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Structurally sound?

March 15, 2011

Over the last few days, we have seen horrific images of the carnage that has been caused by the tsunami in Japan.  With the epicenter of the quake preceding the tsunami measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, we have also witnessed good engineering and well-designed buildings in the most technologically-advanced and earthquake ready country in the world, where sky scrapers swayed gently from side to side during and after the quake without collapsing.

This is because Japan, located in an area prone to earthquakes, has the most stringent of building codes, with seismic shock absorbers built into tall buildings to save it from collapsing in case of an earthquake.  In short, Japan has poured billions of dollars into building safety laws and technology to minimise the death toll in case of an emergency.

Most of the people being reported dead in Japan during this incident have thus not been killed due to the collapse of a skyscraper or due to shoddy construction but by the enormous tsunami which washed across some of its northern prefectures wiping away entire towns in its path.

Pakistan is also located in an area that is prone to earthquakes. The tragic events of 2005 are testament to how ill-prepared we are in the case of a disaster. The last earthquake to jolt the country was in January 2011, with a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale. Our only saving grace was that its’ epicenter was in a very remote area of Balochistan with a very low population, thus the resulting damage was not too severe.

After Quetta, the next high-risk earthquake zone is the metropolis of Karachi, being next to a major tectonic plate boundary. Yes, our Karachi with a teeming population and apartment buildings popping up like mushrooms all over the city with little or no regard for construction laws or seismic safety. In the uniform building code 1997, Karachi was listed in the ‘high risk’ zone 4 (zone 1 being negligible risk and zone 4 being the highest). However, a body of senior architects and engineers made a case of “no scientific evidence” in place to support such a rating and it was downgraded to 2B. Obviously, there are commercial interests in play as a more risky zone rating means compliance with stricter building codes which most builders here tend to see as mere hurdles in the path of rapid construction.

Frankly speaking, even by conservative estimates if an earthquake the magnitude of which Tokyo just survived, struck here we would witness to unimaginable destruction in Karachi. A fact which NGO Shehri and its various members have been shouting themselves hoarse over for many years without any concrete results. We do not even have proper machinery to pull survivors from wreckage, so should we not implement stringent safety measures for all high-rises during construction?

As inflation grips us further in its coils, it is quite obvious that the exorbitant price of land in the city will force more and more residents into choosing apartments and flats in high-rises rather than buying their own houses. Recently the government has made some positive noise about the need for earthquake-proof structures to be built to provide a safe alternative to the existing situation. However, with most of the buildings in this city still being constructed without the services of proper structural engineers and architects, how will building codes be enforced when the emphasis is just on constructing a building at the lowest cost possible?

Faisal Kapadia is a Karachi-based entrepreneur and writer. He blogs at Deadpan Thoughts.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn