Collapsed schools: a preventable tragedy

Xinhua / AgenciesOne of the most heart-rending results of the devastating May 12 earthquake in China has been the deaths of thousands of children in collapsed schools. More than 13,000 schools in Sichuan -- over 40 per cent of schools in the province -- were damaged. Nearly 7000 collapsed. As many as 10,000 students and teachers may have been killed. The children’s deaths are more than usually tragic among people generally forbidden to have more than one child. Population planners have proved just as heedless of nature as the construction industry and its official overseers in that regard.

As bereaved parents come to realise the vulnerability of the schools their grief is turning to anger at officials, whom they are accusing of corruption. Beichuan Middle School, at the heart of the disaster, opened in 1998 after taking five years to build, then collapsed in a matter of seconds in the earthquake. More than 1300 of the school’s 2900 students and teachers are either dead or missing. In the small town of Wufu a junior school was reduced to rubble, burying the children, while the buildings around it stood firm. “We believe this disaster was man-made,” said a parent who lost his son. 

Local authorities have promised an investigation and say that builders will be held responsible for shoddy work. Yesterday an official in Sichuan withdrew from the prestigious Olympics torch relay as "atonement" for construction problems at collapsed schools. The government has moved quickly to offer families whose children have been killed or disabled exemption from the one-child policy. 

But the Beichuan earthquake is a wake-up call to more than the Chinese. Experts attending an international conference on school safety in Islamabad, Pakistan, shortly after the quake warned that the problem of poor buildings was widespread, and not just in developing countries.

The Pacific North-West of the United States is a vulnerable zone. In Oregon an evaluation last year found that 1300 of the state’s schools, housing 340,000 students, and emergency services buildings had a “high or very high risk” of collapse in a substantial earthquake. And the region faces the “near-inevitable prospect” of a scale 9.0 earthquake -- 32 times more powerful than Sichuan’s 8.0 -- the New York Times reports. Existing schools are gradually being strengthened, or “retrofitted”, but this is happening faster in wealthy areas -- a pattern revealed in some of the stricken Chinese cities.

In the developing world the picture is much worse, and the risks increase worldwide as more people shift to urban areas in earthquake zones, often into shoddy, hastily built structures. 

And yet schools can be made safe. In California, no student or teacher has been hurt in schools built to the standards of the 1933 Field Act, and GeoHazards International founder Brian E Tucker told the Times that quake resistant schools cost only about four per cent more than they otherwise would. In developing the countries the extra cost may be significantly higher, but Sichuan today demonstrates that false economy in school building is also political suicide. Even the Chinese Communist Party must be nervous at the anger seething in the province.

There are some acts of God that a government can’t reasonably anticipate and protect its citizens from -- like a meteorite falling out of the sky, says Dr Tucker. “But I can and do hold a government in a country with a known seismic risk responsible for protecting its children, who are compelled to attend school, from the school collapsing during an earthquake.”

A California risk management consultant adds that a typical government spends around 15 per cent of its GDP “to defend against exterior military threats that may never occur during the lifetime of a generation”, so they should not be excused from using a small portion of that “to protect against the threats of natural hazards that we know will happen”. 

Governments today are notoriously busy about many things, from boosting GDP to telling parents what to put in lunch boxes, but their first duty, arguably, is to protect their citizens from threats to life and property. The duty of protection is more serious when it comes to children and other vulnerable members of society. It is not as though most countries -- the developed ones, anyway -- are over-endowed with children these days, and the wrath of an American mother or father deprived of an only child could be every bit as terrible as that of a Chinese parent.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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