We’ve long extolled the virtues of earth building, but it turns out that Iran’s simple clay and mud brick buildings are a leading cause of casualties during strong earthquakes. Over the weekend, two earthquakes measuring 6.3 and 6.4 on the richter scale hit the country’s east Azerbaijan province, killing at least 360 people and displacing and injuring thousands more.
Most of these casualties occured because poorly-constructed buildings made with cheap materials collapsed, according to Kaveh Samiei, principal architect at AAG and a lecturer at Semnan University, crushing their inhabitants.
Leading causes of earthquake casualties
The Iranian authorities have been criticized for their emergency response to the earthquakes over the weekend after search and rescue efforts were called off within less than 24 hours.
But the Foundation of Housing, a branch of the Roads and Urbanism ministry should also be held to account as the development of rural areas falls under their jurisdiction.
The University of Tulane in the United States sites three main causes of high casualties in areas that are prone to earthquakes: a) population density, b) construction standards, and c) emergency preparedness.
Given that Iran is one of the most seismically-active areas in the world and that 126,000 people have been killed in earthquakes since 1900, the government should map fault lines and establish building codes accordingly.
“We can’t prevent earthquakes from happening,” Samiei told Green Prophet in an email interview, “but at least we can prevent the deaths of hundreds of people that are caused by collapsed buildings.”
Crushed by the earth
“If we can build safe and resistant structures, then we will decrease the rate of deaths and injuries,” he added.
Samiei explained that most rural Iranians live in buildings that have bulky walls and wooden ceilings that crush residents when large earthquakes strike.
“In the recent earthquake, almost all of the buildings that were damaged were constructed in this way. And exactly the same thing happened in Bam.”
Samiei is referring to the 2003 Bam earthquake in southeastern Iran that killed 150,000 people.
“The experience of some countries like Japan shows that it is possible to construct safer buildings,” the architect continued.
He said that the use of “lightweight” construction materials in Japan is a strategic approach that could be implemented in Iran, though he emphasized that technology should be supplemented with appropriate safety education and disaster preparedness.
The worst earthquake in recorded human history killed 830,000 people in 1556, according to Tulane researchers. Most of the casualties were living in wind-deposited silt and clay caves in Shaaxi, China.
Earth construction may be great for staying cool in hot climates and reducing waste of natural resources, but this kind of construction must be coupled with sophisticated engineering to ensure safety – especially along fault lines.
“In some parts of Iran it will be necessary to deconstruct nearly 100% of the existing buildings and plan a new village,” Samiei warns.
“This will take a lot of time to complete.”
image of flattened buildings in Iran via AFP/Al Jazeera