service to incorporate learning themes on protection against earthquakes and other disasters in the curricula of pre-tertiary education. And I add that we should explore new media also for massive sensitization.
A stitch in time, they say, saves nine!