I read a comment in the Age newspaper that read: "the orthodoxy among seismologists is that earthquakes don't kill people; buildings kill people."
It was in a feature covering the Nepal earthquake disaster that may well have killed 10,000 people. As a law reformer and chairman of the Centre for Best Practice Building Control, this brief observation resonates, albeit in the most dastardly of circumstances.
In developing countries, buildings kill a damn side more people than their western counterparts because of the perfect storm of rapid urbanisation, overpopulation, makeshift shanty town construction and building codes that hail from a colonial and redundant yesteryear. These codes often leave a hell of a lot to be desired.
Then there is the issue of enforcement of codes and regulations, absent well-resourced and well-funded building control and enforcement bureaucracies; enforcement and compliance is often at best no more than tokenism. I have long believed that natural environment-triggered building disasters, juxtaposed with fallible building regulations, are assuming a “serial dimension” in terms of their regularity and repetitive visitations. Now we have a disaster of epic proportions.
The Centre for Best Practice Building Control has for some time been agitating for a coalescence of the willing, where international disaster management experts can connect up with civil servants to generate a new approach to regional building control. This would be an approach where bespoke building codes are fashioned to mesh with the economic, geo/socio/political constraints that define and even incarcerate particular countries, to ensure that regulations have pragmatic and workable relevance is needed.
Be it sub-continental tsunamis or earthquakes of diabolical proportions, there is a changing paradigm and the environmentally induced loss of life is escalating. This issue is not quarantined to developing nations; New Zealand is still recovering from the Christchurch earthquake and the bush fires that claimed so many lives in Victoria are still etched in recent memory. As such, we in the antipodes can ill afford to be smug because natural disasters are by nature agnostic as regard, when and where their capacity for malevolent expression presents itself.
There needs to be a radically different approach to the thinking of modern day building control and recognition that building control holistics will to a degree, be defined by the seismic and climatic characteristics of the region. There must also be a realistic appraisal of that which is achievable vis-a-vis that which is pie in the sky.
It follows that the definition of best practice building regulation needs redefining. If indeed it is buildings that kill rather than earthquakes, then that is a very sobering assessment, a damning indictment if you will, on the nature of the as built regulatory paradigm in some parts of the world.
After all, building codes are supposed to be about protecting human beings from prejudice to health, life and limb, rather than the maintenance of a status quo where the regulatory framework acts as an enabler for the construction or retention of structures that occasion harm.
Since the raison d’être of building regulations is the alleviation of loss of life and limb and the containment or moderation of the consequences that flow from environmental calamity, future regulatory architecture must be fashioned by policy that is obsessed with the objective of not accommodating the existence of buildings that can harbour the potential to kill, I might add in large numbers, when the most ominous environmental scenarios actualise.
Further, regulators must introduce building regulations that sunset in the time – the date and the year – by which potentially dangerous buildings are either demolished or made resilient. New Zealand is already doing this in terms of the earthquake proofing of older buildings that will be vulnerable in volatile seismic conditions.
I have previously stated that ”tragedy becomes a catalyst for regulatory reform, and there is a certain bespoke vernacular for this ‘crisis knee jerk reaction reform’. The cynical lament that if you want to fix redundant regulations you need a bloody good crises rings all too true, for it is the rivers of blood that all too often are the agents for change as they galvanise politicians into action.”
No doubt Nepal will yet again give meaning to the “cynical lament” in that there will be a flurry of post-crisis reflection, post-crisis regulatory analyses and review. Yet again, however, too late the hero, the damage has been done and all we can do now is pledge help, support and empathy as our hearts go out to the families, the survivors and the souls that have departed our mortal shores.
For those nations that have been lucky enough to avoid calamities of the magnitude of the Nepal earthquake, their policy makers should be on notice regarding that which can occur if one is hamstrung by “rear view mirror” myopia. Pray tell, why does the tired metaphor of “you need a crisis to reform a system” have to maintain currency?
All nations including Australia and New Zealand must team up, and as global citizens help out, learn from and maintain a constant vigil and obsession with the desire for best practice building control to ensure that the observation that “it is buildings that kill, not earthquakes” ends up being an observation that is passé, something that was once seen through a historic lens.