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Can a Miami-like building collapse happen in Guayaquil?

Published on July 12, 2021

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Following the tragedy that happened on June 24th in Miami, Florida when a high-rise condominium building collapsed, experts are saying that the use of low-quality materials, the lack of controls, structural problems or using the buildings for a purpose other than that established when designing them could cause a similar collapse of high rises anywhere in the world. Although, at this moment, there are only hypotheses of what happened in Miami that must be confirmed through a thorough investigation.

This type of tragedy being repeated in Ecuador is unlikely in formal constructions, since they are under the Ecuadorian Construction Standard (NEC). But in buildings that have been built informally—which includes the 70% of the construction sector in the country—there is certianly a risk, says Henry Yandún, spokesman for the collective Constructores Positiva. “This is what worries us,” he says.

According to Yandún, the NEC that is required by municipalities from the formal sector is very strict and is updated from time to time to keep up with international standards.

“Building constructions, by their nature, will always be formal because it is a process that cannot be hidden and that it is in high development areas. The NEC is always updated; it was updated after the 2016 earthquake. And, for sure, with the event that happened in Miami, global standards (including the NEC) will be updated,” says Yandún.

“The owners, engineers and technical managers must follow the NEC. The structural designs and the quality of the construction are the responsibility of the engineers and architects, as stated in the Civil Code,” said Carlos Luis Hernández, a civil engineer. The controls for new buildings are regularly given to the Construction Chamber.

Yandún said that to avoid tragedies, such as Miami, municipalities must promote formal construction. The calculations of formal buildings are overseen by a specialist and these plans are supervised, in turn, by other professionals to be approved to obtain municipal permits.

In addition to the construction requirements, soil assessments are done so that the foundations are designed based on the findings. In cities like Guayaquil, piling is done (placing concrete posts in the construction area) to guarantee that the work is on firm ground and are not resting in muddy or sandy soil.

Apart from informality, another aspect that could lead to a Miami-like tragedy is that several residential buildings are being used for other purposes in cities such as Guayaquil, says Hernández.

He says that in sectors such as Bahía or Calle Ayacucho, merchants use buildings that were built as homes as warehouses. The weight that these buildings can support is calculated based on residential movement. In several of these infrastructures, appliances and a variety of merchandise are now stored, “You cannot wait for something to happen to act,” he warns.

Hernández adds that it is also seen that in popular sectors there are two or three-story houses that have been built without permits or studies, thus increasing the risk of a potential collapse.

According to the Municipality of Guayaquil, the Directorate of Justice and Surveillance carries out “daily” checks on the state of buildings and initiates administrative processes based on the observations of its delegates and complaints from citizens.

“The commissioner who manages the process requests a report from the Directorate of Control of Buildings, Cadastre, Appraisals and Mining Control (Decam) to establish whether the property is old or not, and whether it deserves repair, depending on the case. If repairs are needed, the commissioner orders the start of the process with notification to the owner so that he can make the arrangements to avoid risk situations; if the owner does not carry them out, the legal procedures for the building’s demolition will be followed,” said Hernández.

Yandún said two of the factors that lead people to bet on informal construction are the cost and that the procedures of the municipalities are usually complex, difficult and bureaucratic, so “people build quietly,” he says.

Materials as important as design

The use of low-quality materials was evidenced in several of the structures that collapsed in the 2016 earthquake in Manabí. Inhabitants expanded their homes to make them small buildings and, in addition, some of these adaptations were made with beach sand, low-quality cement and very thin rebar rods.

“In Manta, the majority of deaths occurred in small houses of up to three floors that were not formally built, and all procedures were skipped. There was also an inappropriate use of materials, and although they have been of good quality, if you don’t put in the right amount, neither more nor less, the structure will have failures,” says Yandún.

He points out that the myth that it is safer to live in a house than in a taller building is untrue. He points out that highly seismic cities, such as Santiago (Chile) or Tokyo (Japan), continue to bet on the formal construction of buildings, with good results.

“When there was the 8.8 earthquake in Chile in 2010, not a single tall building fell in Santiago. Two fell to the south, in Concepción, because they were poorly built. The design parameters must consider for what level of earthquake it is built,” says María del Pilar Cornejo, Director of the Pacific International Center for Disaster Risk Reduction at the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (Espol).

The 25 buildings (between homes and buildings) that were left with structural damage after the 2016 earthquake in Guayaquil were repaired, says the municipality.

Buildings built in areas near the sea, with extreme humidity or in industrial places with high pollution should have an annual inspection, experts add. “The Espol could design a system with artificial intelligence technologies based on the urban cadastre to send alerts on the revision of buildings. We could also train experts,” says Cornejo.

Guayaquil could have an increase of one meter of the ocean by 2050

One of the other factors that goes into building in coastal cities such as Guayaquil, are the predicated rise in sea levels and how flooding effects building construction.

The disaster in Miami illustrates the damage that salt air, and ground water can do to a building, even if those factors were not part of the reason for the collapse of the building.

The maps of coastal flooding with projections by the International Climate Central Organization show that cities like Guayaquil could suffer serious flooding due to increases in sea level of one meter—by 2050—due to climate change.

Sectors such as Los Guasmos, Puerto Marítimo, Trinitaria, Pradera, Kennedy, will be seriously affected. The projections made by Climate Central were made with large data sets. “These maps should be viewed as screening tools to identify locations that may require further investigation of the risk,” the organization notes.

The organization clarifies that that their calculations are not based on physical simulations of storms and floods and do not take into account factors such as erosion, future changes in the frequency or intensity of storms, inland flooding or contributions from rainfall or rivers, so the flooding could actually be worse.

Backing up their assertions, a study published in the journal Nature titled, “Future losses due to floods in the main coastal cities,” placed Guayaquil as one of the most affected areas by 2050.

In fact, it says that there will be massive economic losses due to floods caused by climate change, in the hypothetical case that there are no major variations in sea level. The losses, according to the study, would amount to $2.813 billion annually.

“The serious thing is that, in the next 30 or 50 years, the sea level will rise about one meter due to global warming. The tide could reach 6 meters or more and will flood wide sectors of the south, including the ports, and accesses to the South Bridge project,” says Hernández, who has participated in large works such as the construction of the new bridge that connects Duran.

To protect the city from a “great flood” it is necessary to start designing plans and strategies to mitigate what it would face in 2050, he says. Hernández adds that all the international alerts that are currently being given internationally have not been taken seriously. In addition, when the sea level rises, the river water and the water from the estuary that surround the city will increase its salinity level and the structures that have been built in Guayaquil are not considering this factor.

Continents such as Europe are analyzing options to carry out works that mitigate the impact of climate change by 2050. Two imposing dikes of 475 and 160 kilometers respectively to “close” the North Sea are located as an alternative to protect some 25 million Europeans from the rise in sea level and floods.

“The predictions speak of a 10-meter rise in sea level by 2050, in the most tragic scenarios. Superdikes are a way of reminding us to act against climate change now. If we do nothing, they will eventually be the last solution,” warns the oceanographer Sjoerd Groeskamp.

Thinking of building a wall system for Guayaquil should not be considered crazy, Hernández points out. “The melting of the poles is a fact and the rise of the sea is also a fact. We must prepare.”

Buildings on the beach would disappear with the rise in sea level

The United States Geological Survey of Earthquakes estimates that about 90% of the world’s earthquakes and 80% of the largest earthquakes occur in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. Ecuador is in this area. In fact, earthquakes of high magnitude have occurred in the country throughout history. The last was the 2016 earthquake with an epicenter in the parishes of Pedernales and Cojimíes, province of Manabí.

This seismic event also impacted cities like Guayaquil. An uneven bridge fell, there were collapsed and cracked houses, despite not being the epicenter. Another reality would have been if the earthquake occurred in the city, experts say, so it must be an alert to strongly promote earthquake-resistant constructions.

Yandún, says that in the formal construction sector the use of earthquake resistant material is practically normal, since this aspect is included in the NEC. “The materials in general construction are good for seismicity, the problem is the use that is given to them. Concrete, wood, steel are good elements, as long as they correspond to a suitable structural design and that it is respected,” he points out.

New developments, buildings or structures are being formally constructed with the requirement of being earthquake resistant, but the problem remains informality.

In fact, the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (Miduvi) evaluated in 2014 that there are approximately 2.8 million citizens located in precarious and irregular settlements throughout Ecuador. In addition, thru 2013, it is estimated that there are approximately 37,064 households located in non-mitigable, protected and / or declared non-habitable hazard zones.

Another issue of concern is the buildings in the coastal area, says Cornejo.

“Go along the Spondylus route and you will see constructions that are on the beach, they are destined to disappear with the rise of the sea level and the changes in the waves. Whoever authorizes these constructions is irresponsible,” she says.

Another factor that must currently be promoted is the concept of sustainability, self-sufficiency, energy efficiency, accessibility, natural spaces, intelligence and innovation.

To reduce the risk of flooding and cushion the formation of heat islands in cities like Guayaquil, for example, the installation of green roofs, facades and walls could be an adaptation measure and a solution to the effects of climate change.

“It requires that cities be built in a different way, less cement, more solutions based on nature, that cities really welcome the human being, with adequate drainage systems, among others,” adds Cornejo.

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