Web Extra Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Unnecessary devastation in Iran

More than 25,000 people died in Bam, after the 6.6-magnitude earthquake that struck Iran on Dec. 26, and the death count increases as more bodies are recovered. About 85 percent of the city's structures, made of mud brick and cement, collapsed. A fortress that stood above the city for two millennia now looks like "a sand castle hit by a huge wave," according to one New York Times reporter.

Two people died last week in Paso Robles, Calif., in the aftermath of a 6.5-magnitude earthquake. Only one building in Paso Robles was destroyed.

While residents in California have come to expect that their buildings will survive an earthquake, Iranians continue to suffer terribly from quakes that shake their country. As in other less developed countries with skyrocketing urban centers, untrustworthy construction has led to high numbers of deaths. In the case of Bam, the 10-kilometer-deep earthquake struck at about 5:30 a.m., catching residents asleep inside their poorly built homes. The style of construction led to collapses with very few pockets of space in which people might survive.

Brian Tucker of GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization working to reduce earthquake risks in India and Central Asia, argues that large earthquakes do not have to unfold that way. "We can prevent earthquake disasters," he wrote in an editorial published today in the Washington Post. "Risk reduction is the only sustainable, affordable and effective solution to the problem of earthquake disasters."

Since 1950, the percentage of the world's population that is threatened by earthquake hazards has almost doubled, according to GeoHazards research, using United Nations data. But most of those who are at risk — well over 80 percent — live in developing countries. The average number of deaths caused by a "fatal earthquake" in a developing country is over 10,000. Earthquake research has not helped these poorer countries. In the meantime, developed countries, which build to codes and educate their citizens about potential earthquake hazards, lose fewer and fewer people to similar-sized events.

"Things are getting worse fast," Tucker said, in a talk he gave at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco earlier this month. Assam, India, for example, has three times the population it did several decades ago, but 30 times the risk of death for inhabitants of the city, mostly because of poorly constructed buildings, sometimes perched precariously on hillsides.

The Dec. 26 earthquake has left Bam without infrastructure and heavily reliant on international aid to rebuild. Tucker argues that here is an opportunity to educate Iranians about earthquake risks and to ensure that reconstruction is done in an earthquake-safe manner.

"This is the time to train a new generation of masons on how to do things right," Tucker wrote in his editorial. "This should be a requirement of all reconstruction projects funded by regional banks or national and international aid organizations."

Naomi Lubick


Read about Tucker and GeoHazards International's projects in Central Asia and India in Geotimes (October 2002) and on the organization's Web site (GeoHazards International).
Tucker's Washington Post editorial
Click here for more information on the Southeastern Iran earthquake, or visit the USGS earthquakes Web site.

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