Uganda ill-prepared for a major earthquake

Three moderate earthquakes shook Uganda's Albertine region this week, causing little damage but raising concern about the quake-prone country's preparedness in the event of major seismic activity.

According to Uganda’s Department of Geological Survey and Mines,  in the Ministry of Energy and Minerals, the first of the three quakes - with a magnitude of 5.2 - occurred on the afternoon of 2 July, while a second, measuring 5.4, occurred late in the evening on 3 July. A third, measuring 5.7 and described by seismologists as "dangerous", took place at 01:22 am on 4 July.

The tremors were felt mainly in Kampala, Hoima and Kagadi in midwestern Uganda and in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre and

Experts say a quake of 5.7 magnitude is capable of considerable damage, especially in built-up urban areas. However, no major incidents were reported in the Lake Albert region, the epicentre of an earthquake.


"This is an area of seismic activity. The occurrence was due to weakness of the earth faults, which resulted to faulting," Fred Tugume, the principal geophysicist in the Department of Geological Survey and Mines, told IRIN. Faulting is a sudden lateral or vertical movement of rock along the earth's surface.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about the possible environmental impact of ongoing oil drilling around Lake Albert, the epicentre of the earthquake. However, Ugandan authorities insist the earthquakes and the oil activities are unrelated. Oil companies exploring in the area say oil can be safely extracted with minimal harm to the environment.

"Earthquakes have been there. We live with them. However, this repeated occurrence is worrying. We are going to analyse the phenomena and see why," Tugume added.

Little effort has been made to educate the population on proper actions to take in the event of an earthquake, despite experiencing some two dozen moderate earthquakes over the last decade. Uganda's government only recently established an Emergency Coordination and Operation Centre, but officials say it lacks funding, equipment and personnel to deal with major disasters.


"Right now, as a country, we don't have the capacity and capability to handle any bigger disasters. We are still developing that capacity and ability to… help us to respond appropriately to any disaster and emergency which occurs in the country," Maj Gen Julius Oketta, national coordinator of the Emergency Coordination and Operation Centre, told IRIN.

"If a disaster was to occur now, we have to depend on the equipment and personnel from the military, the police, the Red Cross and the Ministry of Works," he added.

Critics say the government's poor record in handling disasters does not inspire confidence in its ability to successfully manage a disaster or control the levels of human suffering caused by a major quake. "Of course the government doesn't have the capacity and ability to handle emergencies. We have seen it failing in handling the landslides, fire outbreaks and epidemic outbreaks in the country," said John Ken Lukyamuzi, an opposition legislator.

Training, building codes, equipment

The UN's International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) has standardized guidelines for search and rescue missions following disasters that may cause buildings to collapse; these provide advice on preparedness, response and post-disaster activities. INSARAG recommends countries host awareness training courses for disaster managers at all administrative levels, but Ugandan officials say none of the country's officials have been trained.

Musa Ecweru, Uganda's state minister for relief, disaster preparedness stressed the need for construction to take the potential for earthquakes into consideration. "Uganda is very prone to earthquakes... All the buildings must meet the basic and international standards so that when a major earthquake occurs, we don't lose many people," he said.

Building codes in Uganda are often not strictly adhered to, with numerous collapses occurring - even in the highly populated capital, Kampala - as a result of poor construction.

Ecweru said the US government had agreed to train two Ugandan army and police battalions in search and rescue operations, as well as earthquake and fire outbreak responses. The government also plans to purchase life-locator cameras from Israel to assist in search and rescue operations.

"We are going to procure [this] equipment to enhance the abilities of army, police and our rescue team to perform their extrications faster and safer," he said. "My ministry will carry out drills on emergency response to prepare and equip people with skills in responding to emergencies like earthquakes, fire outbreaks and collapsing buildings."