Tick, Tick

Located between Gisha and Shahrak-e Gharb (Shahrak-e Qods), the Milad Tower dominates the Tehran skyline. Photo/YoungRobV.

Tehran should be prepared in case of a natural disaster.

Tehran Bureau | comment

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.


4 Responses to “Tick, Tick”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Can you give concrete examples of micro- vs. macro-management styles? And could you recommend some further reading on the Tehran mayoralty, how the city is run, etc?


  2. Anonymous Says:

    There are many examples of a macro-management approach to disaster management. For example, a proper emergency plan must consist of at least three parts: Emergency Preparedness Functions (EPF), Emergency Support Functions (ESF) and finally Emergency Recovery Functions (ERF). Some split the EPF into Mitigation Functions and Preparedness Functions. So basically, disaster management is a long term process, we should be able to reduce the risks of disasters in the distant future, we should be prepared to respond to near-future disasters and finally we need to build the capacity to absorb the shock of a disaster and recover from it. It needs a 20-year plan at least, with predefined goals and objectives as well as predetermined milestones.

    For example it is not good enough to ban non-emergency vehicles from a disaster site only after a disaster strikes. The emergency access routes to every strategic site in the city should be predetermined and marked, in order to save precious time in the event of a disaster.

    The problem with the current Iranian style of management (or the so-called micro-management style) is, and I quote a Persian proverb, “We plant wheat so that we can harvest it at the end of the year, but we never plant trees so that someone else may harvest it next year.” Instead of devising a proper building code and implementing it (like the Hong Kong Building Code or a similar other one), we try to retrofit a few of the buildings with emotional or political value attached to them. Or instead of fortifying the existing hospitals in the city we buy field hospitals in order to use them when a disaster disables the current hospitals in the city. Most importantly the issue of education and community involvement is being ignored. I can give you a very good example: in Izmir (Turkey) after the earthquake of 2003, they started a community-based project named CERT (community emergency response team) and the results have so far been very satisfying. But in Iran the Red Crescent has thousands of volunteers but only a handful are properly trained for the task expected of them.

    One the best examples of an macro-management approach to disaster planning was a guideline that I came across in the Vancouver Public Library. It was written by the Oklahoma City Council and it concerned Earthquake planning. It was very well written and extremely practical. (I must add the guideline was written in the 1980s, so by this account Tehran is decades behind as we still don’t have a Planning Guideline, let alone a practical feasible plan.) — Amir Momeni

  3. ashly Says:

    I wonder if someone could draw the three faults on a map of Tehran, at least the residents near by can take some action to minimize the tragedy.

    Also I am curios how neighboring countries, other than feeling sorry for Tehranis, are affected. Do you expect an earthquake category of above 8 on the Richter scale?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Here is the thing, if either of those major fault lines break, the consequence will be an earthquake that will affect whole of Tehran (the epicenter will be too close to Tehran for any part of it to be spared).

    There are community actions which residents can resort to, for ameliorating the impact of an earthquake, however the people need to be empowered and the overall steering of the risk reduction efforts is the responsibility of the authorities.

    Almost all Tehranis know that the city is surrounded by fault lines, however they have not been warned enough about the risks facing them nor have they been informed about the actions necessary to reduce the risks.

    and about the neighboring countries, even with an powerful category 8 (on the Richter scale) they won’t be directly affected.

    Amir Momeni

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