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DAWN - Features; October 20, 2005

October 20, 2005

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A case for appropriate masonry laws

By Manzoor Chandio


MAN has never been able to predict earthquakes but making and enforcing masonry laws is not beyond his capability. Construction of quake-proof buildings, especially for schools and hospitals, is important for safety of people who are more vulnerable, like children and patients.

Hundreds of students of the Azad Kashmir University, 300 of them girls, were buried in the rubble along with their dreams for the future.

About 10,000 children and their teachers were killed in Azad Kashmir and some 7,000 in Hazara when school buildings were flattened by the quake.

It may be mentioned that literacy is 65 per cent in Azad Kashmir and 95 per cent of children there are enrolled in primary schools. Tragically, most of the schools and colleges in the region are now in a state of ruin.

The most painful aspect of the tragedy is that many students were alive in parts of the rubble for up to four and five days but there was no heavy machinery to take them out.

Desperate mothers were seen trying to remove the debris with their bare hands to take their children out.

Then, almost 1,000 hospital buildings collapsed killing thousands of patients, attendants and doctors.

Not a single hospital building survived the quake and field hospitals were opened in tents.

No one will dispute that it was the weak foundation that caused the collapse of thousands of buildings and houses, compelling millions of people to spend chilly nights in the open.

If there were appropriate building laws and provisions for construction control, the colossal loss of lives could have been averted.

In the San Francisco earthquake of 1889 which measured 7.1 on the Richter scale only 66 people died and 3,575 were injured.

“The highest concentration of fatalities, 42, occurred in the collapse of the cypress structure on the Nimitz Freeway where a double-decker portion of the freeway collapsed, crushing the cars on the lower deck.”

There were no reports of death of schoolchildren.

The Kobe earthquake of a 7.2 magnitude on January 17, 1995, hit a population of 10 million and there were 5,500 fatalities.

A research conducted at the Kobe University said: “500 deaths were due to fires, and almost 7,000 buildings were destroyed by fire alone.”

In Hazara and Azad Kashmir, towns were built after the December 25, 1974, earthquake in the region that had killed nearly 10,000 people.

In the United States, the California Seismic Safety Commission’s Masonry Building Laws require owners “to strengthen or otherwise reduce risks in their buildings”.

Under the laws, 17,429 buildings were “retrofitted or demolished”.

We have not heard of any hazardous buildings in Pakistan having been demolished after scrutiny under seismic engineering.

The government can enforce regulations patterned on the International Building Code in use in 49 US states.

Poor construction practices played a major role in the colossal loss because stone walls are erected without mortar and builders are not required to take construction permits from the administration.

UN’s chief emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland is right when he says that “this is a very major earthquake but it’s really aggravated a thousand times by the topography. An earthquake is bad anywhere, in the Himalayas it becomes much worse”.

What he adds is noteworthy that “in the tsunami we had much the same problem — the roads were gone, the communications were gone and we got around 100 helicopters in a very short space of time”.

In the areas hit by the October 8 quake only a few helicopters were operational. The question is who would help us in case of an ‘enemy’ attack if all communication lines are cut off and the infrastructure is destroyed.

It is a miracle that no damage was done to major dams by the quake.

Wapda said that “Mangla and Tarbella remained safe because they were designed with a potential to absorb shocks of earthquake of higher intensity than that of October 8”.

And a military spokesman said that no army bunker was damaged along the LoC because these were built to sustain heavy bombardments. It will not be inappropriate to suggest that in future other structures, including school buildings, should be built with adequate safeguards to ensure that these withstand natural disasters.



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005