As hundreds of bodies are unearthed from the rubbles of collapsed buildings, which fell like a house of cards, there are some scary truths unearthed from the recent Turkey earthquakes that killed more than 30,000 people and displaced millions.
The 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquakes were the worst in Turkey’s modern history. However, the unprecedented number of casualties is attributed, not to the magnitude, but to the poorly-built structures. It was reported that thousands of buildings, some more than a dozen floors high, have been flattened along the length of the impact zone, which stretches from the country’s Mediterranean coast to the Kurdish southeast.
As authorities investigate the damage and look for survivors, the biggest cause of death is found to be the shoddy building standards – a result of bad policy-making and corruption. Finding faults in the building standards including materials used, authorities are now after builders, engineers, municipal officials and planners as they try to fix accountability.
It is said that earthquakes don’t kill people, but bad buildings do. This seems to be the case in Turkey. And it could be anywhere where standards are compromised. It could be worse in countries prone to high-magnitude earthquakes like ours. It is said that a big earthquake is due in our region. Recently, experts after an earthquake impact assessment simulation, said that in a worst-case scenario of an earthquake at night in Bhutan, there could be at least 9,000 fatalities, 10,000 serious injuries and 40,000 people displaced.
The study was based on the density of population and does not mention building standards, but we know a lot of our buildings are susceptible to earthquakes, especially those built with adobe bricks (pachu). In urban Bhutan, we are comparatively better. There are strict building rules and thromde’s building inspectors insist on quality and standards when buildings are constructed.
Meeting standards are costly and there is the urge to compromise. Quite often we hear private builders complain about the size of the iron bar or cement-sand ratio specified by building standards. Everyone wants to build cheaper and make the most of it. There are also people who still circumvent rules to save cost. The price, in case of a massive earthquake, would be paid by tenants, like in Turkey.
Going by Royal Audit Authority reports on irregularities or compliance to standards, it is government buildings that are contracted out that we should be mindful of. Not to deride or generalise that all contractors are bad, cutting corners to make the most of the work they get is a norm in the construction industry. If engineers, inspectors and planners collude, standards could be compromised. The mistake of an engineer, it is said, will be buried with bricks.
Construction companies are mandated to recruit engineers to ensure standards are met. Sometimes, the engineer is only present on the paper or when inspectors visit sites for inspection. There are so many loopholes even with stringent rules. It would be a disaster to not learn from mistakes. A bigger disaster is knowing the risk and not acting upon it.