Will shoddy buildings in Asia survive tremors?

In places like Bangladesh, it is rarely the building owners or the big businessmen or pliant politicians who are crushed suddenly under the awful weight of masonry, or injured by industrial accidents.

Mostly, it is the toiling masses, many of whom are women - mothers and daughters; wives and big sisters. And little sisters.

They are often just faceless statistics, though today’s swift and seamless digital information era is slowly changing that.

The collapse of the building called Rana Plaza, on April 24, in Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka, which left several hundreds of people dead, has been a heart breaking trauma and tragedy of many dimensions.

While survivors were being gingerly extracted from the rubble by heroic rescue workers and volunteers working around the clock, the focus soon shifted to shoddy and illegal buildings.

These tell a tale of corruption and lax governance which allow these structures to be built, and of regulations – this time in the textile industry - that are tragically not enforced and allow these buildings to remain occupied.

All for profit, and not for the first time either.

But Rana Plaza is, for all its horrific scale, just a foretaste of what could take places on a far greater scale, in the event of a disaster triggered by an earthquake.

Dhaka is considered one of the world’s 20 major cities most at risk from an earthquake, with regular events over the past 450 years.

And the Savar tragedy when – not if – replicated across the city of over 14 million, with a population density of around 5,000 per square kilometre mostly packed into shoddily constructed buildings sometimes on soft alluvial soil, would mean a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions, especially in the old city where buildings over 100 years old are still lived in.

The narrow streets of old Dhaka would be a nightmare for first responders to negotiate in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake; newer areas are not much better.

Another old Asian city not that far north of Dhaka, is on the Himalayan fault line – and for years experts have been talking of “the big one” now statistically overdue.

That city is Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, densely packed in a valley, and also in a country, like Bangladesh, where the people are not short of spirit and resilience, but where the state has limited resources and infrastructure is poor.

The last big earthquake in the Kathmandu valley was in 1934.

The population was just around 300,000 and the dwellings are largely adobe with thatch and in some cases slate tiled roofs.

Today, the population is close to four million, with many living in poorly built multi-storey structures.

Experts say a 1934-type earthquake is overdue and if it occurs today, it would kill at least 100,000 people, severely injure twice as many, and leave close to two million homeless.

“It would be well beyond the capacity of Nepal, and well beyond the capacity of the region, and even maybe beyond the capacity of the world community to adequately respond,” Amod Dixit of the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) told me over the phone.

An earthquake in the Kathmandu valley would have an impact similar to that of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Dixit said.

The magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti left around 220,000 dead.

“Risk reduction has not kept pace with the increase in vulnerability,” he said.

It is estimated that two-thirds of Kathmandu’s structures are not fit to withstand an earthquake of 8-plus magnitude.

There is a case to be made to call earthquakes not entirely natural disasters, but man-made as well.

The amount of money poured into earthquake proof building technology in California and Japan, and into awareness and preparedness, dwarfs investment in places like Dhaka and Kathmandu.

And it is always the poor who can’t afford sturdy buildings.

The difference between rich and poor countries is stark.

A powerful cyclone which hit Bangladesh in 1991 with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour, killed more than 138,000 people.

A year later Hurricane Andrew hit Florida with even higher wind speeds, but only 18 people were killed.And it is invariably also governments in relatively poor countries who deal with a plethora of immediate basic problems - like health, water and sanitation – that have little time, energy and resources left to devote to preparedness for a disaster that could come any second, or not in this lifetime.

And that is even before managing the politics of it all.Even when there are strict building codes it is always in poor and corruption-prone countries that they are not strictly implemented.

And with today’s much higher urban population densities packed into unplanned cities, death tolls are inevitably far higher than 100 years ago.

But they are trying nonetheless.

I covered the Bhuj earthquake in Kutch, a magnitude 7.6-7.7 event, in the state of Gujarat, in India.

In a town of less than 200,000 people, several thousand died; the toll for the whole region of Kutch was 20,000-odd.

The earthquake was a wake-up call, at least in south Asia.

Muhammad Saidur Rahman, head of the Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Centre, credits post-Bhuj special training funded by a range of agencies and foreign governments including USAID and DFID and the UN, of first rescuers and community volunteers, for the exemplary job done by rescuers and the community in general at Rana Plaza.

Similarly, among a slew of other programmes, schools are being retrofitted to make them earthquake-proof or resilient, under Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley Earthquake Risk Management Project.

Children are being trained on how to react when there is an earthquake.

And learning from Haiti where the international airport at Port au Prince was damaged and unusable for three days so rescuers and relief supplies could not get in, a project is now underway to ensure that Kathmandu’s international airport can keep functioning after a major earthquake.

The airport immediately needs US $1 million (S$1.24 million) for prepositioning of food and other emergency relief supplies and equipment.

Another US$10 million is needed for the airport to be fully prepared, according to a report in the Nepali Times.

The plan lays out emergency response for the first 72 hours to repair damage, restore flight operations, prepare staging areas, and logistics for flying in relief.

“The planning at the moment is at an advanced level, but there is a gap in funding support,” Andrew Martin, head of UN’s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is part of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, told the Nepali Times.

It is still an uphill task for the experts.

And as for public opinion, one drawback is that while there is awareness, unlike in Japan and California, people are not constantly reminded of the risk by regular tremors.

“I am an optimist,” Rahman told me.

“But we have a very long way to go.”

 “The prospect of a major earthquake is like a nuclear war: you don’t want to think about it,” Kunda Dixit, a senior Nepali journalist, has written in the magazine Himal.

“But it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we will see a repeat of the great earthquakes that have devastated the Subcontinent throughout history.”

What would be the sound of a hundred Rana Plazas collapsing? Or a thousand?

A friend told me how the collapse of the town of Bhuj looked from just some 10 kilometres away as the ground heaved and shifted beneath his feet and he fell, scrabbling for balance.

The collapsing city threw up a dense cloud of dust which hung like a belt on the horizon, he said.

He wasn’t close enough to hear anything.

But when he got to the city an hour later the dust had dispersed and settled but he could hear the cries and screams of those still alive and trapped and broken under the masonry. Dazed people wandered the streets or sat nursing wounds, or scrabbled at the rubble to find friends and loved ones.

It is a sound familiar to the rescuers – and the survivors – of the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka.

And it is not a sound one ever wants to have to hear.

Email: nirmal@sph.com.sg