“Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings do.” Unpacked in simple English, that old, familiar saying among seismologists simply means that the solution to minimising deaths in earthquakes is to have appropriate building codes and to enforce them. If buildings in an earthquake-prone area are constructed to withstand the shaking, then the people inside are much safer. If not, many people could die.
The old refrain has got a new lease of life, especially in quake-ravaged Turkey, which along with Syria, was hit by a devastating earthquake earlier this month.
The tale of death and devastation continues.
In Turkey alone, more than 35,000 have lost their lives; thousands of buildings are completely crushed and toppled. There is anger on the streets.
“Collapsed buildings reminded the government of the need for stricter construction rules”, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a televised speech this week. He added that his government would work until the last person was rescued from the ruins in the quake-hit terrain.
But it is impossible to blur the backstory, which goes back to what is referred to as “construction amnesty” or “zoning amnesty”. In Turkey, amnesty can be granted to buildings even if they do not comply with the building codes. Such amnesties have been granted many times in the country’s past, chiefly for political and economic reasons.
The last such “construction amnesty” in Turkey was accepted by the government in May 2018, a little over a month before the 2018 presidential election. That amnesty subsequently became a law. More than seven million buildings benefited from the most recent construction pardon issued in 2018, shortly before the presidential and parliamentary elections. Out of this, around 5.8 million of them are residential ones.
Many urban planners in Turkey criticised such construction amnesties.
But what then appeared to be a populist move is now a hot button political issue that is likely to surface in the presidential election in Turkey scheduled this summer.
President Erdogan faces a volley of questions for overseeing the 2018 amnesty programme that papered over faults in millions of buildings across Turkey. Today, the Turkish government is in damage-control mode. In recent days, officials have detained or issued arrest warrants for some 130 people allegedly involved in shoddy and illegal construction.
But the wider question about the long-term impacts of regularising poor construction practices or defying warnings about outright violations of building codes in fragile terrain refuses to go away.
What lessons must India learn from Turkey’s tragedy? The danger of legalising shoddy construction in a seismic zone has always been known. Turkey offers the latest proof of what happens when you ignore this fundamental truth.
India’s hazard profile shows that about 59 per cent of the country’s area is vulnerable to moderate to major earthquakes. What does that mean for a country on an infrastructure-building spree? Here are some insights from an official report. The Earthquake Disaster Risk Index Report, a publication of the National Disaster Management Authority (September 2019), starts with drawing attention to some well-known facts -- “It is evident from past earthquakes such as Manipur (2016), Nepal (2015), Sikkim (2011), Kashmir (2005), Bhuj (2001), Chamoli (1999), Jabalpur (1997) and Latur (1993) that all type of buildings sustain damage, if not designed properly. The experiences of these earthquakes have demonstrated that many typical buildings of different types have sustained significant damage in these earthquakes. More than 90 per cent of the casualties in past earthquakes in India have occurred due to collapse of houses and structures.”
The Earthquake Disaster Risk Index (EDRI) for 50 cities and one district on a pilot basis noted that “loss of life and property can be minimised significantly by ensuring better code compliance of upcoming constructions and undertaking seismic retrofitting of existing buildings, thereby making them earthquake resilient”.
That is easier said than done. Many experts have repeatedly pointed out that the rapid urbanisation of Indian cities in recent few decades has put huge pressure on the housing industry. “This fast pace of construction with limited and non-holistic planning has led to unregulated development of low-to-medium rise buildings in Tier-II cities and medium-to-high rise building in Tier-I cities, causing serious threat to life and property during disasters,” says the NDMA report. Among the 50 cities they looked at, NDMA researchers found 13 cities to have “high risk”, 30 cities to have “medium risk” and remaining seven cities to be at a low-risk level. Some randomly selected examples from the report --more than 90 per cent of buildings in Aizawl, Mizoram, observed to have maximum risk, are either built on hill slopes or located on sites vulnerable to falling debris from the hill tops; 35 per cent of these buildings are located very close to an adjacent and seemingly unsafe building/construction, whose collapse can damage the building easily. The NDMA report goes on to point out that Pithoragarh, Shillong and Kohima have similar conditions as that of Aizwal. These cities are situated in hilly areas, which have “steep to extremely steep sloped terrains.” In Srinagar, “50 per cent of reinforced concrete buildings and nearly 40 per cent of brick masonry other roof buildings are in the category of collapse. Split roof and pitched roof are the main common factors contributing to the high risk of reinforced concrete buildings”.
In India, there is no dearth of norms. Such norms exist for earthquake-resistant construction as well. According to seismic zone mapping, India is divided into four zones -- it includes Zone-2 from Zone-5. India also has its Seismic Design Codes. But there is a mountain of evidence to show that construction codes meant for seismic zones are not strictly followed. Cracks are surfacing in buildings in city after city in the ecologically fragile and earthquake-prone Himalayan region.
“The increase in earthquake risk is due to a spurt in developmental activities driven by urbanisation, economic development, and the globalisation of India’s economy. The increase in use of high-technology equipment and tools in manufacturing and service industries has also made them susceptible to disruption due to relatively moderate ground shaking. As a result, loss of human life is not the only determinant of earthquake risk any more. Severe economic losses leading to the collapse of the local or regional economy after an earthquake may have long-term adverse consequences for the entire country. This effect would be further magnified if an earthquake affects a mega-city, such as Delhi or Mumbai,” the NDMA has warned.
Do we still question the urgency of mandating strict adherence to building codes?
Let the lessons from Turkey sink in.