Thai society responds to earthquakes with knee-jerk reactions but with flash-in-the-pan attention given.
A glaring example was the earthquake on Nov 17 that grabbed media headlines for a couple of days. The reaction was predictable, with the media quoting experts telling the public not to panic and urging the government to be serious about safety.
However, because earthquakes are not top of the list of priority natural disasters in Thailand, a warning like this will rarely see meaningful action.
The recent quake in Myanmar's Shan state was felt in some high-rise buildings in Bangkok, 700 kilometres away. Yet, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) could not tell what percentage of Bangkok's 10,000 high-rise buildings were built with earthquake-proof features.
It would not be a surprise if the BMA had never audited these buildings at all.
Earthquakes are a relatively nascent science in Thailand, unlike in countries at higher risk, such as Japan. The Earthquake Research Center of Thailand (Earth), the country's first research body on earthquakes, only started operations early this year.
The first law on earthquake-proof building design was passed 25 years ago and covered a few hundred buildings higher than 15 stories in at-risk zones in the rural northern and western provinces.
It was only a decade later that buildings in Bangkok and its surrounding areas were required to have mandatory earthquake-proof designs.
An update in 2021 stipulates certain criteria to boost safety in buildings and public infrastructure in 43 provinces.
This existing law is not enough to improve the quality of structures in dealing with earthquakes. This law has no retroactive effect, so old buildings that were built prior to it were spared. Designing and building quake-proof features should be 15% of the construction cost.
Currently, developers are forced to design and build quake-proof structures, but the country lacks follow-up campaigns to check on the state of buildings.
Government agencies such as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and the Royal Irrigation Department have not revealed information about earthquake testing to the public. Several decades ago, these agencies built hydropower dams and large reservoirs on active faults.
The main question is, what should be the rationale response? The answer is priority setting.
There is no need for the authorities to go into panic mode, forcing all buildings to refit with quake-proof features. Earthquakes are a complicated science, as risks can vary depending on the type of geology and soil.
So, instead of offering a single-bullet solution, the government must identify areas most vulnerable and focus on those highly vulnerable.
Earth just started testing structures in at-risk areas in the rural North and West and found that hundreds of low-rise schools in the northern provinces would be mostly affected if quakes hit, according to Prof Pennung Warnitchai, director of Earth.
The problem is that national and local officials do not earmark enough budget to help these schools upgrade their buildings.
This policy must change. Instead of approving budgets for fancy sports stadiums or pricey solar-cell electric poles, the government must pay attention to the safety of buildings and provide appropriate financial help and resources.