By Manuel Berberian, Ph.D. (University of Cambridge, UK); Elected Member, New York Academy of Sciences
The heart of the matter
Iranians do not deserve death and complete destruction in 2017. In my judgment, neither earthquakes nor buildings kill the people in this beautiful and ancient country. The culprits are instead the lack of democracy, accountability, and transparency, which has permitted corruption in the building industry. Despite the presence of a strong 50-year-old building code, the failure of earthquake-resilient construction and permitting today should be treated as a criminal case.
The state of damage in Iran
The 12 November M=7.3 earthquake devastated a large area in the Iran-Iraq border region, and ruined or severely damaged several towns. The latest restrained state official news released on Tuesday November 14 at 16:18 local time (+5 hr UTC, +8.30 hr ET, and 11:30 WT) reports 530 dead and 7400 injured in Iran, mostly in the cities and towns of Qasr Shirin, Sar Pol Zahab, Kermanshah, Eslamabad (the former Shahabad) Gharb, Kerend, Salas Babakhani, and numerous villages (irna.ir; isna.ir, Etela’at, Kayhan). The border area is mountainous and is not densely populated. Many villages have not yet been visited by the officials due to landslides. Despite cold winter nights, people stayed outside many with few tents. Schools in the epicentral area have been closed since Monday in the city of Kermansh, as well as in the earthquake stricken area.
Iran’s long recorded history makes indisputable its high seismic risk
Seismic risk is very high in Iran due to large populations located near active faults that straddle the active collision zone. Although we cannot predict the time of earthquakes, based on extensive records of historical earthquakes and knowledge of active faulting, we know where they may occur and have a deep knowledge of historical seismicity and active faults of the country; this has been carefully studied since at least since 1976.
The region (Sar Pol Zahab and Qasr Shirin towns) was devastated during the AD 958 and AD 1150 earthquakes on the Iranian side; Shahr Zur/Yasin Tappeh was destroyed during the AD 1229 and AD 1310 earthquakes on the Iraqi side. We also know that the 2017 earthquake took place very close to the High Zagros Fault and to the north of the Zagros Mountain Front Fault, the two master faults in the Zagros fold-thrust Belt (described Berberian, 1995 Tectonophysics, 241, 193-224).
Fold and fault zones lace the Zagros Fold belt
Earthquakes have always been “time-bombs” in Iran. Since 1900, more than 165,000 Iranians were killed during earthquakes (18 earthquakes of M>7.0; more than 100 events of M 6.0-6.9; and more than 180 earthquakes with M 5.5-5.9). I do not want to compare the unfathomable death tolls and destruction of the Iranian earthquakes with those in the USA or Japan, because even in 2017, we cannot compare these countries with the present-day Iran.
If the 2017 earthquake were to have struck major cities with high populations like Tehran-Karaj (GSA Sp. Paper 525), Qazvin, Tabriz, Neyshabur, Mashhad, Kerman, Shiraz and many more, the death toll could reach hundreds of thousands.
The situation of adobe houses and masonry buildings with weak cement and brick and brittle components in villages and towns are obvious. These buildings are prone to collapse by a magnitude 5.5 event. But the death toll in Iran is not limited to adobe structures; instead, the problems are systemic.
A litany of destruction since the establishment of Iranian Building Code
As a consequence of the tragic 1962 Mw 7.0 Bu’in earthquake in southwest Tehran, with a death toll of 12,000, the Iranian earthquake scientists, civic engineers, and planners prepared the “Iranian Code for Seismic-Resistant Buildings Design” (IRISI Code No. 519, later revised as No. 2800 in February 1988 and 1999). So, for half a century the Code has been in force, it has had little effect on the country. Eleven years after the approval of the building code, the 1979 Mw 7.3 Tabas-e Golshan earthquake in eastern Iran killed more than 20,000 people, when it demolished a desert town. Some twenty-two years after the code implementation, the 1990 Rudbar M=7.3 earthquake destroyed four towns and killed about 40,000 people in southwest of the Caspian Sea. Some 35 years after execution of the building code, the city of Bam in southeast Iran was flattened and 40,000 people were killed during the 2003 Mw 6.6 earthquake. Finally, the 2017 M=7.2 earthquake devastated the western border region of Iran and Iraq with unknown death toll and destruction.
Why has the building code failed to increase seismic safety?
In my judgment, the failure is because the building permits are gained by bribing the municipalities, seismic resistant codes are avoided during planning and construction, and final approval (if any is needed) can also be issued via further bribes. The fact is that construction business in Iran is highly profitable, buildings are poorly constructed, and the corrupt building industry and government have little or no interest in inspecting the construction process or the safety of the people. I left Iran in 1980, and have resided in the United States since 1990, so I make this observation second-hand, but I believe it is correct.
The recently constructed apartment buildings in the cities of Kermanshah, Sar Pol Zahab and more, built by the state owned ‘Maskan Mehr Construction Company’, as well as other governmental low-cost housing projects, collapsed by this weekend’s earthquake. The hospitals in the towns of Sar Pol Zahab, Darbandikhan, and other sites together with gasoline stations collapsed, and water, power and telecommunication system were disrupted. The issue of earthquake resistant structures and minimizing seismic risk have been always deliberately ignored in order to maximize profits.
Iran should seize the moment and protect its people
This is the moment for the government to change its course and embrace seismic resilience as a fitting goal for a modern nation. Because, up until now, poor risk governance, ineffective governmental policies, lack of accountability of the system, corrupt institutions from local to national levels (the Corruption Perception Index of Iran is 2.6 out of 10, among the lowest worldwide), lack of stringent building code inspections by governmental agencies, lack of disaster preparedness, retrofitting and risk reduction programs, lack of transparency, and many more, are major problems in the 21st century Iran.
During the last 38 years the Iranian governments constantly have been insensitive to natural disasters, especially earthquakes, earthquake resistance, and minimizing earthquake risk by following the “Doctrine of Fatalism,” divine wrath, will, warning, ordeal, and punishment for people’s sins, followed by the grace, mercy, and miracles of God (One religious leader claimed a link between the recent KRG Referendum and the earthquake!). Hence, the state has, in my judgment, never felt responsible for fully protecting the lives and properties of its citizens. The Iranian governments have failed to implement safe dwellings in the cities, towns and villages for its citizens to protect them from the earthquake hazards. In this case, the 2017 earthquake in Iran has the same consequences as those of the 1909 earthquake, almost a century ago, in Dorud city.
During the last half a century, the governments of Iran have lost the opportunity to construct safer buildings, retrofitting the Iranian vital structures and infrastructure, and save the lives of the citizens and their properties. But the routine dedication of a 3-day national mourning and praying, and flooding of the earthquake region by the authorities for a few hours of photo-op’s, lecturing, interviews on the state TV, praying and wishing, cannot resolve a chronic problem in Iran and other so-called developing countries.
Manuel Berberian (1995), Master “blind” thrust faults hidden under the Zagros folds: active basement tectonics and surface morphotectonics, Tectonophysics, 241, https://doi.org/10.1016/0040-1951(94)00185-C
Manuel Berberian and Robert S. Yeats (1999), Patterns of historical earthquake rupture in the Iranian Plateau, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 89, 120-139.
(The contribution reflects the opinion only of the author).