Earlier this month, Morocco was shattered by an earthquake – the country’s most deadly since 1960. Among those caught by the devastation was Rashid, a resident whose life was irrevocably altered as his home, a testament to his family’s history, crumbled into rubble.
The story is true for many impacted by the devastating 6.8 quake, which damaged 2,930 villages, claiming over 2,900 lives and approximately 59,674 houses.
“Recovery and reconstruction is slow. Beyond the funding, authorities need to have the willingness, the know-how, and means for equitable recovery,” says Dr. Mohammed Hamdouni, a prior professor of Architecture at the University of Rabat, Morocco. Another pitfall is that private companies do not have the license to assist with reconstruction efforts in Morocco.
While the reconstruction and recovery go on, it is crucial to understand the factors that exacerbated the disaster. The tragedy underscores a sobering reality: buildings, not earthquakes, often pose the gravest threat to human lives.
Experts such as Fouad Bendimerad, Chairman of the Board at Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative (EMI), who has spent three decades studying the impact of earthquakes, says knowledge of how to build earthquake-resilient structures has been around for the past 50 years. “Why don’t we use this knowledge?” The answer lies in the economic, societal, and regulation gaps in countries such as Morocco.
Bendimerad highlights the crucial need for a multidisciplinary approach. “Engineers, social scientists, community workers, politicians, and regulators have to work together, keeping in mind the impact earthquakes have on communities and people’s livelihoods.”
According to Niels Heffinck, Chief Strategy Officer at AETA Earthquake Forecasting, it is impossible to claim 100% accuracy in earthquake forecasting. However, multiple research institutions have created a strong foundation to accurately forecast earthquakes.
“The possibility of discovering unusual seismic activity could have happened for Morocco, but processing this data into a viable estimate for its magnitude, location, and timing would have still been a challenge,” adds Heffinck.
He says governments are often discouraged from acting on low-predictability events without substantial information and data to back them up. The unfortunate truth is that catastrophes need to occur to allow experts to collect real-world data leading up to, during, and after a disaster strikes to develop predictability mechanisms.
“By deploying specific sensory systems around earthquake-prone regions, pre-warning indicators can be discovered and perfected over time into a highly precise earthquake forecasting model. But, for now, we are just not there yet.”
A THREE-LEGGED STOOL APPROACH
Mud-brick buildings of Morocco are historically vulnerable to seismic activity, says Dr. Mary Comerio, an Earthquake Engineering Research Institute member and professor at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.
Morocco has a recurring issue pertaining to multi-story structures made of mud-brick. Due to limited space, people add second storeys to their homes. This led to a problematic practice. Dr. Comerio elaborates that by adding a second storey, people would place a thin concrete roof on the mud-brick walls. They also incorporate concrete columns at the corners, cutting into the bricks, which compromises the interlocking integrity of the bricks, resulting in a severe lack of structural stability.
Consequently, these buildings cannot withstand an earthquake. Addressing this dilemma, engineers and architects face a formidable challenge. These culturally significant structures could not be abandoned or replaced wholesale due to their historical importance and cost-effectiveness. Instead, the solution was finding safer ways to use mud-brick construction.
Dr. Comerio emphasizes the need for improved construction techniques in mud-brick housing, maintaining structural integrity while making additions. However, the more substantial challenge lies in changing the mindset of builders who believe that adding concrete columns is the right approach.
Following the devastating Al Hoceima earthquake in 2004, Morocco sought to ban adobe construction (mud-brick) entirely, which made up 70% of the buildings in Morocco. Engineers and architects, including Dr. Hamdouni and Dr. Comerio developed a building code in 2008, approved in 2011, with the objective to reconsider how these structures were built.
Dr. Hamdouni acknowledges that builders were primarily trained in reinforced concrete construction and were unaware of safer alternatives. They had to learn to work with mud-bricks safely and more resiliently. For instance, Dr. Comerio outlines that lightweight options like thatch, tin, or wooden beams with lightweight roofing materials could be used instead of heavy mud roofs, significantly enhancing safety.
Mud-brick construction is eco-friendly and cost-effective, particularly in areas with limited infrastructure. Reducing the reliance on cement and conventional materials could benefit conservation efforts.
It is one thing to develop the code, implementing a building code and ensuring its practical application and proper training is an even more complex challenge. It requires active involvement from the community, assessing the available land, and cultivating a mindset of resilience. Dr. Comerio describes this as a “three-legged stool” strategy, highlighting the need for community engagement, land assessment, and a fundamental shift in how people perceive and approach mud-brick construction.
“Local champions play a pivotal role in leading this transformation in mindset,” she stresses.
TOWARD RESTORATION AND RESILIENCE
Several countries have rebuilt their communities to withstand the ravages of a disaster by investing in earthquake-resilient architecture and design.
The Morocco earthquake destroyed many mud-brick houses, specifically in the Atlas mountains. As the government has announced it would offer $244 monthly over a year in aid to quake-stricken households, in addition to $38,115 compensation for destroyed homes and $21,780 for partially damaged ones, experts concur there is no shortage of funding.
Even within the country, there’s a demarcation between the more urbanized metropolitan areas and poorer remote villages. “Marrakesh will be rebuilt quickly; it’s an important tourist center,” says Bendimerad. “But what about the hundreds of villages and communities affected?”
“If a country lacks targeted, funded, managed programs that are implemented and heavily managed, heavily regulated, restoration will be undermined,” says Dr. Comerio. She stresses that the most important factor is rehousing and rehabilitation; new regulations for new construction and community involvement must exist.
Rehabilitation systems in developed countries such as California, New Zealand, and Japan provide valuable blueprints. The developing world, too, has several lessons on how governments have rebuilt communities under the exigencies of natural disasters.
Citing an example of the Philippines, which is prone to several natural disasters, it changed its outdated regulatory frameworks to adopt a more proactive approach to disaster preparedness and recovery, says Bendimerad.
In the case of Morocco, the approach must be active. “We can’t be waiting for an earthquake to happen for us to react,” he adds.
Another example is Bangladesh, a nation that has worked on comprehensive emergency response systems. The country that lost millions of people during a cyclone two decades ago has laws, regulations, and frameworks to support disaster recovery management that can alleviate the impact of a disaster at the grassroots level. “Today, when they face a cyclone, their populations are so well-prepared that it’s almost as if it’s not a significant event anymore,” adds Bendimerad.
With the advancement of technology, there is an opportunity to improve disaster prediction and preparedness.
“Governments prioritize deploying cutting-edge technologies capable of harnessing big data and utilizing artificial intelligence to provide valuable insights before potential disasters,” says Heffinck.
While AI is limited in predicting an earthquake, experts say rebuilding will take a long time for full community rehabilitation in the remotest of villages.
Recovering from an earthquake of this scale takes an estimated 20 years, according to Dr. Comerio.
It is important to consider the rehabilitation of communities as part of the reconstruction process. “Restoring communities, working with them to understand their struggles, teaching them to build better, could take anywhere from ten to 15 years,” says Bendimerad.
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