'It will take at least 5 years to recover from this'
In light of Monday’s earthquake, feared to be one of the deadliest in the 21st century, The Business Standard spoke to Professor Mehedi Ahmed Ansary of the department of civil engineering, BUET
A major earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck central Turkey and northwest Syria, and shortly after, another of magnitude 7.5 struck Turkey. It already left 4,800 people dead as of this writing and the death toll is expected to rise.
The quake, which struck in the early darkness of a winter morning, was also felt in Cyprus, Greece, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Lebanon. The magnitude of this calamity brings to memory the 1999 and 1939 earthquakes that hit Turkey in the last century.
The Business Standard spoke to disaster management expert, Professor Mehedi Ahmed Ansary, of the department of civil engineering, BUET, about Turkey, and Bangladesh's risk of and preparedness for earthquakes.
Ansary said it is very difficult to predict earthquakes. Japan and the United States have spent huge amounts of money to predict earthquakes, but an earthquake, in reality, can be predicted only 10 seconds before a strike.
Do you think Turkey was prepared for an earthquake of this magnitude?
Actually, they were prepared but they put more focus on the large cities. The epicentre of this earthquake was away from the capital and major cities. The preparedness was comparatively low in the affected areas.
The magnitude of the earthquake was caused by the Anatolian Fault in northern Turkey. [It's possibly the most active fault line in the world. Some of the most destructive earthquakes in history have been caused by movement along this fault].
At the same time, we cannot say that Turkey was ill-prepared. For example, if you look at the buildings in the video clips that have surfaced, some high-rise buildings are [still] standing tall, but some neighbouring buildings have collapsed. It may be that the buildings that have collapsed had not been built according to the building code or they were old buildings.
Turkey has preparations and they are conducting search and rescue operations. But that is not enough, because if a large number of buildings collapses, it is hard to conduct search and rescue operations.
The scale of destruction would not have been so bad, I think, if enough buildings were constructed according to proper design and building codes.
Constructing buildings according to building codes also depends on the economic state of a country. The economic state of Japan and the United States is not the same as Turkey's. Turkey is not that well-off to be able to ensure building codes are followed by each and every building.
But it is also true that there were lapses. Turkey's leading researchers have been saying for the last couple of years that small-scale earthquakes took place in the area and they recommended taking preparedness measures. But the authorities did not pay heed to their warnings and did not give the issue the importance it demanded. They [also] did not expect such an extent of damage.
In 1939, there was a huge earthquake in which around 40,000 people died. [The deadly earthquake on Monday in Turkey was as strong as one in 1939, the most powerful one on record in Turkey].
In comparison to that earthquake, the number of casualties and extent of the destruction is low this time, because they are, to some extent, prepared.
You see, Turkey provides consultancy services for earthquake resistance around the world. They had the preparedness, just not as much as needed. The number of casualties and extent of damage could have been more.
You will see, in most cases, the buildings in the rural area collapsed more. On the other hand, in the city area, one building collapsed among 10 buildings. Two earthquakes have struck and the magnitude of the earthquakes are 7.8 and 7.5 respectively on the Richter scale. I can say, if you consider the magnitude of the earthquakes, the number of casualties and amount of damage is low.
[Another point of reference for comparison] is 2015, when nearly 9,000 people died in an earthquake in Nepal. It is worth noting that the population density in Nepal's Gorkha [where the earthquake hit] is lower than the population density in Turkey's Gaziantep.
In your estimation, how long would it take to repair the damage caused by the earthquakes on Monday?
The earthquakes lasted for seconds. But it takes a long time to repair and rehabilitate. I think it will take at least five years. The rebuilding of the collapsed buildings will take time, which will not be possible without having a long-term plan.
Turkey has already sought financial assistance from the UN agencies for search and rescue operations as well as rebuilding. The damage incurred will go beyond Turkey's financial capacity.
Where else around the world are high-risk zones like this?
Turkey is always in a high-risk zone and exposed to vulnerability. Besides Turkey, Los Angeles and Japan are also in the high-risk zone. Historically, these places suffer earthquakes and wherever else fault lines are hyperactive.
What is the risk of earthquakes for Bangladesh and what is the state of our preparedness?
I would say we should start to evaluate the condition of buildings and check whether building codes are enforced in buildings.
It is very difficult to assess a building's condition by looking at it. We need to test the condition of a building. It is called a detailed engineering assessment, akin to a pathological test. It can tell us about the state of the building, for instance, how many rods have been used, etc. Bangladesh has around 50 institutes, including universities and in the private sector, that can assess the condition of buildings.
It was after the Rana Plaza tragedy that industrial buildings were evaluated and improved by following or implementing building codes.
In Dhaka city alone, there are around six lakh apartments. It is not possible for the government to monitor everyone. The building owners will have to check the building at their own cost and submit the certificate to Rajuk.
Those buying an apartment are spending Tk1 crore in Dhaka. It will take only Tk2 lakh to test a building. Suppose, 10 families live in a building, then each can spend Tk20,000 to check the building's condition. This needs to be done immediately.
[And after the evaluation], the buildings are supposed to be marked with colours such as red, yellow and green according to their level of vulnerability to earthquakes. Many countries around the world have this practice.
We have the procedure. What the government will have to do is put up public advertisements asking them to check their buildings and submit the certificate to a related authority like Rajuk.
If we can identify the buildings, then before an earthquake strikes, we can estimate how much damage it can cause. Moreover, when we find out the buildings that are at risk, we can have them vacated. It will ultimately reduce the casualties from earthquakes.
Bangladesh's government has made a huge investment in disaster management and preparedness for disasters, including earthquakes, over the last 10 years. But the problem is that the government does not put these things into practice. Many pieces of disaster management equipment, including earthquake preparedness, have been purchased, but there is no use for them. Government agencies do not carry out maintenance regularly.
But I would [still] say we have preparedness to some extent.