Disaster strikes and world attention is drawn to tragedy. In horror, we all watched as reports on the earthquake in China filled our television screens. School buildings collapsed killing thousands of children. There may be little we can do to prevent earthquakes, but some of their worst effects can be avoided. This is not the first time that an earthquake has struck with such dire consequences, and it will not be the last.
Over the past 30 years, we have witnessed the death and injury of children and teachers due to the collapse of schools during earthquakes: in 1976 (Tangshin, China), 1980 (El Asnam, Algeria), 1988 (Spitak, Armenia), 1997 (Ardakul, Iran), 2001 (Cariaco, Venezuela, and Ahmedabad, India), 2002 (Molise, Italy), 2003 (Bingöl, Turkey, and Bachu, China) and 2005 (Balakot, Pakistan). The roll call would have been even longer if other major earthquakes during this period had not occurred outside school time.
When the media attention is drawn away by another event, it becomes too easy to “forget”. But we must remember and plan ahead.
The PEB report Keeping Schools Safe in Earthquakes, the result of a review of some of these tragedies, was published in 2004 and led to an OECD recommendation that member countries should take steps to establish and implement programmes of school seismic safety. The recommendation was adopted by all OECD member countries.
Nowhere is immune. Living on a planet that is subject to climatic change, we can surely predict that other kinds of natural disaster will take their toll, and affect places not previously known for being touched by them; for example, flooding which now increasingly hits developed countries such as the western democracies with increasingly severe consequences. Do we need another tragedy – schools in a rich country being flooded with pictures of drowning children broadcast around the world – to make us realise once again that another tragedy could have been avoided?
Governments need to look at their policies for making buildings safe in the face of different natural disasters. Much can be gained by working with other countries which may have some experience. Indeed do we need to wait for governments to react? Cannot much be achieved by individual initiatives – clients and designers insisting on higher standards? As we look towards the future, PEB will be focusing on other types of disaster and how we can bring together expertise to tackle these issues.
Let us not forget whom we are doing this for.
A letter written by a student in Nepal and quoted in Keeping Schools Safe in Earthquakes says: “…it is our right to have a safe school. We don’t build our school building ourselves. But if it is weak then [an] earthquake will destroy it and kill us. Why should we children die from weaknesses which others create?”