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The strings of earthquakes that have recently struck in rapid succession across the world have not only

upset those living in the towns and cities within the reach of their shockwave; they have also troubled the imagination of many more. As images of the ensuing chaos in Haiti, Turkey, Chile, and more recently China traveled the globe, those living in other countries where experts soon expect comparable seismic disturbances such as Lebanon are now left to wonder how well they will fare when a comparable calamity comes to their doorstep.

The eastern Mediterranean basin lies next to the boundary between African and Arabian tectonic plates, forming one of the most volatile seismic regions on earth. The Mediterranean has lots of earthquakes especially the eastern Mediterranean because this area is surrounded by major faults.

Lebanon is particularly vulnerable to tremors; it is bisected by the Yammouneh fault and Mount Lebanon Thrust fault lines, which produce hundreds of minute shocks a year. Earthquakes happen everywhere and everyday in Lebanon, most of these are too small for concern around 1,000 times weaker than the last major quake to strike Lebanon, in 1759 at a magnitude of 7.4, which killed tens of thousands of people. In 1956, the 5.7M Chim earthquake caused loss of life and significant material damage. The Yammouneh fault produces major earthquakes about every 1,000 years; the Mount Lebanon Thrust every 1,500 to 1,750 years. But we can have earthquakes before and after these dates and thats the only scientific account we can give of a possibility of earthquakes in the area.

On August 10, 2007, an article published in The Daily Star said that a new underwater survey has revealed that Lebanon lies dangerously close to a fault that could soon generate a catastrophic tsunami. The article quoted a report by Discovery News channel which said that a fault lying just 6.5 kilometers off Lebanons coast caused a tsunami-generating earthquake in 551 AD that razed Beirut to the ground. According to the survey, the fault moves approximately every 1,500 years, meaning a disaster of the same magnitude as the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed coastal cities on July 9, 551, could be due any time.

Can Lebanon's government handle the very real prospect of a major earthquake hitting the country? Surprisingly for a country engaged in almost constant political tensions, Lebanon's next defining challenge may be that of a physical rather than political disaster.

Today Beirut is host to a dense urban population (with almost the highest urbanization rate in the world around 85 percent of the population lives in urban centers), much of which lives in poor quality housing (especially in refugee camps and in the southern suburbs) and on soft, sandy ground near the coast. Such a population environment would be particularly vulnerable to an earthquake. We often hear the argument that since the Lebanese have faced conflicts in the past, they have developed the right reflexes to face catastrophes, but much more needs to be done to raise their awareness on the risks earthquakes entail. People must be conscious of those risks. It will save their lives.

If a powerful earthquake were to hit Beirut it would not distinguish between sect or political party. Yet the capability and preparedness of the Lebanese government to face this challenge is suspect to say the least. Although a landmark public-safety decree set valuable building standards in 2005, in Lebanon there is often a large discrepancy between the law and the levels of its enforcement. The laws for correct construction exist in Lebanon, but the capacity to implement is limited. This is due, in part, to the fact no one can recall a major earthquake or disaster in living memory, so the incentive to construct seismically-sound buildings is just not there. There is also a common misconception that building disaster-proof buildings will be a lot more expensive. Flouting Lebanons construction laws may not bear consequences visible to the naked eye, but for experts, it is only a matter of time before it becomes so.

For those Lebanon watchers who can afford to think strategically rather than tactically, responding to a future natural disaster rather than being bogged down in the ebb and flow of domestic and regional affairs should be a matter of priority.

The current lull in major earthquakes in Lebanon was not uncommon, nor did it mean the areas seismic activity had ceased. The fact that today we are not witnessing major earthquakes is not unusual, but it tells us that maybe the stress is loading and a major earthquake will happen. Maybe we are close to the end of a seismic cycle. Lebanons seven seismic activity monitor centers made it one of the best placed countries in the region to come up with viable methods of reducing earthquake-induced damage. Earthquakes are a natural occurrence we cant prevent, but we can take adequate measures to lessen its damaging impact.

In Lebanon, it is a race against the clock!