for future Bams?
It is not as if we do not have civil engineers
to build structures
By Sassan Pejhan
January 3, 2003
The gruesome television footage and heart-wrenching articles covering
the Bam earthquake inevitably took me back to the summer of 1990
and the devastating Roudbar earthquake. Back then, CNN was not
as omnipresent in our living room, and the World Wide Web had not
yet been born. Yet the coverage of that event in the printed press
and broadcast media was striking enough to take me back a further
twelve years, to the 1978 earthquake in Tabas.
While watching the coverage of the earthquake in
Tabas my parents shook their heads in disbelief at what was for
them a replay of
Dasht-e Bayaz (Khorasan) in 1968 and Boein Zahra (Qazvin) in 1962.
For my grandparents, the nightmare went all the way back to Salmas
And so it is that every ten years or so, a devastating
earthquake strikes Iran and tens of thousands perish, many more
and rendered homeless and entire cities and villages are leveled.
That's not counting the "minor" quakes that hit
Iran almost on an annual basis and kill a "mere" few
In the days and weeks immediately
following a major quake, there is an immense outpouring of support
and aid both from the people of Iran and the international community.
As weeks turn into months, however, the general public gradually
forgets the plight of the survivors, while even less
is paid to the reconstruction of the devastated areas.
most disconcerting of all, no persistent effort is made by
the general public to a) hold anyone - other than fate (qesmat)
accountable for the unacceptably high death tolls and devastation,
and b) ensure
that the long-term reconstruction process is carried out according
to modern codes and norms for an earthquake-prone country such
It is not as if Iran does not have civil engineers
whose expertise is in building structures that can
survive earthquakes. It is not as if these experts have not developed
codes (similar to those in existence in California and Japan) for
building earthquake resistant structures. It is not as if we do
not have laws that incorporate these codes.
The experts, the codes and the laws have all existed
in Iran for decades. Yet with every major quake, structures new
and old, public
and private are destroyed with great loss of life.
We cannot fault
the architects and builders of the Bam citadel for not designing
and building an earthquake-proof fortress (though ironically,
the citadel's Emarat-e Shah-neshin seems to be one of the
buildings to have survived the quake). We have every reason to
be outraged, however, that Bam's two main hospitals were
destroyed. Surely, these weren't quite as old as Arg-e Bam!
Nor were they built of adobe - unlike many of the houses
in the poorer neighborhoods.
If a hospital of all things is not considered critical
enough to be built to withstand an earthquake, then what is? How
those killed in the recent quake were patients in the hospital?
How many of those killed could have survived their injuries if
the hospitals in Bam had not been destroyed and crucial time would
not have been lost transporting them to hospitals in Kerman and
other major cities?
The heavens are not responsible for the enormity
of these tragedies. Greed, corruption and lack of knowledge are
obvious culprits: greed
and corruption in the case of public buildings - such as
the hospitals in Bam - where contractors seek to increase
their profits through the "art" of besaaz-bendaaz and
government officials are only too ready to oblige as long as the
bribe is sizable enough; lack of knowledge (and poverty) in the
case of residents who rebuild their houses using the same primitive
materials and techniques.
A less obvious, but equally guilty, culprit is the
fatalist and submissive mindset that is so prevalent in Iran. The
holding government officials and their "business partners" accountable
does not seem to have any roots. How often do we see contractors
and corrupt officials prosecuted and put on trial in Iran for putting
up structures that violated the earthquake codes and were subsequently
destroyed? What would be the public reaction in the US or Western
Europe should even one public (or private) building destroyed in
an earthquake be found to have violated the building codes?
Analyzing the social, economic and historic roots
that brought about such a mindset is beyond both the scope of this
and my domain of expertise. Suffice it so say that it has been
around for centuries, regardless of whether the country's
leader was referred to as Qebleh-ye Alam, Aryamehr, Emam or Ayatollah.
The majority of the people view government authorities as patriarchal
figures - beyond reproach and questioning - rather
than civil servants accountable to the people.
As difficult as it is for the rest of us 'ordinary
folks' to comprehend, greedy contractors and corrupt officials
are not horrified enough by scenes such as those from Bam to stop
violating the building codes for monetary gains. For as long as
most Iranians view earthquakes as a sign that "God is testing
us" or "God's will" - to quote two of
the survivors of the Bam earthquake - those who are really
responsible for the high death tolls and widespread devastation
will have little incentive to change their ways.
News reports indicate a fact finding engineering
team plan to press charges against those who violated building
codes in Bam. Let's
hope t these are not empty promises.
If Iranians exert constant pressure on
government officials to prosecute and punish those responsible
for violating the building codes in Bam, there will be a chance
that the earthquake monster would eventually be conquered (just
as it has been tamed in California and Japan). Otherwise, it will
be "déjà vu all over again" and we should
prepare ourselves to go though the same ritual of pain, suffering
and guilt sometime circa 2014, and 2025, and...!
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