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04 Apr 16 05:08

Earthquakes do not kill people but buildings do. This is proven by the regions where construction practices are poor. One example of this is the loss and devastation caused by the Bhuj earthquake. This event stuck the western state of India, Gujarat, on January 26th 2001 and the magnitude of the event was 7.7 (Mw). The total casualties stood around 20,000 making this the deadliest intra plate (shield) earthquake in the world. Earthquakes are not new to Gujarat.

In the Epic Mahabharata, there is mention of a city "Dwaraka" being submerged in sea. The location of Dwaraka is on the western coast of Gujarat and many researchers believe that this has happened due to a tsunami (archeologist have found the remains of Dwaraka in seabed). Another major earthquake of magnitude 7.7 to 8.3 (exact magnitude is not yet known) occurred in the Rann of Kutch area in 1819. All these major events highlight the high seismic activity in Kutch region of Gujarat. Even though, historic records indicate that the Gujarat region is prone to earthquakes, this has not reflected in the construction practices there.

During the 2001 earthquake, around 90% of the buildings in the city of Bhuj (which was about 20 km away from the epicenter) were damaged. This clearly indicate the high vulnerability of buildings to earthquakes. However, the main surprise was the huge damage caused at Ahmedabad city, which is around 300 km away from the epicenter of the event. This was caused due to the combination of various factors like local soil conditions, long period seismic waves, poor quality and design of buildings etc. In addition to this, the event caused liquefaction at a large area in Rann of Kutch region but since most of this region is sparsely populated, the damage from liquefaction was very less.

The economic loss of the Bhuj earthquake is estimated to be around USD 4.5 bn but insured loss was only around USD 100 million (Swiss Re, Sigma report, 2014). These figures clearly indicate how low the insurance penetration rate was in Gujarat. Based on a scenario analysis using Swiss Re's internal Nat cat tool, the loss from a similar earthquake now will cause an insured loss of more than USD 1.0 bn. Considering very low insurance penetration rates, this will translate into huge economic loss.

One of the major post event measure taken by the government was to improve the earthquake preparedness and the construction quality of buildings. A revision of the Indian seismic code (IS-1893) was done as well. Still a lot more needs to be done to enforce the building code provisions – mainly in the case of residential and small commercial buildings. Another important action taken was to initiate seismic microzontation work for major urban centers, which are vulnerable to seismic hazard. Many of the cities in the Gangetic plain are situated on loose soil and the experience from Bhuj earthquake has shown that these cities are vulnerable to earthquakes along the Himalayan plate boundary region. 

In India a huge insurance penetration gap exists and this will mean that the recovery from a major catastrophe will take more time. This highlights the importance of state sponsored or public private partnerships in providing insurance solutions to individuals and institutions. These solutions need to be supported by strong building codes, enforcement and better urban planning. Re/insurance industry can have a major role in raising the awareness among people about the need to improve the property insurance rate in high susceptible areas.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Earthquakes, Resilience

Location: Gujarat, India


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