Earthquakes and Iran's priorities

January 26, 2004

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With the perishing of tens of thousands of human beings in Bam's quake on December 26, 2003, concerns for the safety of Iranian people have transcended the Iran's national boundaries. This is more so due to the fact that shortly before the Bam's disaster, an earthquake of similar intensity had hit California in which only two people were killed. In contrast, 30,000 deaths were recorded in Bam with the rest not confirmed as search and rescue operations were abandoned.

Since 1991, Iran has experienced many earthquakes with 17,600 dead and 53,000 injured. In Bam, another 10,000 were injured. The gap between the city's population and 40,000 accounted for, as above stands perished, as the city was flattened. In 1994, another powerful earthquake had hit California that killed 57 people. The comparison calls for a lot of introspection as the buck cannot be passed on solely to Nature.

The Iranian engineering professors assert that a huge difference between the American and the Iranian casualties in similar intensity earthquakes is primarily due to building designs and construction which is earthquake resistant in the US, while highly unsafe in Iran. In Iran the low-cost mud houses are preferred as they also tend to insulate from extreme weather conditions. However, when they collapse, they block all air vents thus resulting in faster suffocation than would be the case with the collapsed wooden or brick structures.

While mud houses are liberally allowed in an earthquake prone Iran, the Iranian engineers claim that they are fully capable of designing the earthquake resistant structures. However, even if this is done, due to poor construction procedures, the design might not be adhered to and poor construction and materials might kill the very purpose of the safe design.

In contrast, building codes are strictly adhered to in the US. Following catastrophic earthquakes in 1978 and 1990 in Iran in which 25,000 and 40,000 people were killed respectively, building codes were tightened in Iran but they remain mostly on paper as said by the Iranian engineers themselves.

An architect in Tehran says: "While the Iranian officials keep a close eye on many aspects of daily life in the country, there is little actual policing of construction".An Iranian engineering professor says: "In major cities, of course, we can upgrade, but in the villages we need to have a national will to get involved in building cheap and strong houses. People will not be able to do it themselves.

They need strong guidance and strong financial support." The question then boils down to the priorities of the Iranian regime. For, while they not only police the minutest aspects of the people's personal lives, as said above by an Iranian, they are also striving to become a nuclear power as is evident from the recent stand-off between Iran and the Western world.

The cities and villages on fault lines, however, remain most vulnerable to natural disasters as the regime thus far has remained apathetic to this huge threat which may also, God forbid, strike Tehran one day. The proposal to move the city and to make other population nodes safe should move rapidly up the agenda of public policy in Iran. While there is a resolve now to make "safer and stronger" cities in general and Bam in particular, it is ironic that it came after Bam's devastation.

While better late than never, it is yet to be seen if the resolve is transient or a meaningful one to make a lasting difference as in California which area too, is prone to earthquakes but which threat is averted by deploying the state-of-the-art in engineering and construction. The question, therefore, boils down to financials as also stated by an Iranian engineering professor above and to political will as also alluded to by a Tehran-based architect above. Let us review the two prerequisites required for an Iran safe from earthquakes.

Iran's was a $126 billion economy in 2003 at the market exchange rates. Since the rise in oil prices in 1999-2000, Iran has accumulated some $15 billion in forex reserves. Its external debt was estimated at $8.7 billion in 2002. Its real growth rate of the GDP was 5 per cent in 2001 and 6.5 per cent in 2002. Its per capita GDP in 2002 was estimated at $7000 at purchasing power parity.

However, the percentage of population below the poverty line was 40 per cent and the rate of inflation at 15.3 per cent. The rate of unemployment in 2003 was 16.3 per cent in 2003. Its 2001 budget surplus of roughly 1.6 per cent of GDP was converted to a deficit of approximately 1.7 per cent GDP in 2002. Its trade surplus of $10.2 billion in 2001 was reduced to $3.0 billion in 2002.

While agriculture contributed 19 per cent to the GDP in 2002, the industry contributed 26 per cent, and services 55 per cent; Iran's economy is mainly oil-reliant. Oil export revenues contribute 80 per cent of the total export earnings, 40-50 per cent of the government budget, and 10-20 per cent of the GDP.

While, there is intent to diversify the economic base, progress has been lacklustre even though the oil reserves are not expected to last for a very long period.

Iran plans to diversify into petrochemicals for which purpose the first Foreign Investment Act was passed in 2002, after overcoming great resistance from the conservatives. However, the progress on this front is not likely to be as rapid as it has been on the nuclear front, which Iran claims to be developing primarily for power generation, as they claim to be planning for the time when they will run out of oil reserves.

Despite their heightened concern for power in the post-oil period, their concern for economic diversification for the same reason does not feature as high on the agenda. A further claim in support of nuclear pursuits is to free up oil and other natural resources for exports as the latter are currently consumed in power generation. This conflicts with their diversification intent as it indicates even more reliance on oil rather than less which should be a part of their diversification strategy for now and for the post-oil period.

Further, other economic issues of unemployment, inflation, and poverty also remain eclipsed in their quest for nuclear energy. And, vulnerability to earthquakes that ought to have acquired centre-stage in the post-revolution Iran remained pushed on to the back burner, if at all, as some professed to have lacked resources to address the same.

While there are structural weaknesses in the Iranian economy in the form of high levels of poverty, high inflation, and high unemployment; the financial position of the state is not so bleak so as to prevent an emphasis on the safety from earthquakes. Billions of dollars had been spent on the 1000MW Bushehr nuclear power facility since its inception in 1974 and until the revolution in 1978/79 when work was halted to resume in the 1990s after the Iran-Iraq war even though Bushehr had been bombed several times over. Its completion has been delayed due to technical difficulties with Russia even proposing to build a new one in the same city instead of completing the old one.

However, according to the Russian sources, the first unit of Bushehr plant is likely to cost between $1.2 and $1.3 billion for construction. With billions of dollars channelized towards the nuclear facilities' development, power generated thus will be a small percentage of Iran's current installed capacity (2001) to generate 31 gigawatts - 75 per cent of which already relies on natural gas, and the rest on hydropower and thermal. The case for nuclear power and resource allocation for this purpose, therefore, appears overstated.

It is, therefore, a matter of priorities and their relevance which will determine the financial resource availability for the purposes as important as safety from the earthquakes, unemployment, and poverty. The opportunity cost of Iran's nuclear programme needs to be gauged in terms of the above ills that confront the Iranian nation first and foremost.

As for the effort of the will, it surfaces strongly in matters that matter with the regime as was evident during the soon outgoing eight years reformist rule which reformist effort met with strong debilitating resistance from the conservatives.

During the current electoral process, the resistance has mounted to the extent that Iran's democratic image stands completely threatened. If this same willpower is, instead channelized towards addressing the causes of the issues faced by the people, Iran will emerge a lot stronger both internally and externally. The current attempts to save the people only from external threats are not making them any safer within.

For, before death is brought to a country and destruction to another, Iran should be made safe for its own people from the enemies of unemployment and poverty within, and earthquakes from nature as they get the Iranian people before any of the external enemies overstated in Iran's public policy.