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Kyrgyzstan: Earthquake Crisis Reveals Cracks in the System

A composite map from satellite images shows the town of Gulcha (center) in Kyrgyzstan’s southwestern mountainous region, where 432 people reported damage to their homes when a mid-November earthquake struck. Since November, around $780,000 has been accumulated in a fund for victims of the catastrophe. (Google Maps)

Months after an earthquake shook the Kara-Suu district of southern Kyrgyzstan, families whose homes were severely damaged are enduring the winter in repurposed cargo containers.
 
The tremors, which hit on November 17-18, were modest by the standards of the last year’s earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 9,000 people. But the event is exposing some worrying shortfalls. New buildings going up often do not meet standards, a cash-strapped government struggles to provide adequate compensation and, most pressing for the people immediately affected, post-emergency assistance is wanting.
 
In one village, Beksultan Ermamat uulu has moved with his wife and three younger sisters into a container. They say it will do for now. “The government provided people with the containers, which are safe. So we can live there till spring,” he said.
 
Tents and containers provided are heated by stoves, but it is still cold inside, so some families have succumbed to illness amid the low temperatures. Emergency officials say 178 families have been accommodated in containers.
 
The head of the Emergency Situations Ministry’s Crisis Situations Department, Mukhammed Svarov, told EurasiaNet.org that 432 people reported damage to their home after the quakes.
 
Around $780,000 has been set aside since November in a fund for victims of the catastrophe. Households not being put up in makeshift temporary accommodation and able to remain in their relatively intact homes have been granted $260 (20,000 som) interest-free loans.
 
“These are temporary measures to get through the winter,” Svarov said. “Afterward, people will get long-term interest-free loans of [$2,600] to build their houses.”
 
Svarov said the money is intended to finance construction of two-room houses.
 
Kanatbek Abdrakhmatov, the director of the National Institute of Seismology, warns that worse earthquakes might well be looming. The science of forecasting earthquakes is contentious and many cast scorn on the notion that it is possible to predict when one might hit. But Abdrakhmatov said his service’s calculations were based on seismic statistics that allowed him to make medium-term predictions on possible seismic activity for the coming five years with what he said was 75 percent accuracy.
 
As one of the country’s foremost experts on the dangers of earthquakes, Abdrakhmatov is sounding the alarm about the need for more preventative efforts. More durable construction is needed to prevent the ordeals now being experienced by villagers in parts of southern Kyrgyzstan, he said.
 
Abdrakhmatov noted that the damage sustained during recent quakes was a clear indictment on the neglect for rural areas, since the tremors should not have been strong enough to wreck people’s homes.
 
“People don’t have money, so they build any way they can. But they shouldn’t do this, because it creates a vicious circle: They build a house however they can, this building is ruined after the quakes, and then they ask the government for help and money and are told that the quakes weren’t that strong,” Abdrakhmatov told EurasiaNet.org. “The government gives them some money and the person builds the same fleapit, and this happens every time.”
 
On the face of it, matters in the capital, Bishkek, appear to be a little bit better.
 
Buildings that have shot up in the construction boom of the past few years could withstand even a reasonably strong tremor, Abdrakhmatov said.
 
Abdrakhmatov said his institute had developed a seismic zone map of the city that shows the safe and vulnerable areas for construction.
 
An official at the government Earthquake Engineering Institute told EurasiaNet.org that their experts regularly inspect construction sites. “The institute conducts control tests on physical and mechanical strength, on the durability of the reinforced concrete, the quality of the masonry and reinforcements,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “If the required criteria are not met, the site has to be strengthened or demolished.”
 
The official admitted there are cases where demolitions are necessary, as happened recently in the case of a new residential complex in Bishkek’s eastern Tunguch District.
 
Construction is a notoriously grey area of Kyrgyzstan’s economy. The current set-up offers little certainty about the quality of state oversight and quality control. Representatives of foreign companies and diplomatic missions are said to bring in their own evaluators to conduct quality checks on residential buildings before deciding whether they meet seismic design standards.
 
Some dubious aspects of quality control are built into existing legislation. In July 2015, the government temporarily authorized the parallel design and construction of buildings. That in essence enabled construction companies to start works before securing proper permission, since the design could always be amended mid-way through the building process.
 
Ulugbek Kochkorov, who was a member of parliament at the time the directive was adopted, warned this was a loophole that could enable corruption, and that around 300 constructions in Bishkek had started without proper paperwork.
 
“Let’s imagine an investor has started construction, because it is allowed, even though permission hasn’t been issued yet. And after a year he finishes construction, and there is still no permission,” Kochkorov told the Tazabek.kg news website. “There is a chance the project does not meet some requirements, but the investor has already put $10 million into it. So that’s where the stakes for bribing increase — if one could get a permission for $30,000 before, then now it will be $300,000 or $500,000.”
 
And statistics support the perception that authorities are rarely prepared to deny permits. In 2015, the State Architecture Agency issued 626 construction licenses and suspended four.
 
The dangers inherent in the lax standards in Bishkek are a lively topic of conversation on popular online discussion platforms, such as Diesel Forum. Warnings like those from one user going by the nickname Kotenok about the inadvisability of buying from a particular realty developer are typical. The Diesel user described one stalled project that has left hopeful homebuyers in the lurch.
 
“There were three blocks, one of them half-built, another was about to start, but the flats were already sold. And now it turns out that the building cannot happen because there are municipal heating pipes underneath and they are not allowed to just dig them out. So the company says that people who bought apartments there can either relocate to other properties or get their money back,” Kotenok wrote.
 
As far as building to protect against future earthquakes in concerned, Svarov of the Emergency Situation Ministry conceded that earthquake engineering is part of a broad government program that will need time to be implemented.
 
In the meantime, the government’s main focus is on ensuring readiness and raising public awareness. For example, lessons titled “Basics of Life Safety,” which include instructions of how to react in emergency situations, are now given in high schools.
 
“Across the regions, we are preparing immediate and rapid-response forces — rescue teams. We are providing them with the necessary tools and equipment, packed food. We are also providing them with satellite communication in case existing channels are damaged,” Svarov said.

Anna Lelik is a Bishkek-based reporter.

Kyrgyzstan: Earthquake Crisis Reveals Cracks in the System

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