After The Quake In Japan, Is North Africa Ready?

Sandra Appiah April 12, 2011

By: Arezki Daoud (The North African Journal)

After The Quake In Japan, Is North Africa Ready?The intensity of the March 2011 Japan earthquake was unlike anything else we have witnessed in modern times. This was no doubt of epic proportions, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began. Japan’s Meteorological Agency says the quake struck with a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale. Then that event was followed by deadly Tsunami waves hitting Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south.

Not to scare anyone, but if such magnitude quake were to hit the western Mediterranean, North Africa could melt and perhaps parts of Southern Europe. In North Africa, it would not be because of some geological profile of the region, but largely because of the poor state of the housing and construction infrastructure there. Like many places around the world that enjoy fertile lands and beautiful landscapes, North Africa is also an earthquake zone with Algeria being more sensitive to natural quake activity than other countries.

But Algeria is not alone. On February 29, 1960, three nights into the month of Ramadan, the ground of the Moroccan city of Agadir rattled for less than 20 seconds. Although fast, that was enough to bring down old buildings and burry thousands of people in the debris. The disaster did not just affect the old quarters of the Kasbah, Founti, and Yachech, but also those with newer buildings such as in the Talborjt district and the Front-de-Mer.

According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, which reported about the details of the quake, “the Agadir earthquake of February 29, 1960 was one of the most devastating local quakes of all times. Within a period of a few seconds and over an area of only a few square miles, the bulk of the city of Agadir was completely destroyed and over a third of its citizens killed. In areas such as the Kasbah and Yachech the death toll amounted to 95% of the population, and almost every structure was completely shattered. The total number of casualties will never be known; thousands of bodies could not be recovered from the debris. But a reasonable estimate has indicated at least 12,000 killed and 12,000 wounded. “

Yet life resumed in earnest. Seven years after the event, the Earthquake Information Bulletin released a note saying “at present, the city’s population has soared to about the same as it was in 1960 – near 35,000. Provisions for 2000 tourists, attracted by the temperate climate and beautiful beaches, have been made by the owners of hotels and bungalows. In an effort to rebeautify the city, more than 85,000 trees have been planted. Roads, streets, harbor facilities, and power and water supplies are better than before the disaster. Nearly $45 million has been spent to ensure that the buildings are less susceptible to such extensive damage in future earthquakes, and to make the city more attractive than ever to the tourist. “As life settles back into normal mode, memories of the earthquake fade away.

Fast forward some 20 years later and is the Algerian city of El-Asnam, later renamed Chlef. In 1980, 5,000 people were killed when a 7.7 degree-quake struck the region. After the devastation, famed geologist Haroun Tazieff went on TV to warn of the big one that was yet to come creating panic among the population. His televised expert opinion scared many and millions of Algerians did not like what they heard. Decades later and the big one is yet to come. And yet nothing substantial was done to prepare the nation’s housing infrastructure as Algeria was busy dealing with its darkest political era in its modern history. All it takes is to drive on and around the hills of Algiers to comprehend the big problems that city would face if a strong earthquake hits. Experts say the whole nation would suffer if the capital is struck by a quake measuring 7 degrees on the Richter scale. A similar event that destroyed the province of Boumerdes to the east of the capital could lead to far greater destruction and losses if it happens in Algiers. The capital Algiers is even more vulnerable considering that tens of thousands of people from outside the city moved in over the past two decades to escape the misery of the countryside and the terror of the 1990s. The government has always had the brilliant idea of creating a new capital further south, and by relocating the administrations, Algiers would be lighter and less crowded city. But as in many of the nation’s brilliant plans, the idea never came to fruition. Instead, Algiers is a big city that has many more residents that it can handle. And in such an environment, between old homes and outdated roads and infrastructure, any high magnitude quake can transform the city into a disaster zone.

The risk was somewhat demonstrated on May 21, 2003 when a 6.8 quake hit Boumerdes, some 60 km (40 miles) east of the capital Algiers. The quake was devastating, killing at least 2,266 people, in addition to 10,261 injured. Although many Algerians saw Boumerdes as a modern hub, with academic institutions like the Algerian Petroleum Institute (IAP) and similar prestigious schools, that “modern” region used not enough anti-quake standards to protect its residents. Prestigious or not, the building codes continued to be substandard in Boumerdes 23 years after El Asnam. As the quake struck the region, more than 1,243 buildings were damaged or destroyed, leaving 150,000 homeless. The infrastructure was damaged in the Algiers-Boumerdes-Reghia- Thenia area. Also damaged were the underwater telecommunication cables. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the damage was estimated at $100 million, in a report that added “a tsunami generated with an estimated wave height of 2 m caused damage to boats off the coast of the Balearic Islands and was also recorded on the coast of Alicante, Castellon and Murcia, Spain. The quake was felt at Palma de Mallorca and Soller, Mallorca and at Calvia and Mahon, Mallorca and Ibiza, Ibiza. Also felt at Albacete, Alcantarilla, Alicante, Barcelona, Cartagena, Castellon, Elda, Molina de Segura, Murcia, Sagunto and Villafranca del Panades, Spain and in Monaco.”

In North Africa, the risk is further compounded by the existence of an enormous base of homes and construction sites that are far from complying with today’s anti-seismic guidelines. An estimated 80% of the housing units and buildings in the capital Algiers, for example, are said to be unfit to withstand a high-magnitude tremor. But that’s not just Algiers. All other major cities, from Oran in the northwest to Constantine and Annaba in the east, face the very same critical vulnerability risk. The 80% rate mentioned in this analysis comes from the fact that these housing units and buildings are more than 50 years of age, constructed during the colonial era when quakes were a lot less known facts.

The sorry state of the region’s housing pool and other infrastructure may not be on the agenda of decision makers and the political elite, but a group of specialists has long been vocal about this issue without much success in getting policy makers attention. Its members have been raising red flags to bring the problem front and center in the political debate, but their voices remain to be heard. These analysts have been calling for the formation of a study group to assess the vulnerability of old houses, which are in the millions. They are lobbying for the establishment of a special fund to identify high-risk infrastructure and analyze it, before exploring measures to secure it. The challenges, however, are enormous and financing an upgrade project could be so costly that it is out of Algeria’s financial capabilities to do so.

An approach that takes into account the creation of a new capital and a progressive dismantling of unfit homes would make sense. But for now, Algeria is trying to focus, unsuccessful so, on reducing the shortage of housing regardless of the quality. Meanwhile, the country does not even have a national agency that would draft basic urban development rules and monitor them. Such agency is necessary even more today than ever before in an effort to revisit what has been done and how to rectify errors.

Even in today’s large scale projects, not enough attention is paid to anti-seismic techniques and quake readiness. An agency such as the one advocated by experts would help prevent catastrophes such as the breakage of the dam of Beni Haroun in the province of Mila, which consumed hundreds of millions of dollars over a period of 20 year construction without being fully completed. Algeria is currently preparing to spend $3 billion on a controversial construction of a mosque in the capital city and such a massive infrastructure cannot be possibly completed without a thorough seismic diagnosis and investment in readiness. Experts cite the case of the Emir Abdelkader and Milia mosques which sustained substantial damage as a result of landslides. For now, authorities have their thoughts elsewhere. Algeria’s priorities today are on creating a basic economy that can sustain itself and grow so as to absorb unemployment. Their concerns have also been focused on reducing the housing deficit that has led the country into social chaos. But even that, the results are less than stellar. As such the likelihood to modernize the housing sector using the best construction technology is limited to none. In contrast, the likelihood of a nature catastrophe with a potential to inflict massive damage is a certainty.

Last Edited by: Updated: June 19, 2018


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