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Monday, 29 January, 2001, 20:38 GMT
Tragic lessons to be learnt
Residents survey building remains in Bhuj
Thousands died under collapsed buildings in Gujarat
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

Two huge earthquakes in as many weeks - first in El Salvador, now in India - have again raised questions about how avoidable might be the enormous loss of life in such disasters.

Experts are quick to blame governments for not being prepared - despite the regularity with which natural or man-made disasters occur throughout the world.

The authorities are accused of not acting swiftly enough to help survivors, or blamed for not enforcing adequate safety standards in the first place.

Cracked building in Bhuj
Buildings weren't built to withstand tremors
One civil engineer from Bombay preparing to go to Gujarat said: "We are beginning to relearn the lessons that were reiterated following El Salvador - that governments are not prepared. They directly or indirectly contribute to the death by permitting poor construction quality."

One of the problems is that India, along with other developing countries, is undergoing rapid urbanisation, which means that buildings are being put up quickly to meet growing housing needs.

And some developers, keen to make a quick profit, are not as concerned about safety as they should be.

One woman who lost her son-in-law in the El Salvador disaster described the earthquake as the work of God, but the results the work of man.

A tide of mud instantly buried a middle-class neighbourhood in Santa Tecla, a suburb of the capital, San Salvador.

Building there had been allowed to take place on previously stable, afforested hillsides that proved particularly vulnerable once cleared for homes.

Building laws

In Turkey's devastating quake of August 1999, flimsy construction contributed to the heavy death toll.

Much of the comment afterwards focused on the need for tougher regulation in the building industry. Although the country had building laws, it was discovered they had been evaded or ignored.

There is an urgent need across the board for governments to invest in pre-disaster management

Dr John Twigg, University College, London
Similarly, in Taiwan in September 1999, many buildings collapsed like sandcastles.

One of the most seismically-active regions on earth, Taiwan employs building codes formulated to counter the threat of earthquakes. But experts afterwards spoke of illegal construction as a result of the country's very rapid development.

Dr John Twigg, a researcher at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre of University College, London, says in areas where there is massive urbanisation, the control and supervision of the building quality is not as good as it could be.

In Turkey, the effects of the quake typified the urban sprawl in the country's industrial heartland.


Ahmedabad is one such city that grew very fast.

Experts say that in such cases whatever type of building is constructed a number of factors have to be taken into account.

Damage in Yalova, Turkey
Poor building construction contributed to the number killed in Turkey
Lessons learnt from earthquakes in Los Angeles in 1994 (54 deaths) and Kobe in Japan in 1995 (6,500 deaths) show that one of the critical factors is the nature of the building materials used.

Weight was the main factor in Turkey and Kobe. In Turkey - where there is an active seismic belt - tall, heavy buildings had been built, causing people to be crushed by structures collapsing above their heads.

And in Kobe, heavy-roofed buildings put up to withstand frequent typhoons also proved to be lethal.

In California, however, timber-framed houses with light roofs rode out the tremors. The state, which has suffered recurring tremors over the past century, is one of the few places where a lot of money is being spent on research into designing quake-proof housing.

But Dr Twigg says such focus on disaster mitigation is rare. He says most governments invest in post-disaster response and very little in making people secure.

"There is an urgent need across the board for governments to invest in pre-disaster management, including investment in local capacity such as public education," he says.

But while he insists that educating people about how to plan for and respond to earthquakes is in some ways as important as improving buildings standards, he acknowledges that neither can be achieved without considerable financial outlay.

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29 Jan 01 | South Asia
Prosperous Gujarat laid low
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