Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Cracking the code

Earthquakes Gujarat

Hit by a devastating earthquake in 2001, the Indian state of Gujarat is drawing on UK expertise to avoid such massive loss of life again.

Damian Arnold reports.

Most of the 12,000 people who died in the Gujarat eartquake in January 2001 could have lived had simple strengthening been carried out to masonry and structural elements, say engineers who have studied the quake.

UK consultant Babtie is putting together an action plan to make Gujarat better prepared for the next such event. Its team of engineers and experts from UK and India is one year into a two year project for the Asian Development Bank. With many similar disasters from across the world to draw on, there is no shortage of risk mitigation techniques, but changing the thinking and habits of a resistant population is tough. Experts speak of a 20 year process.

Step one of Babtie's project for the newly formed Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency (GSDMA) was to give 600 local engineers a crash course in seismic engineering.

It is hoped a new disaster management institute will establish a seismic engineering course that can be added to university syllabuses across Gujarat.

Babtie hopes this newly created corps of seismically trained engineers will transform the shambolic building control system to ensure enforcement of the seismic code for reinforced concrete structures, fast springing up in urban areas.

Before the quake, poorly reinforced tower blocks were common amid widespread abuse of building controls.

Babtie's Doug Walker, who used to work in building control for Glasgow City Council, is set to recommend that the state separates building control from its planning system. 'Building regulations would have greater importance if they stood alone, ' he says. And a new building control system needs to be imposed across the whole state.

'Currently every town has its own regulations and some are inappropriate.'

Most importantly, engineers with responsibility for checking structural safety need to be made liable as part of changes to the system.

In Turkey, hit by a quake in 1999, the proposal is for a panel of accredited engineers to check every minor building design, says Walker. The panel would be paid directly by the client and administered by a central body.

Under the plan engineers responsible for checking would be required to take out professional indemnity insurance: if the building then collapses their insurance firm pays out.

But while the Turkish government negotiates with reluctant insurance firms, others argue that teaching simple techniques to local people is the key to saving lives in places like Turkey and Gujarat.

In rural areas of Gujarat, Babtie has focused on teaching local masons simple techniques for building stronger structures, estimated to cost £200 per household. Its CD Rom describes simple measures such as tying walls and roofs together.

Professor Ian Smith of Cranfield School of Management, who has researched quake rebuilding in rural areas, is supportive of such moves but stresses the need to educate whole villages. 'Occupants need to know why these things have been done to their building, ' he says. 'There are many examples of shear walls put in to strengthen a building that have been ripped out.'

India could follow the example of the Philippines, Smith suggests, where rural buildings tend to have a seismically engineered core for people to sleep in.

The long process of raising awareness of earthquake threat has been successfully tackled in Iran where, for the last 20 years or so, every school child has had classes on the consequence of poorly constructed buildings.

'Half the population is under 16 and there is a good chance of them passing the messages on to their parents, ' says Smith.

Hopefully by the time Gujarat's children grow up, India will have a new seismic code being effectively enforced.

Meanwhile the wording of the old code has been amended to make the requirement for seismic design more explicit. It is expected the new code will require more ductility in concrete structures to absorb earthquake forces.

Babtie also expects Gujarat to establish a new system of 'lifeline' systems to ensure that vital services are kept running during a disaster. When an earthquake hit southern Taiwan, for example, the whole country suffered a power cut because power to the north had to pass through a substation that was badly damaged.

'We need the utility companies to tell us where the state is vulnerable and start planning, ' says Babtie's Alan Mann.

For those still sceptical about investing in schemes with no immediate impact, a new method developed by Cambridge University and Imperial College will calculate the long term financial benefit of retrofit and new seismic build.

'We look at the seismicity of the area and the likely frequency of earthquakes by monitoring ground movements, ' says Cambridge University professor Robin Spence. 'We then do an inventory of the housing stock and come up with an estimate of future damage - it can be used as a risk assessment tool.'

Urban Impasse

Rebuilding Gujarat's worst hit towns and cities has hardly started, nearly two years after a huge quake in January 2001. In the worst hit cities and towns of Bhuj, Bachau, Anjar and Rapar near the epicentre, government sponsored rebuilding has been held up by rows over land allocation.

To open a path for rescuers in an emergency, residents of the tightly packed urban areas must agree to accept smaller land plots, but the arguments are still a long way from being settled, says native of Gujarat and Arup engineer Dinesh Patel, who has worked up his own repair and strengthening guide for local engineers (NCE 24 January).

'Some people have to give up land to make way for things like wider roads. It's tough to get them to accept that loss of land will deliver an improvement to the quality of their life, ' Patel says.

When houses are finally rebuilt, the GSDMA will offer cheap insurance, typically £7 a year for a £7,500 house, for those using seismic designs. This, again, follows the example of Turkey, where insurance policy premiums for 2M new houses are dependent on earthquake protection.

But while rows over land continue, many have opted to build on the outskirts of Bhuj, ignoring government cash and appropriate seismic design, says Patel. 'They can't wait for two years.'

And re-establishing power supplies in the urban areas has also fallen victim to land use rows which are preventing relaying of utility pipes and cables. Only 50% of grids in the major towns have been replaced and blackouts are still a regular feature, says Patel.

A new state of the art hospital in Bhuj is, however, about to open, built on rubber isolation bearings that act as shock absorbers against earthquake forces.

Meanwhile, rural areas are 75% rebuilt, claims the GSDMA. And repair of damaged infrastructure such as roads, dams and ports is 100% complete, it adds.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.