Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz quake raises questions over shoddy buildings

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Following lethal earthquake, experts warn many more lives could be at risk as builders ignore safety standards

By Asyl Osmonalieva in Bishkek and Janar Akaev in Osh (RCA No. 552, 17-Oct-08)

After 74 people died in an earthquake in southern Kyrgyzstan, seismic experts say many more lives could be lost in future tremors because houses are so poorly constructed.

The village of Nura, in the Alay district of Osh region, was all but destroyed on October 5 by a powerful earthquake measuring eight points on the Richter scale.

The 74 dead included 32 pre-school and 12 older children, in a settlement whose total population was 900. Forty people were injured and were taken to hospital.

In the village, more than 120 houses were destroyed.

Teenage brothers Oskonbek and Umut were lucky to survive. As Umut told IWPR, "We were going to bed when the earthquake started. The ceiling and all the walls caved in on us, and we and our parents barely escaped from the ruins. We spent the whole night outside. I remember it was very cold and we were barefoot. In the morning, we found out that some of our classmates and friends had died."

HOUSES FELL LIKE PACK OF CARDS

Government officials acknowledge that the main reason why casualties were so high and so much damage was done was that the housing in Nura - mostly consisting of single-storey private homes built of mud bricks - was not constructed to the required seismic standards.

Visiting the scene of the disaster two days later, President Kurmanbek Bakiev said, "I must confess that we build low-quality houses. Instead of foundations, there are two layers of stones, and the walls are just put on top of that. We could avoid tragedies if we started building earthquake-proof buildings."

Bakir Jolchiev, the deputy minister for emergency situations, said his ministry had previously warned of the dangers of substandard construction, but had been ignored.

His ministry has recorded 11 earthquakes in Kyrgyzstan since the year, but until the latest one, none had resulted in fatalities.

Tolgonbek Keneshev, the head of the State Agency for Architecture and Construction, told IWPR that almost the buildings in Nura were built over 50 years ago, and even new ones continue to be built without either foundations or a strong frame. When the first big jolt hit the village, the mud-brick homes disintegrated.

By contrast, the local school dating from 2006 survived intact, as it was built around a solid metal structure in line with seismic standards. The only other buildings left standing were a health clinic and four houses.

Keneshev noted that the school was being used as a polling station for Kyrgyzstan's local elections, held on October 5, and electoral officers brought in for the event were sleeping there. All of them survived.

Mamasali Abdrahmanov, a local resident who serving as an election observer, said he came out of the school and started helping people nearby, only reaching his own home two hours later.

"We ran out when we felt the first tremor, but we couldn't see anything for dust," he recalled. "When I got home, my daughter was crying out that she couldn't breathe. We only just managed to save her life."

POOR BUILDING PRACTICES PARTLY DUE TO IGNORANCE

Seismologists and construction experts say it is common practice for villagers in Kyrgyzstan to put up houses without taking building regulations into account.

Kenesh explained that Kyrgyzstan has building regulations that require builders to submit plans before starting work, and which - in theory at least - are backed up by stiff penalties.

He explained that Gosstroynadzor, the supervisory arm of his state construction agency, "can impose fairly tough measures on people who build their own homes - fines up to the value of the house, or demolition. But in reality these mechanisms don't work. Officials say they have to turn a blind eye to this [substandard building work] because social and economic conditions are very poor."

In practice, said Keneshov, the largest fine an offender might face would be 2,000 soms, worth 50 US dollars.

An architect who did not want to be named told IWPR that builders could evade penalties easily simply by paying off a building inspector.

"Villagers don't think about how earthquake-proof a building is when they're putting it up," said Zamirbek Bozov, deputy head of the architecture department in Osh. "They don't observe the seismic standards. No one consults an architect or an engineer.

"It's a widespread problem - all over the country houses are built badly, and everyone blames cites lack of money."

Keneshev added, "From the point of view of seismic safety, the biggest danger is privately-built houses that don't adhere to the proper safety regulations."

Builders interviewed by IWPR said part of the problem was that people did were unaware of the regulations and of easy methods of reinforcing a building using a metal or wooden frame.

The problem is not confined to remote rural areas, experts say. Larger settlement and even recently-built housing estates in urban areas are just as likely to collapse in the event of a big quake.

"There are now 48 housing estates on the outskirts of the capital [Bishkek]," said Keneshev. "Almost all the homes there have been built using substandard construction materials and earthquake resistance regulations have not been followed."

Akim Moldokulov lives in the village of Kum Aryk, not far from Bishkek, and had a house built there two years ago. "We still cannot move in because there are cracks have already appeared along the walls," he said. "It seems the team of builders didn't lay the foundations properly."

GOVERNMENT ACCUSED OF IGNORING WARNINGS

Some experts blame the government for not doing enough to plan ahead for earthquakes, in a country located in a seismically-active zone.

Seitbek Imanbekov heads the Construction Research and Design Institute in Bishkek, and complains that the authorities have never funded the seismic security programme that his institute developed in 2002.

The programme envisages a range of measures from creating an inventory of national housing stock to repairing shoddily-build structures and informing the public about seismic safety issues.

"We've never had a penny for implementing the programme, and now it's nearing its end," said Imanbekov.

Keneshev said investing in good design would work out cheaper in the end.

"In Japan, where earthquakes are frequent, they manage to avoid great loss of lives merely by having good-quality construction," he said. "Skimping on quality will cost us dear."

Kanat Abdrahmatov, director of Kyrgyzstan's Institute of Seismology, says his staff are allowed to divulge earthquake predictions only to the emergencies ministry, which he accuses of failing to act on the information.

He explained, "The Institute of Seismology has no right to divulge information on impending earthquakes. We have to pass it to the emergencies ministry, where a special committee is supposed to decide how seriously the warnings should be taken. However, that committee hasn't convened in the last ten years.

"In addition, the ministry hasn't got even one seismic prediction expert who would be in a position to evaluate our data."

The deputy emergencies minister, Bakir Jolchiev defended his office, saying, "We respond to emergencies and as part of our preventive measures, we inform people of possible natural disasters."

Jolchiev said the ministry circulated annual reports to central government ministries as well as local government. "It is up to each agency to take appropriate action," he added.

He noted that a working group consisting of experts from his ministry and from the State Agency for Architecture and Construction is currently drafting legislation on "seismic defence", which delineates clear obligations and functions for every government institution that has a role to play.

More immediately, Jolchiev said the state architecture agency had been instructed to spend the next month checking buildings and strengthening them where necessary so as to prevent a further human tragedy.

In Nura, a decision has been taken not to resettle people in other areas. Those left homeless by the quake are to be given 140 temporary mobile homes to get them through the winter.

Meanwhile, seismologists are predicting more tremors. Abdrahmatov says Kyrgyzstan is currently going through a cycle of seismic activity.

"This cycle started in 2008 and will end in 2012, according to our data. Over this period, more earthquakes measuring seven or eight points on the Richter scale are possible," he said.

"We can't name an exact time for the tremors - no one can. But the very fact that we are in a period of [seismic] activity is cause for alarm."

On October 13, southern Kyrgyzstan experienced an earth tremor that registered four points on the Richter scale in the city of Osh, and between five and six on the border with China. The epicentre was located inside China, 35 kilometres from Nura.

The emergencies ministry said there were no fatalities although some structural damage occurred.

Asyl Osmonalieva and Janar Akaev are IWPR-trained journalists in Kyrgyzstan.