A former resident reports on M=7.3 Iraq-Iran shock: Devastation of the large city of Derbandikhan

By Amar Rahman, Ph.D., Principal Risk Engineer, Zurich Insurance

Zurich, Switzerland

The quake had special significance for me personally, as my hometown—Khanaqin—lies on the Iraqi side of the border, just 50 km southwest of the epicenter. 


The highest causalities on the Iranian side appear to be from the Iranian city of Sarpol Zahab, with a population of approximately 35,000, which lies about 50 km south of the epicenter. Darbandikhan Dam


Extensive damage and causalities (approximately 400 deaths and 7,000 injured to date) have been reported from the Iranian side of the border, probably reflecting the higher population density, as well as the higher level of preparedness of local authorities to natural catastrophe events.




Reports I’ve received from relatives on the Iraqi side report the total devastation of the city of Derbandikhan (population 340,000) in Sulaymaniya province. The city lies 25 km west of the epicenter and is the largest city on the Iraqi side of the border closest to the event. The condition of a major dam near the city of Derbendikhan is unknown. The dam was built in the late 1950‘s and already underwent a major repair in the late 1990‘s after extensive leakage of the spillway gates. It is highly likely that the dam has sustained some level of damage. Unfortunately, Iraqi expertise regarding damage inspection is low.


Darbandikhan, Iraq


While the Iranian seismic design code is more developed than its Iraqi counterpart, residential buildings on both sides of the border are typically not ‘engineered,’ meaning that no engineer participated in their design and construction. Moment-resistant reinforced concrete frame construction, with unreinforced masonry walls, is common. I would expect onsite damage assessment to take quite a bit of time, due to the paucity of seismic specialists.


Residents huddle by a fire in an open area following a 7.3-magnitude earthquake at Sarpol-e Zahab in Iran’s Kermanshah province on November 13, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ISNA / POURIA PAKIZEH (Photo credit POURIA PAKIZEH/AFP/Getty Images)


Damage reports from Khanaqin (about 40 km south of epicenter) refers mostly to damage to contents rather than the building frame, we hope this is accurate. In the other direction, in Erbil (210 km northwest of the epicenter), shaking of single- and double-story residential buildings of the same construction type that I previously described) was widely reported. Parked cars were severely shaken, but no structural damage has been reported there to date. Damage to contents is also very low. 


SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ – NOVEMBER 13: Members of the Turkish Red Crescent, who reached the region as a first response, dispatch aid goods and food to the survivors of the earthquake in Derbendihan district of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq on November 13, 2017 following a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that hit the Iraq and Iran. Turkish paramedic teams and rescue teams dispatched to the disaster area under the coordination of Turkish aid agencies; AFAD (Turkey’s Disaster Management Agency) and Kizilay (Turkish Red Crescent). At least 211 died and 2,504 others were injured in Iran’s bordering regions, especially in Kermanshah province in west. (Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


What I also found interesting is a report from Iraq the morning after the event—supposedly from a local seismologist—who claimed that the event wasn’t tectonic but due to Iranian nuclear tests (“fake news”). But the 10 km depth and thrust focal mechanism render such an inference extremely unlikely, as these are typical of the region, whereas nuclear tests are shallow, and the focal mechanisms are implosive or explosive.

(The contribution reflects the opinion only of the author).