Iran's quake: Nothing 'natural' about this disaster

What is the lesson of the terrible earthquake that struck southern Iran last week, which leveled much of the city of Bam and left tens of thousands dead?

For many, it is that man should more closely observe the "rule of nature."

Reporting from the wreckage of Bam, The Sun, Britain's bestselling tabloid, said: "Once again, nature reminds us how puny we really are." Others have said that it was "Mother Nature's fury" that laid Bam to waste, as if nature were some sentient, spiteful force stalking humanity; indeed, one report claimed that "nature remains terrorism's equal ... in tearing lives, property and families to shreds."

This is a strange way to make sense of what happened in Bam. It wasn't man's folly, or the Bam residents' ignorance of the "rule of nature" that allowed the quake to have such devastating consequences. Rather, it is the fact that the people of Bam are forced to live at nature's mercy that leaves them open to such terror. It is the developing world's reliance on nature, rather than its ignorance of nature, that makes it potential prey for this thing we call "Mother Nature's fury."

The lesson of Bam is that the developing world needs to develop - and fast.

For all the post-Bam claims of nature being all-powerful and man being all-puny, in fact humanity has developed the technology and know-how to withstand the effects of many earthquakes.

At the Earthquake Engineering Research Centre at Bristol University here in Britain, scientists devote their energies to understanding quakes. They use sophisticated testing techniques, where a powerful "shaking table" tests new construction materials and components.

Their research on buildings, bridges, and even computer racks (keeping telecommunications systems up and running during earthquakes can be of life-saving importance) has shown how towns and cities can survive major quakes.

When such technology is applied, the impact of quakes is lessened.

The earthquake in Bam reached a magnitude of 6.6 and killed more than 20,000; yet an earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 that measured 7.1 and caused $10 billion worth of damage, resulted in only 63 deaths.

The earthquake that hit Kobe in Japan in 1995 measured 7.1 and killed around 5,500.

In Kobe, many of the buildings built to new Japanese codes fared quite well, but the quake caused some unexpected problems - its massive vertical component caused buildings to move up and down as well as from side to side.

Again, quake researchers learned from Kobe, and started work on buildings that could withstand both vertical and horizontal movement.

But the most striking contrast with Bam is the quake that rocked California four days earlier. Like the one in Bam, the California quake measured 6.5 and destroyed many buildings, especially in downtown Paso Robles - yet it killed only two people, not thousands. The difference between California and Bam is a difference of development.

In the developed world, advances in technology and construction mean that natural phenomena rarely wreak havoc, except when there are especially bad floods, hurricanes, or quakes. In the developing world, natural phenomena can destroy cities and kill thousands.

Why? Because people have little choice but to live by the arbitrary and reckless "rules" of nature, rather than by the rational rules of man-made development.

That is what Iran and other nations need - development. Many commentators have pointed the finger of blame at the Iranian authorities, for failing to modernize buildings and implement construction codes - and no doubt that is true.

But we also live in a world that is increasingly hostile to all-out development and the application of new technologies. The buzzwords today are "sustainable development" and "appropriate technology," where it is argued that development must happen slowly and "in sync" with nature and the environment.

Yet unless we prioritize human interests over the "rule of nature," there will be little to stop another Bam from happening again.

At times like this, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the phrase "natural disaster."

There was nothing "natural" about what happened in southern Iran.

In a world where we can construct buildings to withstand massive earthquakes, the deaths of thousands in Bam is nothing less than perverse.

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of

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