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Ready for future Bams?
It is not as if we do not have civil engineers to build structures that can survive earthquakes

By Sassan Pejhan
January 3, 2003
The Iranian

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 (1930).

And so it is that every ten years or so, a devastating earthquake strikes Iran and tens of thousands perish, many more are injured 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 hundred people.

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 attention is paid to the reconstruction of the devastated areas.

Perhaps 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 as Iran.

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 few 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 many of 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 notion of 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 write-up 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 apparently 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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