[OPINION] We need an earthquake early warning system in the country

After several years of relative calm, the ground under our country has recently been more capricious. Since last year, virtually the entire country has been struck by earthquakes that sowed fear among the populace.

Last April, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake hit Zambales, and was felt as far as the national capital. It damaged dozens of buildings and even caused a portion of the Clark International Airport check-in area to collapse. The shockwaves even hit the world of social media, thanks to viral videos of water from swimming pools of high-rise buildings spilling from the sky. This was the first earthquake that made me fearful, as I myself saw the shadow of our house’s chandelier moving as the ground shook. 

Very recently, we had a series of earthquakes in Mindanao that woke people from their beds and forced employees to evacuate their buildings. This week, a strong one hit Cotabato province around 95 kilometers from Davao City. Cotabato houses 1.6 million people. Dozens of citizens, including school children, were injured, and many of buildings suffered structural damage. A building in Davao, Felcris Centrale, had a scary-looking crack running through its façade. The building, a friend living in the area said, houses one of the country’s biggest call centers with hundreds of agents presumably working at any given time. 

And who could forget the 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Japanese earthquakes, as well as the killer tsunamis that killed thousands and obliterated billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and property?  

Our country lies in the Pacific Ring of Fire – a region in the Pacific Ocean covering Asia, Oceania, and the Americas where most tectonic activities occur dozens of times a day. Most are benign while others, like the ones we had this year, can be felt and cost human lives. Furthermore, the Philippines is also placed where more than 20 typhoons hit per year. Our nation, it turns out, is like a sitting duck waiting for disaster to strike from the air or underground. (READ: MAP: Strongest earthquakes in the Philippines)

This begs the question: Why don’t we have a comprehensive early warning system in the first place?  

The Japanese earthquake early warning system  

I won't dwell on the basics of disaster early warning systems such as Doppler radars and seismographs. They are already a given and I trust that the government is already working hard to expand their use. And, no, I won't comment about last year's nagging texts from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) that were hours late.

Instead, I wish to talk about the earthquake early warning system that is currently deployed in Japan. I cannot provide very specific details nor vouch for total and absolute accuracy here, for I am not a seismologist based there. My only intention in this article is to give my dear readers a general idea of how it works and express my hope that we can have something similar in the future. 

Can earthquakes be predicted? 

Yes, but only a few seconds in advance. Unlike what most people think, an earthquake is actually made up of two kinds of waves: P-waves and S-waves. The Primary Wave travels faster than the Secondary Wave in the Earth’s crust, with the latter delayed from anywhere between 10 to 90 seconds. It is the S-Wave that could be deadly. Luckily, the P-Wave is mostly not harmful and can be detected by seismographs. This is where early warning begins. 

In Japan, if a P-Wave hits at least two of the more than 4,000 seismographs scattered there, computers in the Japan Meteorological Agency automatically calculates the epicenter, strength, and depth of the earthquake, including the areas it will hit, plus if there would be a tsunami. The information is then relayed to the citizens almost instantaneously, providing them precious seconds to execute life-saving actions such as avoiding tall structures, hiding under a sturdy table, or running away from the coastline. 

How the Japanese people receive warnings

Since the 2000s, all phones made in Japan are required to be Cell Broadcast System-capable, allowing alerts to be pushed when needed. This was developed by leading networks NTT Docomo and Softbank, which proves that the private sector can contribute to saving people’s lives. Foreign-made phones are exempt from this requirement but Apple volunteered to participate back in 2011.

Alerts are shown as soon as an earthquake is predicted. Elsewhere on the planet, some apps can show alerts and even visualization of the earthquakes happening around the world. Continuous internet connection is required, though, which is a constant challenge in a country like the Philippines, which has one of the worst data services in the region. Nonetheless, with smartphones ubiquitously present in every Filipino’s hands these days, I believe this is one of the most effective ways to warn people before disaster strikes. (READ: CHECKLIST: What should households prepare for an earthquake?)

On television in Japan, an automatic message also pops up with a highly recognizable tune warning viewers of an upcoming earthquake. TV stations then interrupt regular programming to provide updates on the strength of the earthquake per region and remind the people of what they should do. Warnings are broadcast in multiple languages sometimes. If a tsunami is predicted, broadcasting is also completely stopped and is replaced by a map of Japan showing which coastlines are most likely to be hit, together with a high-pitched beeping sound.

Radio is fast becoming obsolete in this rapidly digitizing world. However, far-flung places in the provinces still rely on them as their primary source of information and this could prove life-saving in the mountains where landslides are most likely to occur. The Japanese early warning system also provides similar automated messages to radios and even trigger a loud sound to those in sleep mode. 

Despite these seemingly high-tech innovations, the system is not without fail. Several times in the past, the earthquake early warning system either under- or over-estimated the strength and location of an earthquake. Sometimes, it became too paranoid and warned the Japanese of a quake when there was none. Furthermore, the extra time it provides to seek cover diminishes the closer one is to the epicenter. 

However, the Japanese early warning system still has a remarkable success rate of around 75%, depending on the year. The extra seconds it provides to the Japanese people before a quake strikes must have saved countless lives. And an overly paranoid warning system is still better than where there is none once real danger strikes.

Where should we go from here?  

Our government should partner with our Japanese friends to aggressively implement the same countermeasures against earthquakes and, perhaps, even typhoons. If the Japanese government can donate ships and planes to us, I am confident that they will also be willing to share their technological know-how on early warning systems. For this, I thank the Japanese people and their government in advance. Arigatōgozaimashita!

The government should judiciously rethink providing billions again for “intelligence funds,” the details of which are still shady, but instead allot the money to things that directly benefit the lives of the people. A few years back, a Department of Science and Technology (DOST) official said in an interview that their forecasters are leaving the agency to seek better opportunities abroad, leaving the department and the people it serves with fewer heroes. They also complained of having little funds to expand the network of equipment to accurately forecast typhoons (and, I guess, earthquakes). Bam Aquino’s Balik Scientist and Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Acts signed by former President Benigno Aquino III are a great start. (READ: IN PHOTOS: Mindanao earthquake's trail of damage)

With such a disaster-prone country like ours, deploying a future-proof disaster early warning system is no longer a choice but a necessity to survive. – Rappler.com

Rob Julian M. Maghinang is a proud Iskolar ng Bayan from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Manila. His opinions are his alone and does not represent any of the organizations he is affiliated with. He dedicates this piece to his friend Chema in Davao City.