Ten years on…By Naseer Memon (The News, Political Economy section-4th Oct 2005)

Balakot after quake (Credit: globalsecurity.org)

Balakot after quake
(Credit: globalsecurity.org)

October 8, 2005 evokes poignant memories of a devastating earthquake that jolted northern parts of the country early morning. Ten years on, thoughts of that day continue to shake millions of hearts of those who lost their loved ones in the tragic incident.

The jolt measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale catapulted the Himalayan region of northern Pakistan and Kashmir. The area was also hit by more than 1000 aftershocks of varying intensity. Its epicenter was located approximately 19 km north-northeast of the city of Muzaffarabad. The heavily shaken areas include Muzaffarabad, Neelum, Bagh, Poonch, Shangla, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Batagram, Balakot, Allai, Besham and Kohistan. The official death toll stood at 73,350 whereas approximately 138,000 were injured and over 3.5 million were affected, including 2.8 million rendered homeless.

According to official figures, 19,000 children died when school buildings collapsed. The earthquake affected more than 500,000 families. The total area affected was 30,000 km, including a range of unprecedented damage and destruction, including half a million houses, 782 health facilities and more than 6,298 schools and colleges. Approximately 90 per cent of the destroyed or damaged housing were located in rural areas. The total estimated cost of losses was around US$ 5.2 billion, including immediate relief, death and injury compensation, emergency medical care, reconstruction and restoration of livelihoods.

Although a range of variables determine the scale of destruction, colossal losses inflicted on life and property cannot be simply attributed to a natural phenomenon. A deeper analysis of death and destruction caused by this earthquake unmasks human factors responsible for the intensity of the disaster.

Numerous incidents have proved that actually human factors convert a natural hazard into a disaster.

Several studies conducted after the disaster examined the failed buildings and other public structures. All these studies verified that substandard and seismically insensitive construction resulted in the massive catastrophe. Most of the buildings were built in contravention to basic prerequisites of a seismically active zone.

The area has a history of earthquakes and vulnerability of such structures was glaringly obvious. Over the time, indigenous lighter weight, timber-laced structures were replaced by heavier masonry and reinforced concrete buildings. These structures though provide better insulation against harsh weather, they make the people more vulnerable to earthquakes, if built recklessly.

Most of the so-called modern structures failed miserably whereas traditional local structures like dhajji-dewari, beetar and batar performed far better and suffered far less damage. Modern RCC structures, if not built diligently prove to be more lethal than traditional structures. Lack of affordability and knowledge, terrain-bound limitations of transporting material from other areas and modern construction methods sans seismic-sensitive treatment result in hazardous construction practices.

Dry stone masonry and mud mortar is more common in rural areas. Since kiln backed ‘A’ class bricks are not available, locally found polygonal semi-dressed stones with pebbles as cavity-fill material are widely used as building material in rural areas of the affected region. Even in the case of reinforced concrete structures in urban areas, fine details of reinforcement were generally ignored.

Apart from construction practices and quality, location of structures on precarious slopes also caused severe damages due to land sliding, rock sliding and subsidence.

In Muzaffarabad, major concentrations of damage were noticed in the areas of deeper alluvial deposits along rivers Jhelum and Neelum. In Balakot and some other towns, the damage was directly related to fault rupture. Reasons of damage varied with the location (slopes, valleys), construction methods and use of material.

In the post-earthquake reconstruction, Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) preferred embedding risk reduction techniques with local construction methods and materials rather than introducing completely alien structures. Local labour was trained to mesh risk reduction techniques with traditional structures and it worked well. Post-earthquake construction merits a comprehensive research to assess the efficacy of the approach and construction techniques. This learning can be useful for future incidents of similar nature.

A comprehensive research paper “General observations of building behaviour during the 8th October 2005 Pakistan earthquake” authored by Jitendra K Bothara and Kubilây MO Hiçyılmaz provides copious evidences of building failure ascribed to flagrant violation of construction standards.

The authors very succinctly narrate the cause of devastation by concluding that “the root causes of the disaster were a failure to appreciate the earthquake hazard in the area, the techno-legal regime, lack of dissemination of earthquake-resistant knowledge, poor quality control mechanisms, and blind trust in certain construction materials and structural systems. Often, there was no real understanding of the sensitiveness to quality for the various construction methods (and, in particular, for the more recent methods of construction), nor was there any real evidence of an understanding of how structures behave during earthquakes. Socio-cultural and economic reasons further exacerbated the problem. It was a classic/tragic case of total failure of knowledge dissemination on earthquake-resistant construction through virtually all levels of society and, in particular, the engineering community.”
In Pakistan, construction industry in rural areas is generally bereft of any regulation. Whereas in urban areas building standards are sufficiently delineated yet are conveniently evaded by individuals as well as construction contractors. Negligence, corruption, cost saving and profit maximisation mania have allowed the risky structures to proliferate.

Sprawling slum areas in urban centres are controlled by an array of mafia that enjoys complete impunity. Prohibitively expensive land is a major cause of rampant vertical growth in urban areas. These tall structures with sheer imbalance of height-width ratio are often erected without proper examination of soil behaviour coupled by a foundation incommensurate with live and dead load of structures.

Building control authorities in cahoots with builders wring every inch of a structure to extract money. This unscrupulous business is the hallmark of urban construction industry in the country. Experience has abundantly proved that neither building codes nor capacity of engineers and masons but refractory corruption is the principle cause behind failure of modern reinforced concrete structures in the country.

Governance in an ever growing construction sector is almost non-existent.
Islamabad, the federal capital, is no less victim of this menace. In 2005, famous Margalla tower caved in due to the earthquake that originated 100kms away from the site. A dream housing tower, one of the most expensive in the city, proved to be a brazen failure of construction standards. Evidences are in abundance that the main culprit — the builder — was able to manipulate everything while working inside the development agency responsible for the capital territory. The reprehensible deed was exposed only after the earthquake shook the ground. Had the epicentre been closer, disaster could have been manifold in the illusory safe city.

In cities like Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Multan and Hyderabad such deadly towers pervade the skyline. Similarly unsafe medium and low rise structures are a norm dotting every city map in the country. All these badly engineered structures can become a potential source of havoc in case of any earthquake or other hazard. Cities like Karachi and Quetta located in the proximity of fault lines are exposed to a perennial risk of earthquake. Karachi is additionally vulnerable to tsunami and cyclones as well.

The fatal earthquake exhorted authorities to revisit the building codes in vogue. A major learning ushered in the revision of seismic zoning of country and supplanting building codes with seismic provisions. The erstwhile seismic risk map of Pakistan divided the whole country into four zones (Zone-1 to Zone-4, representing low to high seismicity). However, most of the areas obliterated by earthquake were marked in Zone-3. ERRA revised risk zoning in accordance with new seismic grid for the country.
Concomitantly the Pakistan Building Code (PBC, 2007) was also improvised to feature seismic factors.

Bespoke seismic zones and building codes will serve the purpose only if regulatory regime is made stringent. Building standards cannot be improved only by introducing laws and codes unless the same are practiced with perfection and diligently monitored by the concerned authorities.

Pakistan has a pathetic track record of land use planning and quality of public and private housing. Corrupt regulatory bodies are not only incapable of executing their functions, they are also rendered paraplegic by debilitating external interference. Regulating land and builder mafia is not just a matter of institutional capacity but more of a conspicuously absent political will. If past cannot be corrected, future can at least be prudently adjusted for posterity

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