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Last Updated: Friday, 2 January, 2004, 16:23 GMT
Starting from scratch in Bam
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

The US offers help, and the media devote column after column to analysing the significance of Iran's acceptance of Western aid to cope with the devastation wrought by the earthquake.

An Iranian Red Crescent worker picks his way through the rubble
Some 80% of Bam has been destroyed
The talk is of reconstruction - and - in the longer term - of building an Iran where constructions are able to withstand earthquakes and thus their potentially deadly consequences.

Severe earthquakes are common in Iran, a country which lies on major faultlines.

In the past two decades alone, tens of thousands have been crushed to death or died of asphyxiation as they waited for help in their poorly constructed homes.

This time, as in the aftermath of Iran's previous earthquakes, the international community has moved to assist and a housing post-mortem is under way.

"Each time we hear the same debate, the same promises. But nothing seems to change," says catastrophe expert David Alexander.

No more mud

It was the prevalence of poorly designed houses built with primitive materials and in disregard of building codes which meant that a tremor of similar strength killed as many as 50,000 in the Iranian city of Bam but only two in quake-prone California the previous week.

Some 80% of Bam has been destroyed: the city's famous mud-brick constructions collapsed quickly - and crucially left no life-saving air pockets for those crushed as they slept, just suffocating dust.

But while a large number of the buildings destroyed in the quake were historical, many were recently constructed, publicly-financed structures, such as the hospital.

The 2000-year-old Arg-e-Bam citadel - one of Iran's major tourist draws - is likely to be reconstructed with the help of agencies like Unesco - but the Bam of the future is likely to have a very different skyline.

"There will be no more mud brick in Bam," Dr Hamid Eskander, head of the Bam reconstruction effort, told the BBC.

"The new design will have to take into account proper seismic design techniques and parameters. When you go with the old-style buildings and old-style engineering you're looking for trouble so we're going to change it now."

Past, present and future

Iran could well learn from the mistakes and successes of its own post-quake reconstruction efforts in the course of the past few decades.

Golbaf and Ghaen provide a useful tale of two cities. Both were hit by quakes in the 1980s, were reconstructed, and hit again.

More than 1,500 people were killed again in 1997 when an earthquake struck the Ghaen region, while in Golbaf, a strong quake which had caused 1,500 deaths in 1981 caused just five in 1991.

In both sites, houses which had been designed to withstand quakes had been built.

"The difference was due to good workmanship and proper supervision," says Professor Mohsen Ghafory-Ashtiany, president of the International Institute of Engineering and Seismology in Tehran.

Indeed, as Professor Ghafory-Ashtiany stresses, Iran does have a seismic building code - drawn up in 1989.

The problem, as many observers agree, is a failure to consistently implement it - not just on an ad hoc basis after earthquakes strike but across the country before disaster hits.

It has been suggested that as many as one million people could die in Tehran if there was a repeat of the last big quake to hit the capital, a tremor which killed 45,000 in 1830.

It is not necessarily a question of money.

Iran is a country that is rich in oil and natural resources.

"There is a real lack of foresight, a real lack of planning. It is in part due to the expense, but all the studies show that the cost of not planning - and mopping up the aftermath - far exceeds what it costs to make preparations," says Professor Alexander.

At present, the authorities are busy heaping the blame on sloppy builders, while Iranians are pointing fingers at the authorities.

"But in the longer term, everybody has to take an interest in this if it is really going to change: the community, the authorities, the commercial sector. It is everyone's responsibility," says Professor Alexander.

A number of techniques can be used to make houses withstand earthquakes better:
1. Hollow concrete brick designed to cause minimal damage
2. Reinforced cement concrete roof
3. Stone foundations made from rubble from destroyed houses
4. Reinforced steel corner pillars provide strength and flexibility

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