Tue, 30 Dec 2003

Most horrible earthquake in Iran

The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

The Iranian earthquake is not a distant and unrelated tragedy. In Japan, too, it is more vital than ever to redouble our efforts to further enhance the earthquake-resistance of buildings.

The earthquake that devastated the ancient Silk Road City of Bam in southeastern Iran on Friday left at least 20,000 people dead and more than 30,000 injured, according to the Iranian government.

Like Japan, Iran is susceptible to frequent earthquakes. The Eurasian plate along with the Indian-Australian plate and other tectonic plates interact in complex patterns beneath the land mass, setting the stage for seismic disasters.

About 25,000 Iranians died in a 1978 quake and 35,000 perished in a temblor that struck northwest Iran in 1990. In June 2002, an earthquake west of Tehran left 230 people dead.

Soon after Friday's earthquake, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami appealed to the international community for help.

"The first 48 hours will be the most critical," he said in a television address. Since the airport near the quake-ravaged area remains serviceable, it is possible for emergency supplies to be airlifted. Taking advantage of this one bright spot, rescue teams from Europe and other regions are steadily arriving at the scene of the catastrophe.

Even in the United States, which severed diplomatic ties with Iran over the 1979 occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran, President George W. Bush spelled out a policy of humanitarian aid and support for the victims.

In contrast to the United States, Japan has maintained friendly ties with Tehran over the years. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also pledged maximum possible assistance. There is a pressing need for medicines, blankets and other supplies at the quake site, and we hope the Japanese government will offer broad-based support to the best of its abilities.

An advance contingent of the government's Japan Medical Team for Disaster Relief has already departed for Iran. The aid efforts are not limited to the government sector. Nongovernmental organizations (NGO), specific nonprofit (NPO) corporations, doctors, search dog teams and others are also en route to the stricken region.

Among them is the Japan Rescue Association, an NPO formed after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. To date, its members have used sniffer dogs and other rescue and assistance efforts to help quake-damaged cities in Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Taiwan and elsewhere.

There is no doubt that these groups' efforts will spawn greater trust and respect for Japan and Japanese around the world. There have been instances in the past of survivors being pulled from rubble several days after a massive earthquake, often when virtually all hope of finding anyone alive was lost. As international rescue teams converge on the Bam area, we hope and pray and their efforts will yield such results.

The earthquake is believed to have had a magnitude of 6 or 7 on the open-ended Richter scale. While not particularly huge, about 70 percent of homes in Bam were either totally or partially destroyed. The great majority of buildings in this region are made of brick. Their structural weakness to seismic shocks is believed to be a key factor behind the high death toll and damage.

The quake struck around 5:30 a.m. local time, when most people in the city were most likely still asleep. This is also thought to be a factor in the terrible loss of life.

Though the structures of buildings in Iran and Japan are very different, the Great Hanshin Earthquake also occurred early in the morning-at 5:46 a.m. In that quake as well, it is important to remember that the overwhelming majority of fatalities resulted from people being crushed beneath their flattened homes.

In the case of Japan, the seismic statistics paint a frightening picture. Though Japan accounts for only 0.25 percent of the world's total land area, about 20 percent of all earthquakes with a magnitude of 6 or more occur in this country.

Viewed in this context, the Iranian earthquake is not a distant and unrelated tragedy. In Japan, too, it is more vital than ever to redouble our efforts to further enhance the earthquake-resistance of buildings to save even one more life when the next Big One strikes.