Biggest threat for urbanisation – earthquakes/natural disasters

Here is another superb article from City Journal. This one is by Claire Berlinski who is a contributing editor.

She says seismic risk poses the biggest risks for cities in the world. There are two reasons for this. One, an earthquake causes more damage than anything else. Two, most big cities end up naturally being in the seismic danger zone. People like to live near water and fertile ground. Over the millennia, seismic activity creates coasts, valleys that channel water, temperate microclimates. So people come and settle at these places and become big cities. As per Claire, 8 of top 10 cities are in seismic zone.

So cities should be working to address this huge risk. And there are some good examples from recent Japanese, NZ and Chilean earthquakes:

Take the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, which released 600 million times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb. The ensuing partial meltdown of the Fukushima reactor prompted international hysteria about nuclear power, but few seemed to realize that a far deadlier threat had been averted. As seismologist Roger Bilham has aptly put it, houses in seismically active zones are the world’s unrecognized weapons of mass destruction—and Japan’s WMDs didn’t go off. Its buildings—at least those that weren’t swept away by the accompanying tsunami, a force of nature against which we are still largely helpless—remained standing, and the people inside survived.

That so few buildings collapsed in the earthquake was a human triumph of the first order. It showed that countries can make great progress in seismic risk mitigation; in the Kobe earthquake of 1995, 200,000 buildings collapsed. But cities around the world seem happy to ignore the earthquake threat—one that is only growing as the cities themselves get bigger and bigger

Likewise, the aftershock that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, this past February was deadly, but the astonishing part of that story isn’t that several of the city’s buildings collapsed; it’s that most of them did not. The peak ground acceleration—a measurement of how much the ground shakes—was immense, one of the highest ever recorded. Something like that would have flattened most cities. New Zealand’s strict and well-enforced building codes saved Christchurch from annihilation.

On February 27, 2010, an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck near the city of Concepción, in Chile. While the epicenter was not at the heart of the city, this quake was 100 times bigger than the one that leveled Port-au-Prince. It was so massive that it shortened the length of the day by 1.26 microseconds and moved the earth on its axis by eight centimeters. When it was over, the entire city of Concepción had been moved three yards to the west. The death toll from this monster was 521. Each death was its own disaster, of course, but the number was nevertheless astoundingly small for an earthquake that, by all rights, should have destroyed Chile as a whole. So minimal was the damage that the Chileans rejected all offers of foreign aid; they didn’t need it. Chile did so well because its building codes are some of the strictest and most advanced in the world and because the codes do not merely exist on paper—they are enforced.

Japanese learnt lessons from Kobe earthquake in 1995 and designed things accordingly:

In the wake of the Kobe quake, Japanese engineers took extensive measures to reinforce buildings and infrastructure. They installed rubber blocks under bridges. They spaced buildings farther apart to prevent domino-style tumbling. They introduced extra bracing, base isolation pads, hydraulic shock absorbers. A minute before the March earthquake, automatic seismic monitoring systems sent warnings to Japanese cell phones. Elevators glided obediently to the nearest floor and opened. Surgeries were halted. Videos from Tokyo show skyscrapers swaying gracefully, like cornstalks in the wind. Not one collapsed.

This planning helped a lot in 2011 earthquake.

Whereas Haiti and other regions did not plan and faced severe consequences.

The author then goes on to a different area. People know what technologies/planning to do. Despite this, why don’t countries plan knowing the threat? Moreover, with increasing urbanisation, the threats will only rise.  There are two theories to this.

  • First, people say only rich countries can afford these resources. How can poor countries invest in these technologies which are going to be expensive. So best way for people to plan for these things is to promote econ development. As economies develop and become rich, they plan for such events. Till they develop you have no choice
  • Second, the first is obviously wrong. If you do not plan for these disasters you are likely to become poorer. And then some econs like Turkey are rich enough to plan. Both Chile and Turkey have similar per capita incomes and if former can plan latter can as well.

The article then shifts gears to Turkey (as the author lives there) which most believe would face a massive earthquake in future. But there is just no planning.

There is not a geologist alive who doubts that a major earthquake is likely to hit Istanbul soon. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey put the odds of its happening within 30 years at 62 percent; other survey teams give it 70 percent. Erdik has estimated that it will kill between 200,000 and 300,000 people. The cost of the cleanup—$50 billion would be an optimistic estimate—will surely set Turkey’s economy back decades. It will be a political cataclysm, with massive ramifications for the entire region.

Every day, I walk past buildings in Istanbul that are clearly unsound. I see ground floors, for example, with walls or columns removed to make way for store displays, violating one of the most important principles of earthquake-resistant construction. There are vast neighborhoods filled with illegal, flimsy structures called gecekondu, which means “landed overnight.” The gecekondu, which range from crude shanties to concrete multistory apartment blocks, house hundreds of thousands of rural migrants who have come to Istanbul seeking work over the past decade.Gecekondu aren’t built by engineers. They tend to be built on bad soil. They are packed with children.

 There is another interesting point she makes. There is a correlation between corruption and construction. So more corrupt the countries are, more would be violations of construction rules and ignoring seismic risks:

Fatalism kills. Short-term thinking kills. But above all, corruption kills. On the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham published an extraordinary study in Nature. Using data from Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index, they calculated that 83 percent of all deaths from building collapses in earthquakes in the past 30 years took place in countries that were “anomalously corrupt”—that is, in countries that were perceived to be more corrupt than you would predict from their per-capita income.

Economist Charles Kenny’s definitive 2007 study argues persuasively that the construction industry is the most corrupt sector of the world economy. And the more corruption there is in construction—whether it consists of companies’ using substandard materials or of governments’ granting permission to build in zones unsuitable for habitation—the likelier you are to die. In China, the buildings that crumble during earthquakes are schools and hospitals, while the Party’s headquarters and the houses of its functionaries remain standing. In Turkey, building inspectors work on the contractors’ payroll, creating a massive conflict of interest. Changing that system could save countless lives. But the construction companies, for obvious reasons, don’t want that to happen—and all of Turkey’s major political parties run on construction money.

Apart from limited corruption, you need strict laws to penalise people who have erred and their decisions have led to losses in human lives:

The absence of outright corruption isn’t enough to keep countries safe; it is also essential to have in place a particular kind of legal regime. Strong tort law is the key, and Chile is a model here as well. During the recent earthquake, a new building in Concepción collapsed. Its surviving inhabitants took the builders to court, charging fraud and, in some cases, murder. Chilean law holds the original owner of a building liable for any earthquake damage that it suffers during its first decade, even if ownership has changed during that time. Because of this law, owners often exceed the provisions of Chile’s already strict building codes in their eagerness to avoid liability. And accountability in the Chilean legal system goes to the top. In February, a Chilean court declined to dismiss a lawsuit against the former president, Michelle Bachelet, and other senior officials for malfunctions in the country’s tsunami-warning system.

In China, as you’d expect, tort law is a joke. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left nearly 90,000 dead or missing, Chinese courts dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents of children crushed to death in collapsed schools. Those who protested were locked up. And in Turkey, the average citizen wants nothing to do with the court system, believing it intimidating, incomprehensible, rigged, and too expensive and time-consuming to use—which it is. I speak from experience, having taken to court a construction company that knocked down a wall of the building I lived in, rendering it unsafe for habitation. I’ve been suing them for years without issue. Last October, charges against the officials who approved the construction of a school that collapsed in a 2003 earthquake, killing 64 students and a teacher, were dropped, owing to the expiration of the statute of limitations. The amount that it costs to open a lawsuit represents a substantial portion of an average Turk’s annual income.

Superb stuff.

The Claire article warns:

Spin the wheel: Bogotá, Cairo, Caracas, Dhaka, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, Katmandu, Lima, Manila, Mexico City, New Delhi, Quito, Tehran. It will be one of them. It isn’t too late to save them. But we need to say the truth about why they’re at risk in the first place.

Barring Delhi, 37 Indian cities including Top metros like Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata fall under moderate to high risk seismic zones of the country.

Earthquake is a major issue of concern. Over 58.6 per cent of land in India is highly vulnerable to earthquakes and 38 cities fall under moderate to high risk seismic zones,” NDMA Vice Chairman Shashidhar Reddy told PTI. Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Greater Mumbai, Kochi, Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram, Patna, Ahmedabad, Dehradun are some of the cities falling in the vulnerability zone.

Noting that a large number of buildings constructed in the past have not been made earthquake resistant, he said, “NDMA is ensuring that the new constructions that come up are disaster resistant and the old buildings are retrofitted.” The NDMA is training a large number of architects, engineers and masons to make sure that any new construction that comes up is earthquake resistant.

“To have a typography study, a team of experts from six IITs led by IIT-Mumbai is working together to classify buildings in 10 different types, to make all buildings earthquake resistant,” he said. A senior NDMA official said that 235 districts fall in the seismic zones IV and V. “We need to take into consideration structural safety, mitigation and preparedness and immediate response. Lifeline buildings and telephone booths need to be retrofitted and critical installations in zone IV areas should not be allowed,” the official said.

However, here is a typical Indian set up problem:

Since making all buildings earthquake resistant is a state subject, NDMA has already written to almost all the states to ensure safe construction as per disaster management guidelines. However, a senior official rued “No substantial response has been received so far.”

I also did some research on India’s disaster management systems. Planning commission included a chapter on disasters in 10th plan and 11th plan. Then we have two agencies – NDMA and NIDM looking at the issues. There are some interesting docs on school, building designs etc in seismic danger areas.

I was reading this newsletter from NIDM (stopped after Q1 2010 edition. why?). It draws lessons from Haiti and Chile:

Earthquakes do not kill people – buildings do is the famous saying which was proved correct once again in Haiti, where more than 230,000 people got killed, with an additional 300,000 injured, in an Mw 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010. The impact of the earthquake was so severe that out of nearly 5 million people living in the earthquake affected area, about 1.2 millions were rendered homeless.

In contrast to Haiti’s situation, there was an earthquake in Chile on February 27, 2010. The Chile earthquake (Mw 8.8) was felt all along 600 km of the central Chile coast. The earthquake tested numerous modern structures and facilities. Majority of Chilean built environment performed well during this earthquake with few exceptions. As a result less than 500 people were killed during this earthquake.

Lessons learnt from these two events indicate that the most important thing that matters in disaster safety is the good governance practices. Chile is having very high rankings in development indices – in comparison to Haiti, like Human Development Index, Corruption Perceptions Index, and Failed State Index. Due to very high standards of development Chile enjoyed not only economic development in recent times, but also a noticeable adherence to strict seismic building codes. In contrast, the Haiti was having no effective building codes, no planning regulations, no development controls making the overall vulnerability of the Port-au-Prince very high to face hazards like earthquake of January 12, 2010.

Here is the catch for making our built environment safe from earthquakes: ensure good governance leading to implementation of proper planning norms and development control and adherence to building codes and byelaws.

Hmm.. Pretty similar to what the above article also says. So we seem to have plans etc in place. Implementation is where there seem to be problems. There is so much construction in Delhi/Mumbai.. How many have been done following seismic guidelines? In Mumbai, most buildings have no protection against a very well known natural event- heavy monsoon rains. Even new buildings start leaking from the first rain itself. They even advise that buy/rent a new place post monsoons. Construction is easily one of the most corrupt sectors in India and most likely we would just be piling on more and more natural disaster risk …


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