Earthquakes and building regulations in Kurdistan: a turning point


On November 12, 2017, Kurdistan suffered one of the most frightening and destructive phenomena in nature: a massive earthquake. This earthquake wrought horrible damage to life and property. The epicenter of the earthquake was reported to be 30 kilometers south of Halabja with a focal depth of 19 km according to the US Geological Survey.

The last earthquake of this magnitude hit the region almost 100 years ago, according to Professor Nazar Numan, a prominent professor of geology and the Provost of The American University of Kurdistan. Despite the fact that the earthquake occurred in Kurdistan and was reported to be 7.3 on the Richter scale, the tremors felt all over the Kurdistan Region were much less severe than the ones felt in Kermanshah, in Iranian Kurdistan. The earthquake predictably caused more destruction to the area near the epicenter – mainly in Kermanshah. Although the Iranian government has imposed strict residential construction regulations, the vast majority of the buildings in Kermanshah were not able to withstand the powerful seismic forces from the quake. Consequently, these buildings collapsed and caused many casualties as well as massive property destruction. On a smaller scale, the earthquake caused extensive damage to some areas in the Kurdistan Region. The question is whether buildings and structures in the Kurdistan Region would have remained intact, or undamaged, had they suffered an earthquake of this strength, similar to the one that hit Kermanshah?

A glimpse to the current housing status in the Kurdistan Region suggests that the vast majority of residential structures would not be able to withstand the seismic forces unleashed by an earthquake of this great a magnitude. Traditionally, the small houses and villas that are built in Kurdistan do not have proper connections between the actual structure and the foundation. The loads applied to these structures are then transferred to the ground through bearing walls which can only resist gravity. Furthermore, the slabs are not fully fixed to the bearing walls and they have small areas of friction required to withstand the hit of the horizontal loads. Should any horizontal loads, such as earthquake or massive wind-related forces strike those buildings and their structure, they would damage the building drastically, even to the point of collapse. Relying on personal interest, some owners of private houses and villas have preferred to build their own residences using earthquake resistant structures.

Nevertheless, some skyscrapers in Kurdistan have been designed in a way that they not only can resist the earthquake but also the severe winds.

Western developed countries have established regulatory codes of practice that impose the necessary requirements for structural engineers to consider when calculating the effects of earthquake tremors in their designs. Depending on the seismic zone where a building is located, these codes of practice specify the severity of the horizontal applied forces generated by an earthquake to a building. This method of design necessitates using structural frames that constitute rigid vertical columns and walls, and horizontal beams and slabs for the building. There should be a special treatment for the joints where horizontal and vertical elements of the structure connect for the horizontal loads to best resist shaking.

The former Iraqi regime had developed construction regulations in the 1980s that mandated structural designers to take 1% of the building mass to represent the earthquake horizontal loads on buildings. Despite the existence of codes of practice across the world that are developed based on the up-to-date research, this rule of thumb is still used by structural designers in Iraq. Kurdistan, as a region, has not developed any standards or code of practice for which its engineers can rely on for their calculations.

The recent Halabja earthquake raised awareness on the need to revise design and construction methods and standards in Kurdistan. With the current construction predicament, and due to lack of structural strength, the majority of buildings in the Region may be decimated if hit by a large-scale earthquake. There are no building regulations that mandate complying with standard requirements during the design and construction phases of buildings and structures. Many designers use various international codes of practice for their design calculations due to Kurdistan’s lack of codes of practice. These international codes of practice do not take into account the realities of Kurdistan’s particular environment. As a result, the government, including Parliament, should begin the process of legislating and developing various construction codes of practice and regulations in Kurdistan that not only would protect buildings from the destructive effects of earthquakes but also protect them from all other loads that Kurdistan’s environment would likely experience.

The government should support establishing a center for data collection and research on seismic activities in the Kurdistan region and neighboring countries. In coordination with other relevant public and private entities, the Ministry of Planning should establish committees comprised of academic experts and professionals who can critically apprise and develop various codes of practice and building regulations for Kurdistan. These committees should encourage ongoing research activities on different engineering disciplines required to keep the codes updated, including the results of the analysis of recorded data at the seismic center.

Once all codes of practice and building regulations are developed, the government should regularly enforce these codes to achieve the construction of high-quality buildings in Kurdistan. This demands the need for training qualified staff to closely monitor the construction of buildings, including private houses and villas. The design of each building must be approved by an associated department while taking into consideration all requirements and specifications required in the codes of practice and building regulations, including standards and measures for protection from any degree of seismic tremor.

It is very difficult to manage high-quality building construction without proper construction regulations. A serious earthquake shook the Kurdistan Region and brought to light that a revision of current methods for building design and construction is needed. Although regulating the process may be daunting, it is an achievable goal by the government. Approaching and engaging with academic institutions will be required for this project.

Dr. Honar Issa is the Secretary of the Board of Trustees at The American University of Kurdistan (AUK).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.

Editing by Nadia Riva