Chiang Rai School fortifies quake defences

Chiang Rai School fortifies quake defences

Fixing the faults: Prof Pennung Warnitchai, head of the development programme. (Photo: Thanachai Saengjan)
Fixing the faults: Prof Pennung Warnitchai, head of the development programme. (Photo: Thanachai Saengjan)

Three years ago, Chiang Rai experienced one of the most powerful earthquakes in the country's recorded history. The 6.3-magnitude quake shook Phan district in 2014, leaving several unreinforced buildings damaged, with some entirely demolished.

Three years later, a school building located approximately 50 kilometres from the epicentre of the 2014 quake now has reinforced pillars to ensure safety for its students and staff.

Chumchon Ban Pong School, located in tambon Ban Pong in Chiang Rai's Mae Suai district, is one of four schools included in a non-profit project to create a safe environment for locals in areas in earthquake-prone areas.

The pro bono effort is being overseen and implemented by organisations from Thailand and Singapore. It aims to serve as a demonstration to government and private organisations that reinforcing buildings to withstand earthquakes can be done at a relatively low cost, said Assoc Prof Sutat Leelatavivat, head of the civil engineering department at King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi.

An active member of the project, Mr Sutat said that the reinforcements mainly involved strengthening the school building's pillars in order to minimise swaying in the case that a powerful earthquake occurs.

"The technology is not overly complicated, and can be replicated after the training [of engineers] has been conducted," Mr Sutat said. "We hope that this structure will serve as a reference point for government and private organisations to make further developments."

According to him, Chumchon Ban Pong School building's structure is similar to that of several public schools in Thailand. He explained that if other organisations can see that these buildings can be reinforced to withstand earthquakes more efficiently, further reinforcements will be more likely in the future.

The remaining three schools under the development programme are located in Chiang Rai's Mae Chan district and Chiang Mai's Muang district (amounting to two in Chiang Rai and two in Chiang Mai in total). At present, the two schools in Chiang Mai are awaiting reinforcement.

Holding up: Pilllars of Chumchon Ban Pong School during the construction process. (Photo courtesy of the Thailand Research Fund)

As for the selection process of the project's schools, Mr Sutat said that the project used research by the Thailand Research Fund to select the four schools based on their proximity to active fault lines and similarity in building structure.

Mr Sutat said that each school under the development programme will use around one to 1.5 million baht for construction and reinforcement.

Temasek Foundation International, a non-profit organisation under Temasek Holdings in Singapore, was the main sponsor in generating funds for the project.

According to Gerald Yeo, Temasek Foundation International's director of programmes and partnerships, the foundation has spent an estimated US$430,000 on earthquake safety in Thailand. The expenses also include training programmes for 60 engineers in order to transfer know-how for the project's development. Statistics provided by the Department of Mineral Resources say that there are currently 14 areas in Thailand with active fault lines, with the majority situated in the North and West, located close to each other. Areas located over these fault lines, such as Chiang Rai, are more prone to earthquakes.

The development project's head, Prof Pennung Warnitchai, said that the fault lines running under Thailand's northern and western regions have the potential to cause more than 7-magnitude earthquakes. He has been studying earthquake patterns in the country for over 20 years, and is currently head of the civil and infrastructure engineering department at the Asian Institute of Technology.

He added that projects such as these are necessary for the safety of people in these areas. "We are under the wrong assumption that the buildings we construct can withstand earthquakes," said Mr Pennung. "We used to think that disasters like the one in 2014 would not occur in Thailand, but public and local perspectives changed once the quake actually struck."

Mr Sutat said that the locals in Ban Pong are currently living near the epicentre of the 2014 quake, adding that many are aware of the risk involved in living in the area.

A local at tambon Bang Pong, who has a grandchild currently enrolled in Chumchon Ban Pong School, recalled his experience of the quake three years ago. "The houses were shaking from side to side," he said. "Some houses didn't have cracks afterwards, but I remember feeling the actual quakes."

However, he said that some locals are still unaware of the development programme.

"Of course the programme is good for us, but some locals aren't exactly enthusiastic about it at the moment," he said. "Some don't see the project's importance, but some understand its purpose."

Organisations taking part in the project include the Asian Institute of Technology, Temasek Foundation International, Nanyang Technological University, King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, Chiang Mai University, the Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning and the Thailand Research Fund.

Fresh foundations: Students at school during the building's opening ceremony on Thursday. The building is located around 50 kilometres from the epicentre of the 2014 quake. (Photo: Om Jotikasthira)

Starting small: A small-scale model of an earthquake-resistant school. (Photo: Thanachai Saengjan)

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