Shoddy homes worsen Pakistan earthquake damage

by Reuters
Thursday, 26 September 2019 12:13 GMT

A man walks over rubbles of a damaged house after an earthquake in Jatlan, Mirpur, Pakistan September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

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In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line the poor bore almost the entire brunt of badly constructed buildings

By Rod Nickel and Charlotte Greenfield

ISLAMABAD, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Shoddy building construction, old housing and lax oversight leave Pakistan especially vulnerable to deadly earthquakes, experts in disasters and architecture say, and likely exacerbated damage from a tremor that killed at least 37 people.

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake levelled houses, shops and other buildings, and injured around 500 people on Tuesday near Mirpur, in Pakistan's portion of the disputed Kashmir territory.

Most of the deaths and injuries were caused by old village houses collapsing, said Sardar Gulfaraz Khan, the deputy inspector general of police for Mirpur district.

Among them was the son of Mohamad Zaman, who hurried home from his job as a rickshaw driver after the earthquake struck to hear that 12-year-old Afzal had been hit by a falling wall, suffering a head injury.

"There are lots of old homes so apparently the damage is done due to those," Zaman told Reuters at a hospital in Mirpur, where his son was being treated.

The few new homes in the district, built with stronger structures, all survived, he said.

A 2005 earthquake that devastated much of Kashmir and killed more than 80,000 people prompted an update to Pakistan's building code to make rebuilt houses safer.

But 14 years on, some say complacency has set in, in a country crossed by geological fault lines.

"Disasters happen and the people have to just look after themselves because the institutions are not strong enough," said architect Arif Hasan, referring to local authorities who enforce standards. "We don't have the teeth or the finances to do it."

Rapid urbanization in Pakistan has meant housing has been quickly built to keep up with demand, said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center think-tank.

"It all becomes quite unregulated, inefficient, and ultimately dangerous," he said.

Chaudhry Tariq Farooq, Pakistani Kashmir's minister for physical planning and housing, said there have indeed been lapses in enforcement of building codes.

"Since our territory sits on fault lines that become active every now and then, we will have to, and we will, take harsh measures for implementation of building codes in letter and in spirit," he said.

Homes built with bricks or concrete blocks are particularly vulnerable, because each building unit shifts independently in an earthquake, said retired architecture professor Yasmin Cheema.

Even among new houses, a dangerous construction model of unreinforced masonry with no involvement from a structural engineer is widespread in Pakistan's towns and cities, according to Muhammad Masood Rafi, the head of NED University's earthquake engineering department. He is organising a team of engineering students and experts to travel to Mirpur and investigate the situation.

"These are very vulnerable buildings and they face the chance of damage and destruction when they are subjected to unusual forces," he said by telephone from Karachi.

In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, Rafi said the poor bore almost the entire brunt of badly constructed buildings.

"Mostly, only the poor are affected by the disasters, not the rich," he said. (Reporting by Rod Nickel and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; additional reporting by Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan and Akhtar Soomro and Salahuddin in Mirpur, Pakistan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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