South Caucasus residents ponder earthquake risks
Following the devastating quakes in Turkey, residents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are wondering how safe their cities are.
After massive earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, leaving untold tens of thousands dead and many more homeless, residents of the nearby South Caucasus region are pondering the resilience of their own urban areas.
A common concern across Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia is the fact that older buildings have been weakened by the ravages of time while many newer ones are the product of under-regulated and often unsafe construction practices.
The concern is particularly acute in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. Turkey is Azerbaijan's closest ally and the tragedy has been at the forefront of Azerbaijanis' consciousness. Many can't help but wonder what would happen to their own city in case of a similar disaster.
Baku's population was just over 2.3 million as of January 2022, according to the State Statistics Committee. But unofficial estimates put it well over 3 million, given the large number of recent migrants from rural areas.
And amid the accompanying construction boom, no developers have consulted the Republic Seismological Service Center since 2019, the director of the center told a press conference.
"To minimize the risks and save human lives, the foundation of every single building must be studied. This must be a priority in seismoactive areas with complex geological structures, such as Baku," Gurban Yetirmishli further said.
Another seismologist from the center, Tahir Mammadov, told Public TV that there are many buildings in Baku that would "easily collapse" in case of an earthquake, an assertion also held by Anvar Aliyev, a geographer at Azerbaijan's National Academy of Sciences.
"So many apartments are being built in Baku. Even the most modern buildings have problems. Four or five buildings are built side by side, one meter apart. If there is a problem in one, it will have a domino effect and knock down three or four," he told Modern.az, noting that such dense construction was prohibited in the Soviet era.
But the problem is not just lax regulation of construction in the post-Soviet period, Pressklub.az wrote: "In Baku, where more than 3 million people live, the problem is not only newly built buildings. There are thousands of buildings left over from the Soviet era, which are outdated and are in a state of disrepair, which is a potential source of danger for the lives of tens of thousands of people."
The official number of buildings in dangerous condition in Baku is nearly 1,000, the head of Baku City Executive Authority Eldar Azizov told the media last year.
An official from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, Elkhan Asadov, appeared on public television on February 9 to assure people that the state has overseen and approved the construction of buildings in recent years, though he could not vouch for the resilience of old buildings. "There are buildings in Baku that date back to 100-200 years ago. And there were no norms and thresholds in construction on earthquake-resilience until 1961," he said, adding that some of the houses built in the "chaotic 1990s" pose a danger as well.
The most recent significant quake struck Baku in 2000 with a magnitude of between 6.1 and 6.3, leaving three dead (two from heart attacks). Buildings did not sustain major damage, though cracks appeared in many.
Similar concerns have been voiced in Armenia, which endured a devastating earthquake epicentered near Spitak in 1988. That quake leveled parts of Armenia's second largest city, Gyumri (then Leninakan). It killed tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Since then any earthquake in a nearby country has triggered debate on the state of seismic resistance of urban apartment blocks.
Approximately 85 percent of Armenia's roughly 19,000 apartment buildings were built before 1990, according to an overview conducted by the Urban Development Committee of Armenia in 2020. This means that the vast majority of them were around during that 1988 quake and have endured decades of wear and tear.
According to official data, 614 apartment buildings in Armenia (3.2 percent of the total) are in poor technical condition, and of these 90 are subject to demolition.
There are 92 vulnerable multi-story apartment buildings housing a total of approximately 6,500 people in Gyumri, where the trauma of the 1988 earthquake has not been forgotten.
But even these numbers don't convey the current situation, according to Tanya Arzumanyan, the head of the Department for Management of Housing Stock and Communal Infrastructure of the Urban Planning Committee. Such a comprehensive study has not been carried out since 2003.
Lasha Sukhishvili, the deputy director of the Institute of Earth Sciences and National Seismic Monitoring Center has been doing the rounds in Georgian media to address questions about that country's quake resilience.
He told the Batumelebi news website that Georgia is exposed to some seismic risk though nothing like the site of the quakes in Turkey, which lie on an active fault line.
He said that Georgia's current building regulations are based on seismic and other geological data from 2009 and are badly in need of reassessment. In the current regulatory environment only a select few developers have shown the will to put long-term safety before profits, he said.
On February 12, seismologists sought to calm nerves in southwestern Georgia after three minor quakes shook Guria Province, near the Black Sea.
Three days earlier, on February 9, seismologists took to the media to debunk a fake forecast for a 6-magnitude earthquake in Tbilisi that circulated on the WhatsApp messanger.
"We can't predict earthquakes. It's not done. All we can do is make long-term prognoses," seismologist Tea Godoladze told Mtavari TV.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.
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