12 June 2006

Zimbabwe: Expedition Offers Insight Into Earthquakes

Harare — The Indian scientific exploration research team that is on a 35 000km Gondwanaland Expedition to study seismic activity in the Indo-African region is a source of inspiration for the promotion of exploration and public awareness about earthquakes in Africa.

Their recent stop in Zimbabwe (June 6-9), the fourteenth country out of the 17 countries the expedition team will cover, provided an insight into the nature of the problems related to earthquakes. The team, led by Dr Akhil Bakshi, engaged Zimbabwean scientists and discussed issues related to earthquakes, strengthening co-operation in the study of seismic activities and on ways to mitigate their impact on human beings. In many ways the tour of Zimbabwe by the Indian scientists offered an opportunity for local scientists to network with the visiting experts, to share ideas, stories and experiences about earthquakes.

The visit was providential in the wake of the earthquakes that hit Zimbabwe in the first half of the year. And, the highlight of the Gondwanaland Expedition stop in Zimbabwe was when the Indian team met President Mugabe, who challenged the scientists to prove the Continental Drift Theory (CDT). Dr Bakshi and Mr Sudhir Kashyap were amazed about the in-depth knowledge , sound arguments and challenging questions, which were asked by the President about earthquakes.

"We enjoyed the discussions we had with President Mugabe. His questions were relevant, challenging and probed further about the earthquakes," said Mr Kashyap. Said Dr Bakshi: "It was a very good visit to Zimbabwe. We enjoyed every moment of it. We were quite privileged to meet the President of Zimbabwe and the scientific community. It was a huge success."

Members of the Indian team said President Mugabe was fascinated by the dynamics of plate tectonics, which showed his quest for learning and science. Cde Mugabe urged the team to prove CDT. "If they are known, these historical strands that bound continents and people in the past and exposed constantly may help to build consciousness of oneness and unity, especialEgyptly to us who belong to the Third World," Cde Mugabe said when talking about Pangea the super continent that split into two landmasses.

The first landmass, Gondwanaland consisted of Africa, peninsular India, Australia, South America and the Antarctica; and the second - Eurasia was made up of modern day Europe, North America and the Arctic, about 265 million years ago. Zimbabwe experienced four aftershocks in February this year measuring an average of 5 on the Richter scale following a 7,5 Richter scale earthquake that was centred on the north bank of the Save River in Mozambique. This was the biggest earthquake to hit southern Africa in decades affecting much of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and parts of South Africa.

Other earthquakes that rocked Mozambique and parts of Zimbabwe were in March, April and May. The last were in May and the epicentre was close to the Nyamidzi River and just south of Hwedza Mountains about 115km south-east of Harare. The Minister of Science and Technology Development Dr Olivia Muchena paid tribute to the team and said the visit by the Indian expedition team would help build awareness about earthquakes as well as help local scientists to find ways of minimising the impact of tremors on humans.

Indian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Mr Ajit Kumar said the tour by the scientist strengthened the bilateral relations between his country and Zimbabwe particularly in the field of science where there was a growing need for closer collaboration of scientists from both nations. The team arrived in the country on June 6 from Zambia. This expedition team has already covered more than 19 000km in its four-month whirlwind-tour which has seen it passing through India, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

From Zimbabwe, the team will tour Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa. "It's both a scientific mission and a friendship mission," said Mr Bakshi. "India is a geological cousin of Africa. It got detached from Africa 265 million years ago and drifted for 200 million years across the Sea of Tethys." He said the journey across Africa had provided the Indian scientists with an insight into the flora and fauna as well as the rich and diverse cultures on the continent. "This vast expanse of land (Africa) is mind boggling and has awesome scenery. People are warm and affectionate. There is a lot of warmth in Africa as opposed to what we read and see on television," he said.

"We have had a smooth journey and we got a lot of support from our embassies and government." The expedition comprises of geologists, a seismologist, anthropologist, botanist, zoologists, a medical doctor as well as automotive expert for Indian car maker Mahindra and Mahindra, which donated the three Scorpios vehicles, which the team is using for the tour. The team also met the University of Zimbabwe Vice-Chancellor Prof Levy Nyagura and engaged in discussions with their counterparts in the fields of geology, seismology, anthropology, botany and zoology at the campus.

"We hope that this exchange of knowledge will result in a better understanding of ear thquakes and enable us to play a part in helping to minimise human suffering which is caused by such natural disasters," said Mr Bakshi. Apart from conducting exploratory geological research, the Indian mission aims to study seismic activity in the Indo-African region which results from plate tectonics that cause catastrophic disasters like the recent Kashmir, Gujarat and West Asian earthquakes and the tsunami.

The Great East African Rift Valley is still active as the African continent continues to drift northwards at a rate of 15mm a year, the Indian experts said. "In future, time will come when the Mediterranean Sea will close and Africa will join with Europe. When the two continental plates collide, new mountains will be formed," Mr Bakshi said. He said the low intensity earthquakes Zimbabwe was experiencing were good because they released stored up energy, which could be devastating if this never occurred over time. "If this doesn't happen (low intensity earthquakes), th is stored energy might result in some big eruption in the distant future. If you don't have an earthquake for 100 years or more and if it happens all of a sudden (eruption), more energy is released and this can be disastrous," he said. "So it is important for us to learn from each other and find ways of mitigating the effects on humans."

Dr Trilochan Singh, a geologist, said the team had useful interactions with scientists from various universities in the countries they passed through. "You can't stop an earthquake but we can together as scientists do something to minimise the effects on humans," he said. "Collaboration of scientists is very important and we hope that when India holds the Gondwanaland Conference in future, useful ideas will come up for the benefit of mankind."

After the expedition, the team will compile a report and organise the Gondwanaland Conference, which will bring together scientists from the 17 countries the team toured to share experiences and knowle dge about various issues related to the Indo-African seismic activities. However, it was Dr Singh's presentation, which generated a lot of interest during a discussion forum that was held with Zimbabwean scientists.

His presentatiEgypton covered theoretical background about plate tectonics, assessment and mitigation of natural hazards, planning, disaster preparedness, rehabilitation and resettlement as well as the critical component of research and development. "It is not earthquakes that kill people, it is the man-made structures that kill people," Dr Singh said, highlighting the importance of traditional bamboo-made houses and developing structures that can withstand earthquakes. He said modern architecture, which focused more on stones, bricks and cement rather than traditional building styles, bamboo and wood structures, was killing many people and destroying property when natural disasters like earthquakes struck.

"There is no known scientific way of predicting an earthquake . Disaster preparedness is more important than earthquake predictions," the Indian geologist said. Earthquakes are a sudden phenomenon and seismologists have no way of knowing exactly when or where the next one will hit. Dr Singh said researchers are still studying animals in the hope of discovering what they hear or feel before the earthquakes in order to use that sense as a prediction tool.

He said in China, India, Japan and Russia, the strange antics of animals were helping people to come up with prediction tools. In all these countries, he said, there was peculiar behaviour beforehand including dogs howling in the night mysteriously, caged birds becoming restless, nervous cats and dogs hiding and refusing to eat, snakes leaving their underground places of hibernation prior to tremors and fish becoming agitated and leaping out of water and on to dry land.

Strange behaviour of rats, snakes, birds, cows and horses and mice appearing dazed before earthquakes were also reported and could act as pre-disaster alerts, Dr Singh said. Hens have been reported to lay fewer eggs or no eggs at all, pigs bite each other while bees evacuate their hives in panic minutes before an earthquake. Humans have no sense organ designed to specifically detect terrestrial vibrations.

However, some geologists dismiss these kinds of reports saying it is "the psychological focussing effect' where people remember strange behaviours only after an earthquake or other catastrophe has taken place. If nothing had happened, they contend, people would not have remembered the strange behaviours. Indian scientists and their Zimbabwean counterparts said there was need for further studies to capture the views of many people and encourage large-scale public participation and research to draw meaningful lessons from such kind of observations.

Dr Muchena urged scientists to utilise indigenous knowledge systems as they attempt to find solutions to the problems created by earthquakes. "We have a population that is full of anxiety and questions. We want to allay these fears (about earthquakes)," she said, calling for closer collaboration between Indian and Zimbabwean scientists. The Gondwanaland Expedition, which started at the top of the Himalayas and ends at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, in all ways, was about the need for closer south-south co-operation among developing world scientists and the sharing of knowledge critical in finding answers to the problems facing developing countries.

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