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IRAN'S CALAMITY AND ITS LESSONS

IT COULD TAKE days before the world knows exactly how many people died in the massive earthquake that hit the town of Bam in south-eastern Iran. From the initial reports of the devastation, it is evidently a tragedy of epic proportions — many thousands of people killed, tens of thousands injured, a historic town levelled to the ground, the survivors struggling in the open in near freezing temperatures. As Iran goes through the bleak task of counting its dead, it needs all the help it can get from the rest of the world to cope with a disaster of such magnitude. Several countries are already rushing aid and relief supplies to Iran. The Indian Government must not lag behind in this respect, not least because the suffering unleashed by the earthquake finds resonance in India. The scenes of destruction from Bam have triggered grim memories of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake that killed 30,000 people. As with Gujarat, the Bam earthquake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter, is a reminder of the continued vulnerability of humans in the face of nature's ferocity. Iran is geographically located at a point where three huge tectonic plates constantly chafe against one another. An earthquake can result when one or more of these plates move against the others at high speed. It seems to happen with regularity in the region. An earthquake in Iran in 1971 killed 25,000 people and the one in 1990 took a toll of 50,000. Only last year, 250 people died in an earthquake in north-western Iran.

There is nothing yet known to humankind that can stop earthquakes from happening and they cannot even be predicted. But that must not be allowed to obscure the fact that humans are not entirely helpless against such natural calamities. Experts are agreed that by themselves, earthquakes do not cause casualties, in the same way severe droughts need not cause famines with calamitous consequences. In yet another depressing parallel with the Gujarat earthquake, the high death toll projected by Iranian officials in Bam — 22,000 according to some reports — is mainly due to sub-standard constructions. People died because their houses collapsed on them. Most of the buildings in the town, located in the mountainous province of Kerman, were made of mud and brick and covered with heavy roofs. On account of the rapid growth of the city and the consequent shortage of housing, the people of Bam had abandoned the traditional one-storeyed architecture of the region and added vertically to their properties. Contrast the Bam earthquake with the one earlier this week in California. It measured 6.5 on the Richter. It shook the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Buildings swayed. But they did not fall and three people died.

While it may be difficult to enforce quake-proof housing in poor countries, good governance in areas that lie on seismic fault lines must at least ensure that the infrastructure can withstand earthquakes. In Bam, the injured could not get medical attention in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe because the town's two hospitals were destroyed. It was a similar story in Gujarat: attempts to take the injured out to the nearest medical centres were hampered by damaged roads and bridges. Training in disaster management is another essential. People living in quake zones must be educated about them, about the possible consequences of inhabiting such areas, and on how to respond in case the worst should happen. Even if earthquakes are still a bit of a mystery to scientists, there is a lot that humans can do to contain the impact.

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