Tbilisi Georgia: An Earthquake Disaster Waiting to Happen?

A few days after the recent wave of earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria a close contact, a friend with a Turkish wife, wrote to me: “Luckily we’re all safe, but some of our friends’ relatives are still buried under the rubble. Many of the rescue problems can be attributed to the terrible performance of the AFAD, the ruling Turkish political party, personally directed by the dictator, which has concentrated rescue efforts only in the areas where his party gets votes. He sent cranes and machines without operators to the Hatay region, so they are perfectly useless.”

As my contact predicted, aside from his political disdain for the Turkish leadership, “A tragedy is taking place, unfortunately, because many people were still alive under the collapsed buildings.” This is history that we should know, even Jack London wrote about being an eyewitness to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and how not in history has a modern city been so completely destroyed

The mainstream media is now showing all, as more and more bodies are pulled from the rubble. This is to be expected in Turkey and Syria, as most of their buildings do not meet safety standards, as can be seen in the aftermath of the recent quakes. Could the quake’s aftermath have turned out differently—a happier ending, a totally different outcome?

The scale of this tragedy would not have been so significant if houses and other buildings had been constructed differently, but there are corruption and poverty all around and a war in Syria. Apparently no one pays close attention to the seismic integrity of buildings and rescue contingency plans, disaster relief, even for anticipated events, Turkey having had a long history of deadly earthquakes.

As the dust settles, questions are being asked about construction scams and the politics that allowed unsafe structures to be built. The earthquake, which also hit northern Syria, has “so far” claimed more than 35,000 lives in Turkey and 6,000 in Syria.

Many lives could have been saved, even though Turkey and the region sit on top of major fault lines. Turkey is often shaken by earthquakes, so they knew sooner or later that history could repeat itself. Many factors are involved, especially human one when it comes to the impact.

It is well known amongst engineers that the amount of death and destruction depends on the distance from the centre of the earthquake, depth, what kind of soils and bedrock foundations are based upon, and the quality of building materials and structural design.

Disaster waiting to happen

So now to focus on another disaster waiting to happen:  this region, including the Caucasus, knows a bit about earthquakes from bitter memories, especially Armenia, whose last BIG one in 1988 had similar results, nearly 50,000 dead, creating economic aftershocks still felt today.  Even now there have been some smaller quakes, in Armenia and elsewhere in the region, as this was going to press.

In Georgia, especially Batumi and Tbilisi, many are now waking up to the realisation that the same could happen, and even worse. It is claimed by various sources that 80 percent of residential buildings in Tbilisi do not meet seismic resistance requirements.

“An earthquake with a magnitude of more than 7 points would wipe off the face of the earth more than 70% of Tbilisi, we may face a catastrophe,” said Irakli Rostomashvili, head of the Association of Builders.

According to him, the percentage of modern houses in the capital that could withstand an 8 magnitude earthquake is small; however, most of the buildings are of older construction. A separate threat is posed by unauthorised superstructures, changes in layouts and demolitions of load-bearing walls in residential buildings.

It is debatable if only older buildings pose a risk. Many of the buildings built during Soviet times were over-constructed, and over-engineered, at least in my opinion. Georgia is not Japan, as in Japan they have special foundations that move and act like shock absorbers to mitigate the energy of a quake.

It is worth noting that Japan is a leader in engineering earthquake-proof structures, helping to limit damage and save lives. We might also note that the first earthquake-proof building in the world was constructed in Italy back in 1570, and the centre of Lisbon contains a large number of such buildings, erected after the 1755 earthquake, so the relevant knowledge and expertise have been around for a long time.

However, this knowledge is now limited, so it appears, to the high earthquake risk regions of the world. Georgy Boychenko, head of the geology department of the Georgian National Centre for Seismic Monitoring, says that Georgia is still guided by an outdated seismic risk map developed in 1999.  “In 2020, the centre, together with foreign experts, compiled a new map, but it has not yet to be approved.”

Flaws in Construction Methods and Materials

As in Turkey, the common Georgian construction method of using a concrete skeleton with cinder block infill walls is a disaster waiting to happen. The cinder blocks (hollow concrete blocks) are used without steel reinforcing and concrete in the voids, which are supposed to be there. There is also a tendency to cheat on the reinforcing bars in the structural members, using smaller diameter bars, and fewer than is necessary to meet new standards.

Hence old-fashioned corruption and greed, cutting corners and reducing costs, are the main reasons this potential calamity exists. Corruption can happen in any country, Georgia or the UK.

It is also worth noting that concrete is often not properly vibrated, resulting in separation between cement and aggregate, which further reduces the structural strength. Often the reinforcing, re-bars, are exposed to water because of insufficient concrete cover, which causes rust damage etc.

Often builders let concrete dry before it cures too, but this is not what concrete needs, as a chemical reaction is taking place. By not controlling the curing process during hot weather and low humidity, and also pouring in cold water without special additives or heating the mix, the mix loses strength and is subject to structural failure, especially when combined with other requirements for structural concrete as noted above.

I have been discussing this topic with foreigners, including new Russian residents in Georgia, and one responded:

“But about the integrity, yes, you are right, the old-timers were not idiots to build like this— but the state of the building is critical.”

Wakeup Call

Half of the historic architecture in Tbilisi already has cracks in the walls. It won’t need an earthquake to make it fall down in the next decades. Much “renovated” historical architecture might have been brought up to “euro-standard,” at least to outward appearances, by using the cheapest cement and cinder blocks on the market. So there will be a lot of variability.

Also, even under the best constructed building the foundations may have shifted slightly over time, given Tbilisi’s underlying geological and seismic structure. The older the building, the more time there is for a shift to occur, although once again the specific context of what underlies each dwelling will play a role.

These days you see skyscrapers being built directly within landslide zones. Engineers just add a few more hopes and prayers to the foundation!

Many of the Soviet era buildings in Georgia were only designed to withstand earthquakes of 6 on the seismic scale. No one wanted to admit an 8 was possible unless the anti-earthquake structures were in more glamorous locations. In Georgia, “if it used to be 6 bali, now it has become 8.”

Therefore, most of the buildings built during the Soviet Union cannot withstand the magnitude of earthquake now occurring in the region, at least in theory. Nevertheless, many buildings built during the Soviet Union are of better construction and quality than those we see today.

The King David Complex in Tbilisi, an Israeli investment, appears to have a very solid foundation, at least to those who are not engineers. To them it is structurally very solid, built on a rock, but as for the rest of the building, it is hard to tell.

Let us hope it does not go the way of the original King David, which gave us the definition of terrorism when the Zionists blew up that building, the British Headquarters in Jerusalem. Particularly as the King David in Tbilisi may be built on rock, but that rock is quite fragile and very fragmented—like shale rock.

One lady who has peer reviewed some of these comments asked me, “has Georgia experienced an earthquake above 6 since Soviet times?” I responded, not to my personal knowledge, perhaps this has happened elsewhere in Georgia but the epicentre was not in close proximity to Tbilisi or any regional towns.

About 10 years ago there was a quake and some old buildings lost walls and became so damaged that people could not continue to live in them. Though not many of those in business and government would agree, it is clear to many others that if an earthquake stronger than a 6 on the seismic scale hits Tbilisi, most buildings, old and new, won’t hold up.

Rumours Run Deep

Nonetheless, rumours are spreading on social networks about an alleged strong earthquake possibility in Tbilisi. It all started with WhatsApp and Viber chats. It is not known who served as the personal source.  The National Earth Institute was even forced to issue a statement that although Georgia is a seismically active zone, short-term forecasts are not possible here. “I also urge you to use only trusted sources”, said a spokesperson, which raises the usual question of what constitutes a trusted source, and who it is that trusts it.

Knowing the history, based on local sources, there is a basis for concern over the structural and financial integrity of the Georgian and regional construction industry. An equal concern is that we are never likely to know the facts, as too many significant financial interests are involved in creating fictions to generate more income rather than solving problems others will inevitably inherit.

Case Study

One British engineer who worked for 15 years in the construction industry in Georgia, now deceased, conducted a project risk analysis for the city which looked at threats to the continuation of projects. This did not only make a connection to the construction industry but several other aspects, including relations to EBRD, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the status of various ongoing projects and “possible” money laundering schemes.

A current case in point is the project for the redevelopment of 7 Freedom Square, opposite the Marriott Courtyard Hotel. They’re just receiving tenders for the construction management of that job, but it is likely to run into problems, much the same as Cinema City, once touted as a major project but now on the back burner until later.

These are both amongst a number of projects run by GRDC, the Georgian Reconstruction and Development Company. These are managed by a British guy with Middle Eastern connections, who follows in a long line of others of similar descriptions involved in money laundering building projects for players such as RAK, the development agency for one of the United Arab Emirates.

For a “Project Delivery Director”, this man doesn’t seem to deliver very much. He does however appear to have a stake in both the Freedom Square project and Cinema City. All of the GRDC funding comes from the EBRD, so it has to be reasonably clean, if not squeaky clean, as the EBRD has strict rules about how and whom it lends money to. But how that money is then divvied up is a secondary consideration.

Another project run by the same team, in collaboration with TBC Bank at the time, was to redevelop Tbilisi Railway Station. As with many others, this has design problems, which although solvable mean that the original design will not survive an earthquake.

Confidential list of construction companies working with TBC bank, provided by employees:

Meridaian Reality, Gia Guruili; 7Sky, Konstantian Didzidzishvili/Jeffrey-Geoffrey Keys, Reality Group, Jeam Shamugia; Ltd Nike, Jemal Shamugia; Ltd Nike; Eldar Kobakhadze; Company New Styple, Nika Papidze; Axis Construction, Merab Akubar

Often developers are just too ambitious with what they want to do, and hopefully the new generation of builders is more responsible, and they think of the long-term consequences. But in reality they too will also take any amount of risk for the sake of money, and the connections it brings, as this makes them more attractive to those who want such a building against their name before it collapses during someone else’s tenure.

It was pointed out at the time that a mag 6 earthquake might shift the columns supporting the floors above. Once it became necessary to deconstruct entire buildings to fix them, or start over from scratch, GRDC started to lose interest, looking forward to the next big project and payday.

The financial system and political stability of Georgia could come crashing down if some things are proved to be lacking in structural integrity, especially in the newer and “elite” construction projects. So many people are staking their own credibility on construction, despite the half-builds abandoned after the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, that the country as a whole will be caught with its pants down should something go wrong.

No one wants to learn the lessons of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria because they want to be seen to be better than those countries to get more construction funds. So the cycle begins again, with the ordinary population as ever bottom of the list.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”


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