A personal cry by an Iranian-born earthquake scientist for a change in how Iran addresses its seismic risk and resilience

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.

 

Iran

 

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.

 

Sunset over ancient city of Yazd, Iran
Sunset over ancient city of Yazd, Iran

 

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.

 

Nasir al-mulk mosque in Shiraz
Nasir al-mulk mosque in Shiraz

 

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.

 

Fold and fault zones lace the Zagros Fold belt
Fold and fault zones lace the Zagros Fold belt

 

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.

 

Damavand Mountain
Damavand Mountain

 

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.

 

Destruction of newly government built apartments in the 2017 earthquake epicentral area; Photograph by irna.ir official website, 13 November 2017
Destruction of newly government built apartments in the 2017 earthquake epicentral area; Photograph by irna.ir official website, 13 November 2017

 

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.

 

Citations

 

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).

  • Ross Stein

    Submitted anonymously, “I saw your important article posted on the Temblor.net blog. One of my colleagues is from Kurdistan, and still has family in that area. He had very similar complaints about the corruption of government officials. He pointed out that many of the worst performing buildings were built in the last 15 years.”

  • Ross Stein

    Submitted anonymously, “I wanted to thank you straight away for speaking on the related challenges as a scientist. We really need to come to grips with why it is that every time we have these natural disasters, and we are cursed with so many of them, we are deeply saddened and help as best as we can with charity and so on but then tend to forget to remain focused on preventive measures. Contributions such as yours will undoubtedly allow us all to push for a better national dialogue, towards finding longer term solutions.”

  • Ross Stein

    Submitted anonymously, “I read your article in Temblor. Only you are in a position to write such things. Now, what you write is the fact. What one individual can do to help those poor people under rubble or out in the cold? I read that 2 days after the quake, the authorities said they want to stop the rescue! Since there are teams also from UK at least, I hope the foreigners will bring them to reason. It’s heartbreaking to know that elsewhere in the world, the rescue goes up to a week or 10 days, but not there. We are becoming like China; life has no value…”

  • Ross Stein

    Submitted anonymously, “Many thanks for clearly sharing your thoughts, experience, and feelings in historical earthquakes and earthquake disasters on the Iranian Plateau, recognizing and crying out weaknesses, and prevention measures. As a member of organizing committee in Canada to raise earthquake funds for helping the survivors with relief and reconstruction efforts, we welcome and highly appreciate your recommendations for practical measures.”

  • Ross Stein

    Submitted anonymously,

    “Several years ago, while I was inspecting structures in Iran (I now reside in the USA), I was always told by the builders that ‘we usually construct some 5-6-story buildings with I-beam 14 (cm) for the columns, and since I-beam 22 (cm) is very expensive, we never use it!’ It seems that they have been only interested in dead loads and ignore earthquake load (a member of live loads) in structures affecting the design of structures in seismic regions. You can build houses without professional structural engineer design, review, or inspection throughout the country. These are samples of the consequences of this global unfair regulations in the field of engineering.

    There is no sign of: insistence on proper structure and infrastructure construction, earthquake resistance codes and standards in practice, public, state, and county law that prevent people without structural engineering knowledge, design, and license to design and construct structures, foundations, etc. One who has money can do everything and build everything everywhere. Many of public rules, laws, permit it.

    Listening, reading (if any), seeing, broadcasting, speaking is not enough, we need consistent, continuous practice and upgrade of resistance design and construction to become custom, not only law. Condolences, sympathies, emotions, prays, posts, pictures, politics, hate, news, posters, paintings are good to be hung on the wall.

    ‘Sa’di although you are saying right and are good speaker!
    It works with Practice and Action Not in the Words or good Speeches.
    If the humanity is by ear, mouth, throat & nose!
    Then What is the difference between a picture on the wall and humanity”?’
    (Sa’di Shirazi, 1021-1291).

    This is a continuous ignorance of state-of-the art practice of science, geology, earthquake and structural engineering in earthquake prone regions, whether in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Himalayas, India, China, Turkey, Caucasus, Mexico, or anywhere else. There is no positive and effective change in practice of seismic inspection, design and construction. The next earthquake is on the corner.”

  • Eric Fielding

    The large earthquake this week on the border between Iran and Iraq, an area also called Kurdistan by many who live there, struck an area of low population density. Other parts of Iran have much greater numbers of people and similar risk of earthquakes. The amount of damage to buildings built in the last 15 years is scary for other places in Iran.

  • Manuel Berberian

    Dear anonymous: I agree with your views, observations and experience. As you know, the “Iranian Code for Seismic-Resistant Building Design” (1969, with its later revisions) is based on the San Francisco, CA., and the U.S. Uniform Building Codes. The difference between California and Iran in this field (not comparing other issues) is that the Californian buildings (as well as those in Japan and other industrially developed countries) are designed, permitted, constructed, and inspected according to the strict California Building Code, whereas the Iranian buildings do not follow the Iranian Code. Government inspection and code enforcement are dealt with bribing due to corruption at all levels of the government and the society. The 2003.12.22 San Simeon, CA., Mw 6.6 earthquake killed 2 people, whereas four days later the 2003.12.26 Mw 6.6 (the same magnitude) Bam earthquake killed ca. 41,000 people and demolished the town of Bam, 35 years after the implementation of the Code. Furthermore, 14 years after the Bam earthquake of 2003, still construction of the city has not completed since the government is not allocating a proper budget. It is frustrating, sad, and depressing to see the status quo, unfathomable death toll and destruction, and lack of any progress during the last 40 years. We are chewing over the same chronic problems and we all wonder how the earthquake hazard minimization in Iran has not moved forward. Unless and until (i) the nationwide corruption, from top to the bottom of the government and society, (ii) government being above the written laws of the land and regulations, and (iii) lack of accountability, are properly addressed, the unfathomable death toll and destruction of the Iranian earthquakes will continue and will be the same as before. The earthquake problem in Iran should be considered as a government-made disaster. We should not blame god’s wrath and punishment, the planet Earth, or the building for death and destruction.

  • Manuel Berberian

    I would like to add two key references regarding my blog which gives a better understanding of the current situation.

    Berberian, M., 2014. Earthquakes and Coseismic Surface Faulting on the Iranian Plateau; A Historical, Social, and Physical Approach. Elsevier, Developments in Earth Surface Processes, 17, 776p., ISBN: 978-0-444-63292-0.

    Berberian, M., and Yeats, R.S., 2016. Tehran: An Earthquake Time Bomb. In: Tectonic Evolution, Collision, and Seismicity of Southwest Asia: In Honor of Manuel Berberian’s Forty-Five Years of Research Contributions. Geological Society of America Special Paper 525, DOI: 10.1130/2016.2525(04).

  • Manuel Berberian

    Dear Robert, thanks for your note; the credit goes to Ross and Volkan who decided to post it. During the last 47 years of my work on the Iranian tectonics, active faulting and earthquake seismology, “Temblor.net” was the first media that agreed to publish such a commentary note. Despite the 1969 Iranian Code for Seismic-Resistant Buildings, during the last four decades more than 101,000 people (2525/yr) have lost their lives in the Iranian earthquakes. The saddest fact in the history of the Iranian Code is that almost all the government and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) constructed apartment multi-story buildings (the “Mehr Apartment Project”), built since 2012 were destroyed by the 12 November 2017, whereas the adjacent buildings built half a century ago withstood the strong ground motion. This tragedy clearly shows that even the government and the IRGC did not want to enforce the law of land in design and construction of their multimillion-dollar construction projects. Instead, in order to increase their profits, the authorities used very week, nonstandard and cheap building material. Even both the supreme religious leader (Khamene’i) and his top advisor and right hand IRGC commander (Haqanian) have lambasted the critics of the Mehr Apartment Project (radiofarda.com Novemebr 19, 2017). This is the highest level of corruption ever reported. Almost 8-day after the earthquake, on November 20, the Interior Ministry Deputy Minister (Haqanian), in a coordination meeting with the ‘Crisis Management Directors’, announced that an agreement has been reached and signed with the religious schools of Qom, Mashhad, Esfahan and Shiraz in quest for the religious leaders’ help and guidance in minimizing the natural disasters in the country (tabnak.ir, 20 November, 2017)!

  • Manuel Berberian

    Unfortunately, there was an error during converting the Persian calendar year to the Georgian calendar which I just noticed. The correct date for 20 November 2017 should be 20 November 2010 (Ref. tabanak.ir, 29 Aban 1389/20 November 2010, news code No. 131565). The translation of the Interior Ministry news (Haqanian) is correct. I, therefore, apologize for this error in the calendar conversion.

  • Ross Stein

    Posted anonymously,

    “Thank you very much for your forensic article. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure if those who need to read your article would see it. I hope you can directly communicate with your Iranian colleagues who are in charge.

    By the way, after the deadly 2003 earthquake in Bam, the government enforced very strict building rules for seismic safety in Bam. But, that is all about Bam, not, as far as I know, in other cities.

    I think the government only makes a law after something terrible happens. God knows what would happen to this country if such an earthquake struck a big city like TEHRAN!!! God forbid!”

  • Manuel Berberian

    The scientists in charge of earthquake damage, destruction and death toll, as well as active faulting and seismology, should know the root causes of the chronic earthquake disaster in Iran. I am doubtful in regard to the ‘strict enforcement’ of the ‘Iranian Code for Seismic Resistant Design of Buildings’ (first implemented in 1969) by the government, even in the city of Bam, with the level of corruption in the country (14 yrs after the earthquake, reconstruction of the demolished city has not been completed because the Government has not dedicated the required budget of it).
    Since 2011, the ‘Iranian Government’ and ‘Revolutionary Guard Corps’ designed the plans and constructed the “Mehr Apartment Buildings” throughout the country. Both agencies deliberately did not adopt and implement the Iranian Code (1969 and its later revisions), and no code inspections was conducted; this was all done to raise their profits. They sold these death traps to people who were and are unaware of the nature of the disastrous buildings.
    President Hasan Feraidun (Rohani) during his few hours visit of the earthquake damage zone in the city of Kermanshah declared that “destruction of the Mehr Apartment Building shows that the government is not a good builder, people can build better”! He then asked the survivors that “why the national project of the Mehr Apartment Buildings has not adopted the seismic code? We will find the irresponsible person?” [The whole system has been irresponsible and corrupt, and the President is well aware of the problem]. Meanwhile Vahid Haqanian a Revolutionary Guard officer and the top advisor to Khamene’i rejected the criticism of the Mehr project and supported the infamous project!
    Seismic resistant design codes must be effectively enforced by the government agencies and building officials to ensure the safety of structures and the inhabitants (Ministry of Interior, municipalities, governors, county officials, etc. in the case of Iran). These officials are responsible for strict Code enforcement to ensure the public safety. They are also responsible for construction work and issuing building and occupancy permits after their final inspection.
    Furthermore, evaluating the older and non-standard buildings as well as seismic retrofitting of the structural and non-structural components of such buildings and core infrastructure are critical steps to be taken to reduce seismic risk and minimizing earthquake damage, destruction, and unfathomable death toll in Iran.
    During the last four decades, the Iranian Governments and Revolutionary Guards have always been above the law of land and were engaged in making profits in their construction projects. Iranians cannot remain resilient and survive while the Government, Revolutionary Guards, and construction companies are not implementing and inspecting the seismic code in the structures, and corruption is present at all levels of the society. The Iranian authorities should remember that the “Iranian houses are their homes, and that their houses should not become their abattoir and/or graveyards.”
    Regarding the seismic situation of Tehran (with 14 million population), please see the 2016 paper ‘Tehran, An Earthquake Time Bomb’ (Geological Society of America, Special Paper, 525).