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Tick, Tick

by CORRESPONDENT

07 Apr 2009 06:34Comments
2470379323_21da4d7c2e.jpgTehran should be prepared in case of a natural disaster.

Tehran sits on a very active seismic plate with three major fault lines surrounding the city on three fronts; there are also as many as 100 other fault lines crisscrossing the city. Many experts have likened Tehran to a time bomb. A major earthquake in the city is not a matter of "if," but "when." An earthquake is bound to happen and when it does the consequences will be grave, not only for residents of Tehran, but every province in Iran, as well as the country's borders.

Tehran has one of the largest urban populations in the world, around 15 million people in greater Tehran, and a very high population density index as well. A great deal of money and a considerable amount of the government budget is spent here. Steering this concrete ship of gargantuan proportions has its challenges. Problems are so widespread and intricate,

Managing the problems of a large metropolis, be it London, New York, or our capital, is a herculean task and has a heroic dimension to it, bestowing fame and political capital upon the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Ken Livingstone. The same has been true about Tehran's mayoralty. Over the years it has played a very influential role in Iranian politics, as seen with the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used the post as a stepping stone to the Iranian presidency.

However, with the exception of a few (among them Gholamhossein Karbaschi), Tehran's mayors have all made the same fundamental mistake of trying to run the city applying micromanagement strategies and methods. This micromanaged stewardship, exacerbated by the hazards of a large socioeconomic gap, slum dwelling, costly maintenance, and enforcement difficulties, to name just a few, have made Tehran a much vulnerable city.

It is not possible to prevent an earthquake from happening, but proper management in the form of preparedness and mitigation planning for the city can considerably reduce the effects of one. This is where macro-management strategies and policies become important. Natural hazards such as earthquakes are not a disaster on their own, but rather the triggering event that will wreak havoc upon a vulnerable city. The vulnerabilities come at three levels: The first is the underlying factor, poverty. The second is dynamic factors such as rapid urbanization, poor management, etc. And last, the aggregate effects of those two factors upon poorly constructed buildings, housing on slopes and other unsafe conditions.

It is well known that risk is a determinant of vulnerabilities against capabilities. Thus, a macro-manager can opt to reduce the risks of a disaster by either tackling the vulnerabilities (by reducing poverty or socioeconomic gaps, for example) or by building capabilities (by training residents on how to respond in the event of an earthquake). The best examples are Japanese mega-cities such as Tokyo. By strict adherence to building codes, safe building policies and by proper preparedness planning, many Japanese cities can withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 7 or more on the Richter scale. (Remember that it took only a magnitude 6 earthquake to devastate Bam, which resulted in more than 40,000 casualties.)

But for years, the issues of disaster management and disaster planning have been ignored in Tehran, most probably because with the micro-managerial state of mind of recent Tehran mayors, the task is impossible to achieve. However from a macro-management point of view, not only are such risk-reduction strategies feasible, but highly cost justifiable.

I must reiterate: In the status quo, the effects of an earthquake in Tehran will be highly disastrous. Casualties will number in the thousands. The infrastructure, not only in Tehran, but throughout the country, will be so gravel it will take decades, if not a century, to recover from it. I don't want to exaggerate, but the risk is too real, too horrifying. I would suggest interested readers to look at similar cases around the world, especially the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 and the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

The Milad Tower dominates the Tehran skyline. Photo/YoungRobV.

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