Fifty thousand dead. Fears the death toll could yet reach substantially past 100,000. It’s no wonder that a sense of dread has spread over much of Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Iran since Turkey experienced the worst natural disaster in its modern history on February 6, when two giant earthquakes levelled tens of thousands of buildings across southern areas of the country, as well as in northern Syria.
Active fault lines and dangerously shifting tectonic plates appear to be almost everywhere you look in the region. Yet scientists don’t do well when it comes to pinpointing where and when the next “Big One” will strike. After all, who could really say for sure what exactly is going on down there, many kilometres underground. The lack of clarity leaves urban populations to peer into the past, working to the assumption that if a devastating quake has hit their city within the past century or so, another one will likely hit sooner or later.
So which Eurasian cities outside Turkey – where Istanbul remains a prime candidate for a horrendous quake – have most to fear?
Tehran, a city with 16mn inhabitants like Istanbul, has long been described as overdue and ill-prepared for a massive earthquake. “An earthquake in Tehran would be the disaster of the century,” Tehran City Council chairman Mehdi Chamran said in the aftermath of Turkey’s double quake.
Then there’s Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, home to around 2mn people. It sits on a huge active fault.
Another big worry is Armenia, where there’s a lot of focus on the cities of Spitak, Gyumri and Vanadzor – a quake with a surface wave magnitude of 6.8 that hit their region in 1988 took the lives of more than 30,000, including those of 6,000 schoolchildren.
In Central Asia, meanwhile, Almaty is not the only the large city with plenty to worry about. Sleeping easy is not an option for Dushanbe, Bishkek, Tashkent nor Ashgabat – the capitals of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the earthquake histories and present-day situations of the mentioned cities.
As observed by think-tank Stimson lately, six main fault lines and as many as 60 minor fault lines run across Tehran, passing underneath numerous high-rise buildings, both residential and commercial. “The high seismic hazard, in combination with a dense population distribution and several vulnerability factors, turn Tehran into one of the top 20 worldwide megacities at a high earthquake risk,” according to a 2020 article by the International Journal of Geo-Information.
Intersection of tectonic plates in Iran (Credit: US Geological Survey, public domain).
High-rise construction started accelerating at a fair clip in Tehran in the 1990s. It’s an open secret that during the building boom, many buildings went up without proper attention to recommended building standards. And last November, Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani remarked that publishing a list of unsafe buildings in the city would prompt residents to flee. “[I]f the list is published, no one would remain in Tehran,” said Zakani.
(Credit: Uwe Dedering, cc-by-sa 3.0).
The historical list of Iran’s (mainly harmless) thousands of earthquakes stretches further than the eye can see, but the last quake that killed tens of thousands was the 6.6-magnitude Bam earthquake of 2003 that stuck the south-eastern Kerman province, causing a death toll of around 34,000. The effects of that earthquake were exacerbated by the use of mud brick as the standard construction material.
Almaty was heavily damaged by the January 1911 Chon Kemin earthquake that had a magnitude of 8.0. It killed 452 people and destroyed more than 770 buildings. Back then in the days of Russian Turkestan, that amounted to almost all of the young city. A scientific research paper published in 2017 under the Earthquakes without Frontiers project determined that “active faults pose a significant threat to Almaty, since the city is built directly on top of currently deforming structures”.
(Credit: derivative work Виктор_В, cc-by-sa 3.0).
Almaty is located in the foothills of the northern Tien Shan mountains that form part of a broad zone of deformation associated with the continuing collision between the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate.
Main geological structures around Kyrgyzstan's Issyk Kul lake, with zones of surface faulting associated with the 1911 Kemin earthquake shown in yellow (Credit: MikeNorton, cc-by-sa 3.0).
Detailed work has gone into assessing the city’s exposure to earthquakes – high-resolution satellite data, for instance, has been used to make elevation models across Almaty, with faults identified from small changes in the height of the surface.
Spitak, Gyumri and Vanadzor
One marked consequence of Armenia’s 1988 Spitak earthquake was the shutting down under public pressure of the country’s Metsamor nuclear power plant (NPP) by the Soviet Union.
(Credit: derivative work Виктор_В, cc-by-sa 3.0).
The source of the earthquake was a fault rupture 40 km south of the Caucasus Mountains, a mountain range created by the convergence of the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Polish rescuers amid rubble following Armenia's 188 Spitak earthquake (Credit: LoMit, cc-by-sa 4.0).
An earthquake and engineering team from the US visited and concluded that building inadequacies were the primary reason why the strong (but not huge) earthquake was so deadly. The tremors destroyed 130 factories, causing a local unemployment crisis.
Though the October 1948 earthquake in Turkmen capital Ashgabat was of a 7.3 magnitude, little is known of its impacts. Strict Soviet censorship imposed at the time means that even today the estimates of the number of casualties vary from 10,000 right up to 110,000, almost 10% of the Turkmen SSR’s then population.
(Credit: derivative work Виктор_В, cc-by-sa 3.0).
Almost all brick buildings collapsed, freight trains were derailed and the city’s aerodrome landing strip was cracked. The mother of Turkmenistan’s future first post-independence president, Sapamurat Niyazov, was killed, leaving him an orphan, as his father died during WWII.
The 1966 earthquake that struck Tashkent was only of a magnitude of 5.2, but its violent hypocentre was just a few kilometres below the centre of the Uzbek capital. Most of the city’s buildings were destroyed, while between 20 and 200 people lost their lives. Somewhere between 78,000 to 95,000 homes were ruined, most of them traditional adobe housing.
The hypocentre of the earthquake that struck Tashkent in 1966 was right below the centre of the city. The epicentre is the point directly above the hypocentre where the earthquake explosion occurs (Credit: Ansate's derivative work of original author Sam Hocevar, GNU free documentation licence).
The Soviet authorities partly responded to the disaster by creating a Tashkent institute of seismology to monitor seismic changes such as by tracking levels of radon escaping from the earth.
The country has experienced at least 18 earthquakes of a magnitude 6.5 or larger over the last century.
As recently as February 23, a series of earthquakes shook the country’s east, near the border with China. The largest was of a 6.8 magnitude. Fortunately, the quake hit a sparsely populated area and there were no reports of casualties.
The quake, though, served a reminder that the area is home to a large lake, Sarez, which if disturbed could flood a vast area spanning several countries.
The country is prone to earthquakes and, like Tajikistan, often suffers fatalities caused by avalanches.
In August 1992, a severe earthquake left several thousand people homeless in the south-western city of Jalal-Abad.
The Naryn Basin is very active seismically. As many hydroelectric projects are located there, flooding would potentially be a big danger should a dam be broken by tremors.
Earthquakes are inevitable, massive casualties are not
Turkey’s February 6 earthquakes proved so deadly because of the astonishing amount of buildings that were “pancaked” by the shockwaves. The fact that there were so many substandard buildings in a known high-risk earthquake zone is widely blamed on the laxity and corruption that enabled construction “boom” companies to avoid strict building codes.
Such is scale of the devastation essentially wrought by the combination of corruption and active fault lines, critics of Turkey’s president of two decades, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have taken to describing him as the true epicentre of the disaster. The Turks know well that earthquakes are inevitable, but massive casualties are not.
Responding to the chilling events in Turkey, governments across the region have claimed to be stepping up efforts to deal with construction companies who find ways to flout building codes. In Tashkent, by order of the president, who’s complained that the city still has no master planning document, a ban on new constructions has been put in place.
In Dushanbe, Nizom Mirzozoda, head of the city’s architecture and construction committee, claimed that the capital’s new buildings can withstand earthquakes of up to 8.5 or 9 in magnitude.
The response to his claims on social media highlighted the wider lack of trust people feeling vulnerable to earthquakes across the region have when it comes to the vigilance of officials charged with ensuring public safety.
A Facebook post by independent news outlet in Dushanbe, Asia Plus, attracted over 100 sceptical comments. “New developments have been popping up in Dushanbe like mushrooms. How can a rational person in this country rotten with corruption believe such claims?” asked one social media user. “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The old Soviet buildings perhaps could withstand earthquakes of such intensity but definitely not these new ones,” said another reader.
Other wry comments dwelt on how perhaps the best earthquake early warning system a person can have is a cat or dog. Each major earthquake brings stories of how a feline or canine pet showed a “sixth sense” that picked up rumblings deep in the earth, vital minutes before the quake hit.