How Shoddily Constructed Buildings Become Weapons of Mass Destruction

We tend to focus on the size of an earthquake, but death toll has more to do with the quality of buildings. A new study shows that countries in south-central Asia are on the wrong side of the disaster divide — and the costs could be terrible

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Design Pics / Reynold Mainse via Getty Images

Poorly constructed buildings were responsible for the massive death toll of the 2010 Haiti quake

There’s a term I’ve written about in the past: the disaster divide. It refers to the vast discrepancy between developed and developing nations in the death toll from natural disasters. Those countries that prepare for hurricanes or earthquakes and have the resources to respond to a catastrophe can now weather even very severe events with relatively little loss of life. The same storm or quake in a poor country, however, can cause massive human loss. That’s why the Bay Area can suffer a 6.9 quake in 1989 and lose just 63 people, while Haiti can suffer a quake just a bit stronger in 2010 and lose at least 100,000 people. Poverty — and even more, poor governance and corruption — is the multiplier of natural disasters.

That’s why one of the most vulnerable places in the world is south-central Asia. A quarter of the world’s population lives in the region, which runs roughly from Iran in the west to Burma in the east. These countries are in seismological peril — they sit on the northern edge of the Arabian and Indian plates, which are colliding with the southern margin of the Eurasian plate. There have been huge earthquakes recorded throughout history in these countries, with one temblor in 2005 killing over 80,000 people in India and Pakistan’s disputed Kashmir region. There will surely be powerful quakes there in the future.

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But the danger isn’t just seismological. As Roger Bilham and Vinod Gaur pointed out in Science last week, the poorly constructed buildings that are common throughout the region — especially the multistory residences that can and do collapse like pancakes in a quake — amplify that danger:

Postseismic investigations reveal that structural collapse is typically attributable to shoddy construction resulting from poverty and ignorance, or to covert avoidance of building codes by contractors. Moreover, earthquake-resistant design codes, where they exist, are generally applied to civic structures only, and not to the dwellings where most of the people of South Asia live. Pervasive building fragility is all too frequently highlighted by the spontaneous collapse of multistory structures in the major cities of South Asia. During strong earthquakes, widespread building collapse is not only expected but also statistically quantifiable within minutes of the main shock and is used to aid search and rescue.

Bilham and Gaur go on to worry specifically about the vulnerability of nuclear power plants in India to future quakes — a fear I share. (U.S. nuclear plants aren’t exempt from seismic risks either.) But the greatest risk comes from those all-too-fragile apartments and office buildings that can be found in cities throughout south-central Asia. When a strong quake hits, those buildings become tombs of rubble. That’s exactly what happened in Haiti and in the terrible 2008 quake in the Chinese province of Sichuan, which killed over 80,000 people — many of them young children whose substandard schools collapsed around them. The earthquakes are the gun. But the buildings are the bullets.

There’s nothing the countries of south-central Asia can do about seismic risks. That’s a fact of geography. But stricter building codes — and perhaps more important, actually enforcing those building codes — can take the edge off that risk, and keep the next big quake from becoming a human catastrophe. Obviously poverty is a challenge, but the work of organizations like Architecture for Humanity and the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group demonstrate that you can build more-resilient structures without busting even a poor country’s budget. And better building is a perfect use of development aid, which always tends to be overly weighted to relief instead of resilience. Better to spend the money now — and save lives later.

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