NATURAL DISASTERS IN MYANMAR: EARTHQUAKES, VOLCANOES AND THE 2004 TSUNAMI

VOLCANOES IN MYANMAR

Myanmar has a few active volcanoes related to the subduction of the Indo-Pacific under the Eurasian tectonic plate. Singu Volcano, or better the Singu Plateau (also known as Letha Taung) is a young lava plateau of basaltic-trachyandesite lava in north-central Burma, north of the city of Mandalay. Eruptions less than 10,000 years ago produced large lava flows from a series of fissure vents. The flows cover an area of about 62 square kilometers. [Source: volcanodiscovery.com /*\]

The Lower Chindwin volcano is a field of 7 or 8 explosion craters along the lower Chindwin River in central Myanmar. Most cones and lava flows are older than 10,000 years, but a very young-looking basalt flow forms a plateau north of Thayet-Pingan. The volcano belongs to the Burma volcanic arc west of the Sagaing-Namyin Fault. The field contains various lava compositions from rhyolitic, dacitic, andesitic to olivine basaltic rocks. Cones and craters include Wazin Taung (366 m), Natyin Taung (237 m), Minma (200 m), Letpadaung Taung (322 m), Okpo Hill (272 m), Ywatha (122 m), lake-filled Taungbyauk crater (198 m), lake-filled Twindaung crater (231 m), lake-filled Songyuang crater. /*\

Mt. Popa volcano is a large stratovolcano at the northern end of the Pegu Yoma Hills range in central Burma. The steep-sided volcano rises 1150 meters from its base of a surrounding lava plateau. It had an eruption in or around 442 B.C., which is preserved in local legends. The main edifice of Mt Popa consists of overlapping basaltic and basaltic-andesite lava flows, tephra layers and scoria deposits from strombolian eruptions, which seem to have prevailed during the later stages of its formation. Mount Popa contains a 1.6-km-wide, 850-m-deep horseshoe-shaped caldera that is widely breached to the NW and formed as a result of slope failure. A 3 cu km debris-avalanche deposit covers an area of 27 sq km north of the breach. /*\

In February 2007, Earthweek reported: “Nagadaung volcano erupted with a plume of ash and hot gases that soared high above an island in Arakan state in western Myanmar, according to regional media. Eyewitnesses say the volcano began erupting at 11:30 a.m. local time and was active for only ten minutes. The volcano is located about one mile north of Sit Taung Village in the Kyauk Pru district. Local Arakanese people call the mountain "Nagadaung", which translates to "Dragon Mountain" in English. The Narinjara news agency reports the volcano last erupted just prior to the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and Tsunami. [Source: Earthweek, February 23, 2007]

See Separate Articles of Cyclones, Floods and Cyclone Nargis

Earthquakes

Various parts of Burma-Myanmar have been periodically struck by earthquakes. The historicL capital of Ava was almost completely destroyed by earthquake in 1838. Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago has been rebuilt several times following great earthquakes, the most recent in 1930. Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay (285 kilometers north of Yangon on the east side of the Irrawaddy river) suffered serious damage and destruction caused by seven major earthquakes in the period from A.D. 1054 to 1850: in A.D. 1054, 1394, 1512, 1564, 1596, 1773 and 1783.

Pagan has been struck by numerous earthquakes, including a huge one in 1975 that destroyed and damaged many temples, stupas and buildings in the ancient city. The 180-foot-stupa at Gawdwapalin, one of the largest and most imposing temples at Pagan, for example, collapsed.. Earthquakes over the centuries have destroyed more temples at Pagan than another source. The buildings are restored by placing iron ties inside the bricks so that don't collapse during an earthquake. The plus side of the 1975 earthquake is that it revealed many hidden artistic treasures. Inside cracked open Buddhist images, for example, were beautiful paintings and sculptures that had not been seen in since they were sealed inside the images 900 years ago.

Strong Earthquake Strikes Myanmar in 2012

In November 2012, Aye Aye of Associated Press wrote: “A strong earthquake collapsed a bridge and damaged ancient Buddhist pagodas in northern Burma, and piecemeal reports from the underdeveloped mining region said mines collapsed and as many as 12 people were feared dead. A slow release of official information left the actual extent of the damage form magnitude-6.8 quake unclear. Authorities searched for four missing workers near the collapsed bridge over the Irrawaddy River in Kyaukmyaung.The official tally overall is six killed and 64 injured, while independently compiled tallies say about a dozen people died. [Source: Aye Aye Win, AP, November 12, 2012 /|\]

“An extremely dangerous shallow (10 kilometers) magnitude earthquake occurred in the morning at 07:42 local time and was felt all over the country and in Thailand and parts of China. The epicenter was 52 kilometers northeast of from Shwebo, Sagaing, "We have been told by the director of Relief and Resettlement Department that there were seven dead and 45 injured as of late Sunday evening. The figure could fluctuate," said Ashok Nigam, the U.N. development program's resident representative. He told The Associated Press that U.N. agencies had offered aid but "no formal request has been made yet." /|\

“Burma's second-biggest city of Mandalay is the nearest population center to the main quake but reported no casualties or major damage. Mandalay lies about 117 kilometers (72 miles) south of the epicenter near the town of Shwebo, and the smaller towns in the area that is a center for mining of minerals and gemstones were worse hit. State media said damage included 102 homes, 21 religious buildings, 48 government offices and four schools in the town of Thabeikyin. The gold-mining town is near the epicenter and had three dead and 35 injured. /|\

The U.S. Geological Society reported a 5.8-magnitude aftershock the same day. State television warned residents that aftershocks usually follow a major earthquake and told people to stay away from high walls, old buildings and structures with cracks in them. Many people in Burma are superstitious, and it is likely that soothsayers will point out that the quake occurred on the 11th day of the 11th month. State television also reported that the tremors shifted the Mingun Bell, which people in Burma claim is the world's largest functioning bell, off its base. The nearly 4-meter-high (12-foot-high) bell, which weighs in at 90 metric tons (200,000 pounds), was installed in 1810 and is a popular tourist attraction at a pagoda outside Mandalay. /|\

The epicenter was in a region frequently hit by small temblors that usually cause little damage. It was about 400 kilometers from the complex tectonic border with the Himalaya and 200 kilometers east of the tectonic plate boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plate. The quake occurred at the intersection of 2 important regional fault lines, the Shan Fault (which caused the 1912 quake) and the Sagaing fault (1931 and 1956 quakes).

Damage and Deaths from the 2012 Earthquake in Myanmar

Aye Aye of Associated Press wrote: “The biggest single death toll was reported by a local administrative officer in Sintku township — on the Irrawaddy River near the quake's epicenter — who told The Associated Press that six people had died there and another 11 were injured. He said some of the dead were miners who were killed when a gold mine collapsed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because local officials are normally not allowed to release information to the media. Rumors circulated in Yangon of other mine collapses trapping workers, but none of the reports could be confirmed. [Source: Aye Aye Win, AP, November 12, 2012 /|\]

“According to news reports, several people died when a bridge under construction across the Irrawaddy River collapsed east of Shwebo. The bridge linked the town of Sintku, 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Mandalay on the east bank of the Irrawaddy, with Kyaukmyaung on the west bank. The website of Weekly Eleven magazine said four people were killed and 25 injured when the bridge, which was 80 percent finished, fell. The local government announced a toll of two dead and 16 injured. All of the victims appeared to be workers. However, a Shwebo police officer said just one person was confirmed dead from the bridge's collapse, while five were still unaccounted for. Weekly Eleven also said two monasteries in Kyaukmyaung collapsed, killing two people. "This is the worst earthquake I felt in my entire life," Soe Soe, a 52-year-old Shwebo resident, told the Associated Press by phone. She said that the huge concrete gate of a local monastery collapsed and that several sculptures from another pagoda in the town were damaged. /|\

“Other damage was reported in Mogok, a major gem-mining area just east of the quake's epicenter. Temples were damaged there, as were some abandoned mines. "Landslides occurred at some old ruby mines, but there were no casualties because these are old mines," Sein Win, a Mogok resident, said by phone. State television reported that more than a dozen pagodas and stupas in five townships were damaged, and many of them had their so-called "umbrellas" atop the dome-shaped structures crash down. The uppermost parts of the domes usually contain encased relics of the Buddha and small Buddha images, and sometimes jewels. Damage to them is taken as an especially bad omen. Sein Win said police were guarding a damaged stupa in Mogok and its exposed relics. /|\

“A resident of Naypyitaw, which is 365 kilometers (225 miles) south of the quake's epicenter, said several windowpanes of the parliament building had broken. The quake was felt in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand. Residents of Mandalay contacted by phone said they were fearful of more aftershocks because the city has modern high-rise buildings that could trap people, unlike the mostly small structures in the areas worst hit on Sunday. "We are afraid that another earthquake might shake at night," said Thet Su, a journalist in Mandalay. "I told my parents to run out of the house if another earthquake shook." /|\

2011 Myanmar Earthquake

In March 2011, 6.8 magnitude quake near Tachileik, a town near the Thai border in the east of Shan State, killed 74 people and injured 111 according to initial reports (later reports said 151 were killed and 212 were injured) . The earthquake lasted for one minute and was felt in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, China, Vietnam. The epicenter was 10 kilometers below the earth’s surface. It had two aftershocks, one of magnitude 4.8, another at magnitude 5.4 and two subsequent shock at magnitude 5.0 and 6.2. At least one bridge is reported collapsed in Myanmar. In total, 390 residential homes, 14 monasteries and 9 government buildings were destroyed. In Monglin, at least 128 homes were reduced to rubble. According to the United States Geological Survey's population exposure data, the final damages from the earthquake are most likely to be slightly under USD $100 million.

AFP and the China Daily reported: “Tremors were felt as far away as Bangkok, almost 800 kilometers from the epicenter, Hanoi and parts of China when the earthquake, which the US Geological Survey measured at magnitude 6.8, hit. An official from Myanmar said that 74 people were killed and 110 were injured in five areas that were close to the epicenter. More than 240 buildings had collapsed. "We are trying to reach the remote areas," the official said. "The military, police and local authorities are trying to find some people injured in the affected areas, but the roads are still closed." Across the border, Thai authorities said that a 52-year-old woman was killed in Mae Sai district after a wall in her house collapsed. [Source: AFP, China Daily, March 26, 2011 >>]

“Terrified residents across the region fled their homes, as tall buildings swayed and hospitals and schools were evacuated. In Yangon, Chris Herink, country director for the charity World Vision, said there did not appear to be "catastrophic infrastructure damage" in the affected areas of Kengtung and Tachileik, although buildings were cracked and water supplies were disrupted in some parts. "Of real concern though are the more rural areas. There will be more, I am afraid to say, unhappy information coming throughout the day," he said. "It is a hilly area near the border between Thailand and Laos, the so-called Golden Triangle. There is a lot of commerce that goes on in the area." >>

The earthquake occurred in an area of complex tectonics caused by the continuing collision between the northward moving Indo-Australian Plate and the Eurasian Plate, which created the Arakan Yoma mountains. In this zone of highly oblique collision, most of the motion is accommodated by the north-south trending Sagaing fault, a major dextral (right lateral) strike-slip fault that runs through the western and central part of Burma. The remaining component of shortening across this zone causes distributed deformation of eastern Burma and Thailand extending into Laos. This deformation is partly accommodated by a set of southwest-northeast trending sinistral (left lateral) strike-slip faults. The faults closest to the epicenter of the earthquake are the Mae Chan and Nam Ma faults. The focal mechanism for this earthquake is consistent with left-lateral movement on one of these faults, away from the main zones of seismic activity in Burma. Other recent significant earthquakes in this area included the 2011 Yunnan earthquake and the 2007 Laos earthquake. According to the Earth Observatory of Singapore, it appears likely that the earthquake was caused by motion on the western segment of the Nan Ma Fault. [Source: Wikipedia]

Early reports suggested that at least 10 people were killed by quake-triggered landslides in the town of Tachileik, including a child, as well as Tarpin to its north, both in Shan State, northeastern Burma. Another person was killed in Mae Sai, Thailand, near the Burmese border. At least three injuries were reported in Burma. After sunrise, the casualty toll increased to 24 in Burma, in addition to the one fatality in Thailand. Officials warned that the death toll is likely to rise. Later, death toll rose to 74 killed in Burma and 1 in Thailand, while 111 people were injured. In Tarlay, located between Tachileik and Mong Hpyak, at least 40 were killed when 130 houses collapsed. Vertical displacement of 1.5 meters in subsidence was observed in the area. The Bangkok Post reported on 27 March 2011 that the death toll was "over 150", which is double the official figure of 75. +

Effects of 2011 Myanmar Earthquake in Thailand and China

The quake's epicenter was 70 miles (110 km) from the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, north of Mae Sai and southeast of Kentung. Temporary evacuations of tall buildings took place in Chiang Rai, Menghai County in Yunnan, Nanning in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and in Hanoi of Vietnam.

AFP and the China Daily reported: The March 2011 “earthquake struck 235 kilometers north-northeast of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city and a popular tourist destination. Thailand's meteorological department said on Friday that it had registered six large aftershocks following the initial quake. Residents in Chiang Rai raced from their homes again as another large tremor shook the ground. Four pagodas in the historic town of Chiang Saen near the northern Thai border were damaged, including Wat Chedi Luang, where its three-meter long pinnacle crashed to the ground. [Source: AFP, China Daily, March 26, 2011 >>]

“The shaking was felt throughout China's southwestern province of Yunnan, which affected about 6,560 people in 23 counties across Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, leaving 5,110 rooms damaged, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The fear of aftershocks forced many people in the area to spend the night outdoors. Xu Ming, a 24-year-old in Jinghong, the prefecture capital of Xishuangbanna, said that he felt shaking while taking a bath. "I ran out of the house wearing only a bath towel. There are still soap bubbles on my body," he said. >>

“The autonomous prefecture, with about 70 percent of the local residents belonging to the Dai ethnic group, shares a 1,069 kilometers border with Myanmar and Laos. Xu lives on the first floor of a six-storey brick building. "I was the first to run out of the building. Some people ran out dressed in their pajamas or holding their babies," he said. Xu and his parents spent the night crowded together in his car. >>

Ban Mone Earthquake, 2007

An earthquake that measured 7.3 on the Richter scale occurred in a remote area of the Sino-Burmese border near Menglian in 1997.

In May 2007, Myanmar was affected by a powerful earthquake that was felt as far as away as Thailand and Vietnam. The BBC reported: “The quake measured magnitude 6.1 and struck not far from the northern city of Luang Prabang, the US Geological Survey reported. Buildings swayed in both the Thai and Vietnamese capitals. People reportedly fled shopping centres and buildings were evacuated in Bangkok. However, there were no reports of damage or injuries. [Source: BBC, May 16, 2007 <>]

“The earthquake struck 155km (97 miles) west-north-west of Luang Prabang at just before 4:00pm local time, the USGS reported. The epicentre is believed to be in a fairly remote area of western Laos. But it was little felt in Luang Prabang. One resident spoke of feeling "disorientated" for a couple of minutes, while others said they felt little or no shaking. An official in the Laos capital Vientiane said the quake lasted around 10 seconds, and there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage from the area. <>

“But there were scenes of panic in the Thai capital, Bangkok, some 800km (500 miles) south of the quake zone. Many office blocks were swiftly evacuated after the earthquake shook the city, with its occupants gathering in the streets outside. "I have not seen a strong earthquake like this before, my head felt like it was spinning," Nattaya Limngern, a 40-year-old office worker, told the AFP news agency. <>

“The quake was also felt strongly in the area of northern Thailand bordering Laos. Some people were evacuated in the city of Chiang Mai. Officials said they were still checking buildings but had no reports of damage or injuries. Hundreds of kilometres to the east, in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, the quake was felt mostly on the upper floors of high rises. Around 700 people fled Vincom Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city, when it started to sway, a company spokeswoman told the Associated Press. "It was shaking for about three minutes, and I think this was the strongest shaking we have ever felt," Nguyen Thu Lan said. "After the shaking stopped, many people who ran out wouldn't dare to return." <>

A magnitude 4.5 tremor occurred in the immediate region 19-hours prior to this event. The 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred at a depth of 23 kilometers. It was followed by at least one aftershock of magnitude 4.5 at 09:31 UTC. [Source: Amateur Seismic Centre (ASC), Pune, 2013 **]

The earthquake was centered 13.2 kms ENE of Ban Mone (Bekeo Province), Laos, 19.5 kms W of Ban Ta Fa (Bekeo Province), Laos, 38.1 kms WSW of Ban Muang Kan (Chiang Rai Province), Thailand, 56.5 kms ESE of Wan Kawkaw (Shan State), Myanmar, 85.1 kms WNW of Muang Houn (Oudomxai Province), Laos, 92.5 kms SW of Louang Namtha (Louang Namtha Province), Laos, 143 kms NE of Phan (Chiang Rai Province), Thailand, 163 kms WNW of Louangprabhang (Louangprabhang Province), Laos, 258 kms NE of Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai Province), Thailand, 342 kms NW of Vientiane (Viangchan Province), Laos, 385 kms E of Taungyi (Shan State), Myanmar, 539 kms W of Hanoi (Ha Noi Province), Vietnam, 759 kms N of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok, Thailand. **

Impact of the December 2004 Tsunami on Myanmar

Myanmar was not hit as hard as other nations by the catastrophic tsunami that killed 225,000 people—mostly in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka—in December 2004. The death toll in Myanmar was around 50 according to the United Nations, with 3,200 left homeless. The Myanmar government said only 59 died and 45 were injured in the disaster. International aid agencies in the country said that up to 80 people lost their lives.

More Burmese were killed in Thailand by the tsunami than in Myanmar because many Burmese work on the Thai coast in the fishing and shrimp industries. Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “During the 2004 tsunami tragedy, several hundred Burmese workers were killed and missing. But there were no attempts by the Burmese junta to show accountability following repeated requests from the Thai government to allow members of families and relatives to help identify the Burmese victims. Until now, nobody knows the exact number of victims as no claims were made by either the government or individuals. “ [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation November 8, 2010]

In January 2005, Thomas Crampton wrote in the New York Times, “The United Nations has concluded, in a report that damage to Myanmar from the Dec. 26 tsunami was relatively light, with just over 50 people confirmed dead and several thousand in need of assistance. That assessment, based on a compilation of field reports from independent aid agencies in Myanmar, contrasts sharply with losses of life and property in parts of neighboring Thailand, where more than 5,000 people have been confirmed dead. It also contradicts a statement earlier this week by the United Nations World Food Program that probably hundreds of people died in Myanmar and that 30,000 people were in need, estimates the agency revised downward yesterday to up to 60 dead with 10,000 needing help. [Source: Thomas Crampton, New York Times, January 6, 2005 ++]

"Today, for the first time, I can confidently state that the scale of the tsunami's impact on Myanmar was minimal," Charles Petrie, the resident coordinator for the United Nations in Yangon, the capital, said in a telephone interview. "We need to move on to other issues here because there are many more important humanitarian issues to deal with right now. "Obtaining facts about the situation in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been difficult because of censorship of the news media and travel restrictions imposed by the country's military government. Mr. Petrie said distrust of the Burmese government and the discrepancy between its figures and those from nearby countries probably contributed to the much higher early casualty estimates, particularly by some foreign-based opposition groups. But he said he believed that the government's own figures were fairly accurate. Last weekend, the government said there were 59 confirmed dead. "Conjecture fueled by the experiences in neighboring countries created a major and dangerous disconnect with reality. "Mr. Petrie said. "We now hope to get out the correct message that Myanmar can cope with the disaster by reallocating existing resources." ++

Perhaps Myanmar's largest loss of life in a single incident occurred in Kaw Thoung near the Thai border when about 20 people gathered on a bridge stretching across tidal flats to watch the wave. The bridge was entirely swept away, Mr. Styers said. The greatest losses overall may have happened in the heavily populated Irrawaddy River delta. One township, Lapputta, reported 34 dead. Still, the tsunami's impact on Myanmar may not be limited to the damage within the country's borders. Hundreds of Burmese citizens working on Thai fishing vessels may have been killed, according to the United Nations report.

Reason Why There was Relatively Few Dead in the December 2004 Tsunami

Buddhist practice purportedly saved lives in Myanmar'a tsunamis. Kyodo reported: “Hundreds of Myanmar fishermen escaped the deadly tsunamis by sticking to a Buddhist practice, the official daily New Light of Myanmar reported. Myanmar fishermen did not go out for fishing in the sea on Dec. 26 because that day, which is called "Na-daw", is considered an auspicious day for Buddhists in Myanmar, the paper quoted Health Minister Kyaw Myint as saying. Most people on that day try to avoid committing sins such as killing other creatures. "It was one of the reasons why Myanmar had only very minimal damage caused by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunamis," Kyaw Myint said.

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “Though the Myanmar coastline was largely spared by the great tsunami of 2004,” residents of the village of Eya “tell me that it did strike their village. An old woman, her eyes wide, describes the great waves coming and everyone in Eya fleeing inland. "But no one died," she says. "The Lord Buddha protected us." [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]

CNN reported: “Myanmar was "incredibly fortunate" not to have suffered more from the December 26 tsunamis, Joanna MacLean of the International Federation of the Red Cross says "It is really amazing," she said. "I, in fact, was in Thailand at the time and came back immediately afterwards because I feared the worst." MacLean said Myanmar's military government has been cooperative in the wake of the aftermath. She credited Myanmar's rocky shoreline and the angle of the coast with preventing the damage that killed over 5,000 in Thailand and thousands more on India's Andaman Islands, which are about 200 miles (320 km) off the coast of mainland Myanmar. Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta south of Yangon was hit the hardest, MacLean said. However, the loss of life was stemmed, according to eyewitness accounts, because survivors fled for higher ground after the first wave hit. The three waves "were half an hour apart, which meant the people who already saw the first wave and then even saw the second had time to go to the monasteries, which are always on higher ground, and to the schools," MacLean said. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were left homeless, but many have returned to their villages because they fled out of fear. "This is not an emergency situation," she said. [Source: CNN, January 5, 2005]

Commenting on wave modeling by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, Barry Hirshorn, a geophysicist at the center, told the New York Times: "Looking at the north-south fault line, you can clearly see how the waves would be pointed towards Thailand on one side and Sri Lanka on the other," That dynamic is clearly visible on the coast when traveling south on a boat from Myanmar toward Phuket in Thailand, according to Jim Styers, a marine biologist working in the region. [Source: Thomas Crampton, New York Times, January 6, 2005]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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