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Urban Earthquake Risk Management in Central Asia and Caucasus Region

Location: Kazakhstan
Time frame: 1996

The Problem

As the global population and economy grow, urban areas are also growing more rapidly than ever, especially in developing nations. These cities are in a unique position to make decisions that can reduce their future vulnerability to natural disasters. To implement successful development plans, cities must be able to assess their risk from natural disasters, to predict future risk patterns with and without mitigation efforts, and to track the long-term success of efforts that they do undertake.


Given the huge challenges faced by the five Central Asian republics following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, these republics had made remarkable progress by 1996. New commercial and cultural links between Central Asia and the rest of the world were accelerating the region’s political, social, and economic development.


This progress, however, was jeopardized by the threat of earthquakes. Earthquake activity levels in that region have long been recognized as among the highest in the world, yet by 1996, the ability to manage urban earthquake risk was plummeting as previous support mechanisms collapsed. A major earthquake near a capital city of a Central Asian republic could repeat the catastrophes that befell Armenia in 1988 and Sakhalin in 1995.

  • The Spitak, Armenia earthquake occurred on December 7, 1988 at 11:41 AM. The earthquake measured a moment magnitude of 6.8, and occurred 32 kilometers from Armenia’s second largest city, Leninakan, and within 9 kilometers of the city of Spitak. Of the 700,000 people affected by the earthquake, over 25,000 were killed and 31,000 were injured. The majority of the residents of Spitak died. Due to the widespread collapse of schools and the fact that school was in session when the earthquake struck, more children than adults died.

  • The Sakhalin earthquake occurred on May 28, 1995 at 1:04 AM, beneath the Russian Pacific coastal island of Sakhalin. The earthquake, having a moment magnitude of 7.6, has been called the most devastating tremor in Russian history. The northern Sakhalin city of Neftegorsk was almost completely destroyed. The death toll was over 60% of the city’s residents: 1,825 out of a population of 3,000.

The estimated consequences for all the Central Asian capitals are summarized in the following table:


GHI’s Response

GHI recognized the urgency of addressing Central Asia’s urban earthquake risk and mobilized resources to assess it and to develop a strategy to reduce it. Supported by nearly 20 organizations, GHI and five co-sponsors gathered more than 50 experts in seismology, earthquake resistant design, and emergency response from across Central Asia and around the world for a workshop in Almaty, Kazakstan devoted to developing strategies to manage urban earthquake risk in Central Asia. This was the first meeting of its kind and the first gathering of the Central Asian participants in more than 5 years.


Stunned by the magnitude of the earthquake risk facing the five capital cities, the Central Asian delegates committed to: 1) urge their governments to improve the earthquake safety of schools, hospitals, emergency response agencies, and critical lifeline buildings; 2) initiate cooperative projects in which joint Central Asian and international teams of engineers would design and implement retrofit measures for facilities critical to these communities. This work might be financed by international organizations and would result in a cadre of well-trained local engineers, capable of pursuing similar projects on their own in the future, and; 3) create the Joint Central Asian Urban Earthquake Risk Management Working Group, consisting of the heads of the delegations of the five republics and foreign experts, to promote urban earthquake risk management throughout Central Asia.

Long-Term Outcomes
  • The Working Group, which met July 19-27, 1997 in Istanbul, Turkey, adopted a concrete risk mitigation action plan.

  • GHI has continued to promote earthquake safety with projects in Turkey and Central Asia.

  • Many thousands of citizens in Central Asia are safer today because GHI helped local experts to motivate them to address their earthquake risk.

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