Panic reigned last week when an earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale claimed 10 lives in Iran and sent aftershocks across the UAE. Residents fled buildings and ran out into the streets, searching out loved ones in many cases. Experts feel there is no real cause for worry, but emphasise a seismic monitoring system must be set up in the country. Aftab Kazmi reports

The earthquake that struck Iran recently and sent tremors across to the UAE triggered safety concerns among residents, but the authorities are quick to emphasise there is no real risk.

Residents are especially worried in the aftermath of the Pakistan disaster that has left 87,000 dead, 3 million homeless and razed entire villages. People are looking with suspicion at mega construction projects and high-rise buildings in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other cities.

There are no locally developed construction standards or codes in the UAE. Geophysicists insist upon the formulation of UAE specific building codes, but engineers, designers and builders say the risks are being minimised through a number of steps during design and construction of projects.

"Well-designed and constructed buildings can withstand moderate earthquakes," said Dr Abdul Rahim Sabouni, Buildings Design Expert at Abu Dhabi Municipality.

Most buildings in the UAE are designed according to design codes that include seismic provisions. This applies to all buildings even if they are part of island projects, regardless of the number of storeys.

Dr Sabouni, who is also president of the American Concrete Institute, UAE Chapter, admitted the codes are a mix of standards used in European countries and the United States.

"There are no locally developed construction codes in the UAE," he said.

He emphasised that if proper design and construction quality control are applied, buildings in the UAE should be able to survive quakes of magnitude of 6 or even more on the Richter scale with either no damage, or with repairable damage.

Municipalities and other authorities, he said, are very strict because they have made certification and approval of design and construction work mandatory. Approval is given only after regulations and instructions are met.

Moreover, any of the popular international standards and codes such as the British, American, Canadian and the European must be followed.

"One of the reasons that justify this situation is the multinational nature of the consultancy firms involved in designing major projects in the UAE," Dr Sabouni said.

"What counts is the quality control of design and construction. And we should ask ourselves are quality control procedures applied in construction projects?"

Gangaramani J.R., vice-chairman and managing director of Al Fara'a General Contracting Company, said municipalities are very strict in enforcing rules. Contractors take extra precautions due to typical Gulf conditions, he said.

All construction works, whether on the mainland or islands, are completely safe and can withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of 6 on the Richter scale.

"People should not worry as the authorities and people in the construction business are well aware of the safety requirements," he said.

Gangaramani was the project engineer when the World Trade Centre building was being constructed in Dubai in the late 1970s. "We took all precautions to protect it from earthquake hazards," he said.

The design and construction of all new buildings are in accordance with international building codes and quality standards. He, however, did not approve the heavy use of glass in buildings saying it is a requirement in European countries where people need sunshine.

"We in the Middle East have plenty of sunshine, thus the use of glass in buildings should not be more than 30 per cent," he said.

The construction sector is divided on the safety aspect of glass buildings.

Dr Fadhil N. Sadooni, Chairman of the Geology Department at UAE University, said the risk of earthquakes is slightly higher in the northern and eastern parts of the emirates because of their proximity to the Iranian fault line.

The risk associated with infrastructure damage also increases in the area as terrain is rocky, unlike sand like in other parts of the country.

He also called for a national seismic monitoring network in the country, saying it is the need of the hour.

The world has not yet succeeded in developing a system to predict earthquakes, but continuous monitoring of seismic activity helps in preventing large-scale destruction and preparing plans to deal with emergency situations.

Remembering Sunday

Residents recalled what they were doing when the tremors were felt on Sunday.

Nilang Shah, who works in Bur Dubai, said: "My office is next to my home. The first thing I did was to telephone my wife and ask her to get out of our residential building when word spread about the tremor."

Pushpa Jaleel, a regional and underwriting manger in Bur Dubai, said she felt a bit dizzy. "The entire 15th floor where our office is located was trembling."

Anvi Shah, a housewife who lives in Bur Dubai, said that she felt herself swaying sideways.

"It was all of a sudden and lasted for five seconds. As I was trying to figure out what exactly was going on I got a call from my husband who asked me to get out of the building as soon as possible. I picked up my four-year-old and rushed out of the building and was quite shocked to find panic-stricken faces," she said.

An employee at an office building in Shindagah area said as soon as the tremors were felt, they were told to evacuate his five-storey building.

"The first time I felt the shakes, I was on the top floor. I thought it was only a gust of wind, as only the blinds were moving. It happened about twice in a minute. I felt slightly strange, and didn't know what was happening," he said.

"There was a bit of a commotion in the building, but in my section I didn't feel anything. Certain parts of the building felt it more than others, which moved a lot more. People also heard a thundering sound coming down the stairs."