Best of our wild blogs: 14 Oct 14

Visit to Sisters' Island Marine Park - for guide training!
from Come hold your breath with me

Four Kings, a Jar & a dash of Cinnamon
from Winging It

Plantain Squirrel: More on its food
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Sembawang coast beckons with outdoor activities

Some volunteers doing their bit during a coastal clean-up at Sembawang coast on Saturday. The event was part of the PA's Project Blue WaVe.
Danson Cheong The Straits Times AsiaOne 14 Oct 14;

Some volunteers doing their bit during a coastal clean-up at Sembawang coast on Saturday. The event was part of the PA's Project Blue WaVe.

SINGAPORE - The sleepy Sembawang coastline is in for a little more action.

More people can camp by the beach there, kayak and go on nature trails in the nearby forest.

These are some of the activities offered by the People's Association (PA) Water-Venture Centre in Sembawang, which launched an expanded facility yesterday.

The two buildings, which took slightly over a year to complete, have four dormitories with room for 160 people, conference and multi-purpose rooms, and an area for water sports - with showers, racks for parking kayaks and even a shed where campers can build sea-rafts.

This new facility will allow 2,000 people to use the centre, double that of the PA's earlier Water-Venture Centre.

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan, who was the guest of honour at the facility's opening, said Sembawang was one of the few constituencies with a coastline, and hoped residents would make full use of the new services.

But he also reminded users to be mindful of the environment while they enjoy the rustic surroundings.

"Keep it clean, pick up litter, and the waterfront will remain conducive for us to enjoy for years and decades," said Mr Khaw, who joined about 500 residents and grassroots volunteers in a coastal clean-up, picking up rubbish and litter that included discarded slippers, plastic bags and even a muddy yellow rubber boot.

Also with Mr Khaw was former People's Action Party (PAP) candidate Ong Ye Kung, who trawled the coast for litter in a kayak.

Mr Ong, who was in the PAP team that lost in Aljunied GRC in the 2011 General Election, has been helping at grassroots events in Sembawang GRC.

Yesterday's launch was one of three signature events of Project Blue WaVe, an islandwide environmental conservation project by the PA. Said Ms Jeanie Tan, one of the PA's group directors: "When residents come here we'll be able to take the chance and engage (and teach) them on environmental conservation."

That message was not lost on the volunteers yesterday, who donned gloves and used tongs in the clean-up.

Noted one of them, Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Teo Pei Xing, 19: "Keeping the coast clean is important, if not, can you imagine eating fish that has been eating trash?"

The PA and Education Ministry also launched an initiative yesterday which will make 10 primary school fields available for community sports programmes organised by the association.

The programme aims to promote family bonding through football.

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Wanted: Next-gen caretakers for Kusu

Jermyn Chow The Straits Times AsiaOne 14 Oct 14;

Like the thousands of devotees who visit Kusu Island this time of the year to pray for wealth, health and fertility, Mr Ishak Samsudin is also hoping for a "divine answer".

Who can take over his job as the caretaker for the island's three Malay keramats (shrines) that are perched on top of 152 steps?

"I'm not young any more... but finding the right person is one big headache," said the 52-year-old Ishak, who followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

The caretaker of Da Bo Gong Temple, which was built in 1923, is also mulling over similar questions. With the number of devotees falling, donations have also dropped.

"We still depend on the goodwill of our devotees and their donations to maintain the temple, and it has been much harder to do so these days," said 66-year-old Seet Seng Huat, who has been running the temple for the last 15 years after taking over the reins from his parents.

"There are not as many young people who want to come along with their parents or grandparents."

Around 700 devotees visit the island on weekdays - nearly half the number five years ago.

In its heyday in the 1990s, more than 200,000 thronged the island during the season each year. This fell to 136,000 in 2001.

As of yesterday - 12 days to the end of the season - about 26,000 people have made the trip so far, said Mr Li Guoli, the manager of Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services, who provides daily 30-minute ferry services to the island.

Kusu Island, located 5.6km to the south of Singapore, is steeped in history. The story goes that a tortoise turned itself into the island - "kusu island" refers to "tortoise island" in Chinese - to save two sailors who were shipwrecked.

During the ninth month of the lunar calendar, devotees travel there to worship before the Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) statues in the Chinese temple.

Others make the climb to the top of a hillock to visit sites dedicated to a 19th-century pious man, Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother and his sister - popular among couples hoping to conceive.

These religious sites depend on the month-long pilgrim season for their yearly budget.

Mr Ishak said that he needs more than $30,000 every year to spruce the shrines and to pay for his upkeep and that of 15 other family members who have to live on the island during the pilgrimage season.

But donations barely cover the overheads, which includes an annual tenancy fee that is paid to the Singapore Land Authority. He, however, declined to say how much this is.

"It is a bit of a struggle but we always manage to pull through because friends and devotees come forward to help... maybe it's good luck, maybe it's our prayers," he added.

The father of three said none of his children is a likely candidate to take over from him. His eldest son is a senior technician with PUB, his second daughter is an accountancy undergraduate, while his youngest son is studying art in Lasalle College of the Arts.

"I would rather they do things that interest them," said Mr Ishak, who usually takes two months off his work as an operations executive in his friend's logistics firm to tend to the keramats.

Mr Seet, who lives on the island and only goes back to the mainland once a month, said he is likely to hand over the reins to "someone in the family", although "no one seems keen yet".

For now, the father of two will continue to be caretaker "for as long my body can take it".

The declining number of devotees is also affecting the livelihoods of those like Mr Ker Teong Ee, a part-time boat attendant. He said that he usually earns $2,000 during the pilgrimage season, double his usual pay as an odd-job worker on the mainland.

"Last year, I had six people working with me. This year, we only have four. I'm not sure if I will get to do this job again next year. But what can we do?"

Kusu regular Ng See Kee, who has paid homage to the island's deities for more than 40 years, hopes the new Marina South Pier MRT station that is set to open by the end of this year will draw more visitors.

The 76-year-old said: "Hopefully, the greater convenience will bring more life to the island."

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Govt agencies tighten checks to avoid lapses

The Straits Times AsiaOne 13 Oct 14;

SEVERAL public bodies have put in place more stringent checks after being rapped by the Auditor- General's Office (AGO) in July for not using public funds prudently.

The Media Development Authority (MDA), for instance, is developing on online system to make its grant administration process more transparent.

Applicants will be able to track their application status, manage project timelines and make claims through a one-stop portal.

The system also keeps track of details of companies from their previous submissions, an MDA spokesman said in response to queries from The Straits Times.

In the past, the tracking was done offline. This invited criticism from the AGO, which said in its annual report in July that MDA officers who screen applications for funding did not have to record those they had rejected, nor their reasons for doing so.

This raised the risk of an officer being unfair and rejecting an application without valid reasons, and there would be no trail of documentation to detect such cases.

The first phase of MDA's system was launched in July and the full works will be ready next year.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) was also taken to task by the AGO - in this case, for not being stringent in evaluating project proposals. It has since revised its evaluation format.

"Proposals now need to include more details on expected outputs, and assess the risks or possibilities of them not meeting those targets," said an AVA spokesman. "In such scenarios, proposals need to include alternative plans to ensure those outputs are met." The AGO had said AVA did not require proposals to include expected outputs for some projects. In all, AVA spent $20.27 million on 88 research projects.

Other agencies flagged for lapses revealed in Parliament the details of tweaks to their systems.

The Health Ministry has changed its processing system to trigger alerts when there are data errors, after it was found to have paid $64,000 in financial aid to 99 people, even though they had died.

The mistake occurred because the list of dead aid recipients was sometimes not updated.

The Central Provident Fund Board now requires employers to declare which of their workers has gone for NSman training, and makes them provide supporting documents for national service make-up pay. This comes after an employer underpaid $816,000 over 10 years for employees who did national service.

PwC Singapore internal audit head Ng Siew Quan said it is important to strike the right balance. He said: "Many government agencies have been trying to make... processes less cumbersome to allow those in need to receive the help they need. The controls that will be put in place should not discourage this." MP for Pioneer Cedric Foo, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which is made up of MPs and works with the AGO to scrutinise the accounts of public bodies, welcomed the steps taken.

He said: "Leaders and the public at large want to see better internal controls and fairer and more efficient procurement processes.

Over time, government agencies will develop a strong culture to do all this right the first time."
- See more at:

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Malaysia: Sun bear, barn owls and civet among wildlife seized from two brothers

wani muthiah The Star 14 Oct 14;

SHAH ALAM: When found by the authorities, the animals – a Malayan Sun Bear, four Barn Owls and a Common Palm Civet – were crammed in tiny wire cages stacked in the back of a Naza Ria.

The animals, which were being transported from Seremban when the car was ambushed by wildlife officers at a toll plaza, were part of a hoard that included a Leopard Cat and a Malayan Porcupine being trafficked online.

Selangor Department of Wildlife Protection and National Parks (Perhilitan) director Rahim Ahmad said that two brothers, aged 20 and 29, were stopped at the Air Hitam toll plaza on the SKVE Highway on Oct 10.

“We seized one Malayan Sun Bear, four Barn Owls and one Common Palm Civet. We also confiscated their vehicle, a Naza Ria,” he said, adding that based on information gathered from the brothers, officers raided their house in Seremban on the same day.

“We found one Leopard Cat, 20 Barn Owls, two Sunda Flying Lemurs and one Malayan Porcupine from the house.

“The porcupine was already dead when officers got to the house,” Rahim said here yesterday.

Under the Wildlife Conservation Act, the Malayan Sun Bear, Leopard Cat, Barn Owl and the Sunda Flying Lemur were fully protected animals while the Common Palm Civet and Malayan Porcupine were protected.

Both men, said Rahim, had been put under remand, adding that the combined value of the seized animals – sold for between RM10,000 and RM1,000 each – totalled up to RM30,000.

“The case is being investigated under the Wildlife Conservation Act,” he said.

Under Section 60(1)(a) of the Act, the penalty for keeping protected species without a valid license is a fine of up to RM50,000 or a jail term of up to two years or both.

Under Section 68(1)(a) of the same Act, those having fully protected wildlife without a special permit can be fined up to RM100,000 or jailed up to three years, or both.

Rahim said the seized wildlife would be released back to their natural habitat in a protected area upon acquiring a court order.

“The public is reminded not to carry out activities involving the selling, buying or illegal possession of wildlife,” said Rahim, adding that the two men were nabbed following a public tip-off.

Those with information on wildlife smuggling and trading can contact the department’s hotline at 1 800 88 5151 or its Careline at 1 300 80 1010.

Illegal wildlife trade explodes with advent of Internet
victoria brown The Star 14 oct 14;

PETALING JAYA: The Internet has made a booming trade out of endangered wildlife in Malaysia, allowing people to illegally buy an animal in as short a time as a day.

A search by The Star on major advertising sites showed postings offering endangered animals – anything from a tortoise to a tiger – for sale through a simple online transaction.

All the buyers have to do is to merely search for the animal through the various postings, contact the seller and negotiate a price and delivery method.

An inquiry by The Star for the endangered Radiated Tortoise on a local classified website showed that most sellers responded to inquiries on Whatsapp within a day.

The sellers were ever ready to proceed with the sale and agreed to deliver the tortoise via post after the transfer of funds into their account.

Traffic South-East Asia regional director Dr Chris R. Shepherd said there were “countless number of dealers plying the trade through the social media, classified pages and websites”.

“Due to the countless avenues that online trade has presented to illegal wildlife traders, it has become a growing problem for enforcement agents.

“Traders are selling anything that you can think of online and getting away with it,” claimed Dr Shepherd.

Department of Wildlife and Na­­tional Parks deputy director-general Dr Zaaba Zainol Abidin said most illegal wildlife traders were part of organised crime gangs.

“This makes it difficult to shut down their activities,” he said.

However, Dr Zaaba admitted that currently, investigations into illegal trade were carried out in a reactive manner – only acting whenever something happened or when a report was lodged.

“After the report is filed, we will track the websites or webpages. In some cases, we have to go undercover to investigate the report,” he said.

According to the International Fund For Animal Welfare 2013 report on “Criminal Nature”, global illegal trade in wildlife was worth some RM62bil annually.

2 held, 30 exotic animals rescued
New Straits Times 14 Oct 14;

SHAH ALAM: In its biggest raid this year, the Selangor Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) arrested two brothers who were selling exotic animals online, rescuing close to 30 animals.

Based on public tip offs, the department managed to nab the two men, aged 20 and 29, at a highway toll plaza on Friday.

They were caught red-handed ferrying a Malayan sun bear, four barn owls and a common palm civet in a multi-purpose vehicle at the Ayer Hitam toll plaza on the South Klang Valley Expressway at 2.30am.

Selangor Perhilitan director Rahim Ahmad said the department believed the two were selling the wild animals through the Internet
to customers who either wanted to rear the animals or sample them as food.

After interrogation, he said, the department’s officers raided the brothers’ house in Bandar Seri Sendayan in Seremban at 2.30pm.

Another 20 barn owls were discovered together with two Sunda flying lemurs, a leopard cat and a Malayan porcupine.

“The animals we recovered will be released in Perhilitan’s reserve areas. We are investigating how the suspects obtained the animals and whether they are part of a bigger syndicate,” he said at the Selangor Perhilitan office here yesterday.

Rahim added that under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, the Malayan sun bear, leopard cat, barn owl and Sunda flying lemur were fully protected species while the common palm civet and Malayan porcupine were protected species.

The seized animals were worth up to RM30,000, according to the prices provided by the brothers.

A Malayan sun bear’s asking price could reach RM10,000, the leopard cat and Sunda flying lemurs RM2,000, Malayan porcupine (RM1,000), barn owl (RM600) and common palm civet (RM200).

Under section 60(1)(a) of the act, keeping a protected wildlife species without a licence could land offenders in jail for not more than two years or a fine of not more than RM50,000 or both.

If found guilty under section 68(1)(a) of the act for keeping a fully protected species, the culprits are liable to a fine of not more than RM100,000 or jailed not more than three years or both.

To report illegal wildlife activity, the public can contact the Perhilitan Hotline (1-800-88-5151) or Careline (1-300-80-1010).

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Indonesia Seeks Asean Help to Tackle Haze Woes

Reaching Out: An adviser to President Yudhoyono says countries such as Singapore and Malaysia now have ‘legal ground’ to help
Tunggadewa Mattangkilang & Vento Saudale Jakarta Globe 13 Oct 14;

Residents cross the road amid haze in Banjar, South Kalimantan on Oct. 6, 2014. (Antara Photo/Murdy Herry Hermawan)

Residents cross the road amid haze in Banjar, South Kalimantan on Oct. 6, 2014. (Antara Photo/Murdy Herry Hermawan)

Balikpapan/Jakarta. Indonesia is inviting its Southeast Asian neighbors to help tackle forest fires and haze that are once again plaguing Sumatra and Kalimantan, following its ratification last month of a regional agreement allowing transboundary cooperation on haze pollution.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency, or BNPB, reported more than 500 fire hot spots in Sumatra and Kalimantan over the weekend, causing haze that forced at least four airports to shut down and sent air pollution indices to hazardous levels in several regions.

Agus Purnomo, an adviser to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on climate change, said that with the House of Representatives finally ratifying last month the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, countries like Singapore and Malaysia, which are often affected by the haze, could now actively take part in measures to tackle the problem.

“The agreement makes it easier for our neighbors to help us tackle fires and haze. They now have a legal ground to help,” Agus told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.

Parties to the agreement, signed in 2002, are required to cooperate in measures to mitigate transboundary haze pollution, as well as to respond promptly to “a request for relevant information sought by a state or states that are or may be affected” by such pollution in order to minimize the impacts.

The second part in particular has been a sensitive issue for Indonesia, which is why it was the last Asean member state to ratify the agreement, despite being the prime generator of haze from forest fires in Southeast Asia.

The BNPB said 153 hot spots were detected on Sumatra by satellites as of 5 a.m. on Sunday, with 144 in South Sumatra province alone.

Kalimantan, which barely reported any major fire and haze events last year, had a recorded 357 hot spots on Saturday, according to satellite imagery. Most of the hot spots were concentrated in Central Kalimantan (220), followed by South Kalimantan (61), East Kalimantan (50) and West Kalimantan (26).

BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said on Sunday that the numbers from Sumatra were not yet complete because another satellite had yet to make a pass over the region on Sunday afternoon.

“So the figure may be bigger,” he said.

The BNPB had not yet updated the data by press time on Sunday night.

Thick haze forced the temporary closure of Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman Airport in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, on Saturday.

“We had to close down the airport because of the haze, the visibility was less than a kilometer. The minimum visibility for aviation is 1.5 kilometers,” airport spokesman Awaluddin told the Globe.

Awaluddin said five flights were delayed and six flights were diverted to Hassanudin Airport in Makassar, South Sulawesi.

“This is the first time we’ve had to delay flights and divert planes since the haze first hit Balikpapan,” he said. The airport, previously known as Sepinggan, resumed operation later in the day.

On Sunday, four other airports were shut down, this time in Sumatra: Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport in Pekanbaru, Riau; Hang Nadim Airport in Batam, Riau Islands; Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Airport in Palembang, South Sumatra; and Sultan Thaha Syaifuddin Airport in Jambi.

“The arrival schedules have been delayed, as currently the visibility is only 500 meters,” Baiquni Sudrajat, a spokesman for Sultan Syarif Kasim II International Airport, told on Sunday.

The haze affected most flights to and from Pekanbaru on Sunday.

“Because the arriving planes were delayed, the planes departing from this airport are also delayed,” Baiquni said.

Air quality also plunged in several regions worst hit by fire-induced haze, including Libo village in the Riau capital of Pekanbaru, where the Pollutant Standard Index reached 399, above the minimum hazardous level of 300.

Air quality is considered “good” for a PSI reading of between 0 and 50, “moderate” for PSI between 51-100, “unhealthy” for 101-200, “very unhealthy” for 201-300 and “dangerous” for a PSI more than 300.

“In Rumbai, the index reached 251; in Minas it was 176; in Duri the index was 136; in Dumai 148…” Sutopo said, citing PSI indices in a number of regions in Riau.

The Balikpapan Health Office, meanwhile, reported that more than 2,000 people had been diagnosed with upper-respiratory tract infections due to the haze. By comparison 1,300 people were recorded with the same diagnosis in September.

Sutopo said his office was working with local authorities on various fire-fighting efforts, including on the ground and through aerial water drops.

The haze problem has re-emerged just six months after the Riau provincial administration lifted the emergency status imposed after last year’s haze, which was one of the worst cases in the country in decades. The fires, burning more frequently, are attributed largely to the slash-and-burn clearing of forests by farmers to open up land for oil palm plantations.

Authorities in Kalimantan, which has not been as badly hit as Sumatra, have also blamed plantation companies for the fires. A spokesman for the East Kalimantan Police said police were investigating the fires.

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Indonesia: Riau air quality "unhealthy" as haze obscures skies

Antara 12 Oct 14;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - The air quality around Riau Province reached a "very unhealthy" level on Sunday as haze from forest fires covered its surrounding.

Head of Data and Information Center of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the Provinces Air Pollution Standard Index (ISPU) reached 240 at 7 am local time indicating a very unhealthy level.

The poor air quality was detected in some region of Riau Province such as Rumbai (251), Minas (176), Duri Camp. (136), Duri field (114), Dumai (148), Bangko (127), Libo (399) and Petapahan (136).

The higher the ISPU reading, the higher he level of air pollution and the bigger the health concern is.

An ISPU reading between 0-50 represents a good air quality, while the index between 51-100 shows a medium quality.

When the ISPU reading is above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy, between 200-299 very unhealthy and more than 300 is hazardous.

"The hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan are endless despite continuous effort of forest fire fighting from land, air and the law enforcement," Sutopo said.

According to the Meteorology Climatology and Geophysics Agency, based on The Terra and Aqua satellite observation on Sunday at 05.00 am local time, there were 153 hotspots detected in the Sumatran region, most of them in South Sumatra with 144 hotspots and the rest were in Riau (3), Jambi (3), Riau Islands (2) and Aceh (1).

However, the number of hotspots may still rise as the Modis satellite will be passing over Sumatra Island at 04.00 pm, Nugroho said.

"The wind direction generally flows from Southeast and West to Northwest with the speed of 05-50 knot meaning it (haze) will not spread to Singapore," Nugroho said.

The Modis Satellite on Saturday at 04.00 pm still also detected significant number of hotspots in Kalimantan, Nugroho said, most of them were in Central Kalimantan (220); West Kalimantan (26), South Kalimantan (61) and East Kalimantan (50).

(Reporting by A.E.S.Wicaksono/T.A059/H-YH)

Medan covered by haze since Sunday morning
Antara 12 Oct 14;

Medan, N Sumatra (ANTARA News) - Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, has been covered by haze since early Sunday morning although it was not thick enough to disrupt public activities.

The head of data and information section of the regional office of the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), Hendra Suwarta, said he believed the smoke that emerged Sunday morning did not come from North Sumatra because no fires had been detected there.

He said the smoke probable came from South Sumatra and Riau provinces where a number of hotspots had been detected.

He said that wind from southwest was currently flowing to North Sumatra providing a chance for the province to receive smoke from South Sumatra and Riau.

He said capital city Medan meanwhile was also cloudy to potentially cause rain.

He said the smoke did not cause too much problem because it had quickly vanished due to a high intensity of light and heavy rains.

"It is not too problematic But if the smoke continues to come Medan will again be covered by haze," he said.

The head of data and information center of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said based on Terra and Aqua satellite monitoring at 5am Sunday a total of 153 hotspots had been found in Sumatra.

Most of the hotspots were seen in South Sumatra reaching 144 while the others were monitored in Riau (3), Jambi (3), Riau Islands (2) and Aceh (1).

reporting by irwan arfa

(H-YH/b003/B003) .

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Scientist keeps his focus on earthquakes and tsunamis

lim chia ying The Star 13 Oct 14;

Much work is being done to better-forecast the occurrence of these natural disasters.

Did you know that the filling of a man-made water reservoir can induce tremors in the earth? In fact, there has been at least half a dozen reservoir-triggered earthquakes registering magnitudes 6.0 and larger, causing substantial damage and killing hundreds.

This revelation was shared by Dr Harsh K. Gupta from India, an authority in the field of seismology (the scientific study on earthquakes).

“Water reservoirs are needed for water supply, flood control and power generation. When the reservoir is impounded, fluid pressure increases and the accumulated stresses make it possible for ruptures to occur. Globally, there are already more than 150 examples of these provoked earthquakes, such as Koyna in India (1967), Xinfengkiang in China (1962), and Kremasta in Greece (1966).

“When we started investigating the causes, I found that these earthquake sequences have some similarities which are different from the normal sequences. So, what we did was to first identify these common characteristics and thereafter, develop ways to find safer sites.”

Various tests are conducted to determine how much stress the rock can withstand before failing. The technique makes it possible to find safer sites since reservoirs will always be built.

Predicting tremors

“Worldwide, there are two categories of earthquakes – the first which happens in areas close to plate boundaries (where new crusts are being created) and the other, which occur away from the plate boundary. The latter is known as the ‘stable continental region’ and is where reservoir-induced earthquakes mostly occur in. Here, the recurrence of the next quake is usually unknown until a reservoir ‘draws’ the quake ahead of its time,” says the award-winning scientist from India.

He says what differentiates a reservoir-induced earthquake from a natural one is an element known as the b-value, which is the ratio of the largest earthquake occurrence against the smallest.

“A normal earthquake sequence in a stable continental region consists of just main shock and aftershocks, while a reservoir-induced one will have foreshocks, main shock and aftershocks. In Koyna, we are trying to develop an earthquake model … there is none in India so far … to determine what exactly happened before, during and after the earthquake at this site. We have installed bore holes to see the kind of changes that took place in the ground.”

Gupta says Asia is vulnerable to natural disasters; the region accounts for 70% of lives lost globally from natural disasters. The fact that seven of the world’s 10 largest cities are located in Asia hints at the staggering rate of urbanisation in the region.

In 1950, only 17% of the Asian population lived in urban areas. That figure has reached 46% today and is estimated to rise to 55% by 2030.

Gupta says this situation begs for disaster risk reduction programmes to be ingrained into major projects from the very beginning.

He says most disasters in Asia occur because people did not do what they should be doing, as in the case of the 2004 devastating Asian/Indian Ocean tsunami where some 250,000 people died, mostly within 500m of the high tide line.

“There weren’t supposed to be commercial activities along the sea but the law was flouted, which contributed to the huge loss of lives. Also, a lot of buildings were not built to be disaster-resilient. The number of lives that perished in earthquakes and tsunamis in the last 13 and a half years of the 21st century have exceeded the total lives that were lost (from the same causes) in the entire 20th century,” he states.

Identify safe spots

“People who used to live in single-storey wooden houses have shifted to multi-storey homes that are not earthquake proof. When we tell people to go to safe places during an earthquake, we should already have pre-determined safe spots for them to hide in. When disaster strikes, panic mode sets in and we are unable to think straight. Therefore, everyone will be better off by establishing a safe spot before anything happens.”

Gupta says the National Disaster Management Authority of India, of which he is a member, has developed a method to gauge the number of people who will be affected or killed in the event of an earthquake. He adds that in India, an anti-disaster response force has been formed with some 15,000 policemen already seconded for rescue training, and provided with rescue equipment so that they can be mobilised for action.

“Lifeline buildings like hospitals, fire stations, police stations and schools are vital, and we have architects and engineers who can give a quick estimate on whether a structure can survive in an anticipated disaster. If it can’t, it has to be retrofitted. We have made a scale that if the retrofitting accounts for 50% of the construction cost, it’ll be better to have a new building.”

Real-time sensors

One of Gupta’s most important contribution to seismology is the initiation of the Indian Tsunami Warning System, which consists of 12 pressure recorders planted in the bottom of the Indian Ocean. He says the warning system transmits signals through real-time monitoring, and has been functionally reliable thus far.

Unlike the larger Pacific Ocean which is covered with geological features capable of generating tsunamigenic earthquakes, Gupta contends that there are just two such zones in the Himalayan-Alpine belt in the Indian Ocean – one is the stretch from Java-Sumatra to Andaman while the other is located 500km off the Makaran Coast in the Arabian Sea.

“The reason for this is because the earthquakes that occur in other spots (of the Indian Ocean) will not create a rupture in the seabed. Even if they do, the water depth is insufficient to produce the vertical displacement that forms a tsunami. In the 20th century, there were close to 700 small and large tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean compared to just three in the Indian Ocean. This was why when the 2004 tsunami happened, a lot of people were not familiar with it.

Gupta says the sheer expanse of the Pacific Ocean makes it impossible to have pressure recorders lodged in the water. Some 2,000 units might be required. Cost will be high and conducting maintenance work will be difficult.

He adds that in some areas of the Pacific, it will take only five minutes before a tsunami hits the shore, thus defeating the purpose of having the pressure recorders.

Gupta, 71, has published 200 research papers and written four books.

The first one, Dams And Earthquakes, has since been translated into Russian and Chinese. His accolades include the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 1983 (India’s science and technology award), the USSR Academy of Sciences “100 years of International Geophysics” Memorial Medal in 1985, India’s National Mineral Award of Excellence in 2003, India’s Padma Shri civilian award in 2006, the Waldo E. Smith Medal by the American Geophysical Union in 2008 and India’s National Ocean Award of Science and Technology in 2008.

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