Nixing Quake-proofing Program Puts Israel at Risk, Experts Warn

Committee says that by ending the program to reinforce older buildings, Israel might face a disastrous situation after a major tremor

Central Tel Aviv: Due for a shake-up?
Eyal Toueg

A program for reinforcing older apartment buildings against earthquakes is likely to come to an end in three years, but a leading expert warns that without it, Israel is doing nothing to prepare for the consequences of a major earthquake.

Planning authorities decided last week in principle to end National Master Plan 38, commonly known by its Hebrew acronym, Tama 38, by October 2022. 

The program was originally designed as a way to cover the cost of quake-proofing buildings, but it came under heavy criticism for undermining city planning and being used only in areas where it was financially viable, not where the quake risk is greatest.

In a document obtained by TheMarker, experts warn that the earthquake threat remains as serious as ever: A major temblor is very likely to occur in the Dead Sea area and cause death and destruction over large parts of the country, mostly in central Israel.

The warning came in a letter from Amir Yahav, director of the interministerial steering committee on earthquake preparedness, to Finance Ministry housing director Zeev Bielski and Planning Administration head Dalit Zilber.

“The only policy the government has offered to reduce earthquake damage to residential buildings is National Master Plan 38,” Yahav wrote. 

“The government must understand that if it doesn’t work to strengthen the approximately 80,000 residential buildings that were built before modern construction standards, the country may face a disastrous situation after an earthquake, with thousands of dead, tens of thousands injured and hundreds of thousands of people made homeless, which the state will need to support,” he said.

Tremors measuring 7-7.9 on the Richter scale are likely to cause serious damage over wide areas, even those hundreds of kilometers away from the epicenter.

“We can clearly see that in large parts of the Dead Sea Transform fault system,” seismic energy has already built up that will be released in a very strong earthquake estimated at the magnitude of 7–7.5 on the Richter scale. Such a quake is expected to hit major parts of Israel,” Yahav said in the letter.

The interminsterial committee was set up in 1999 after a major earthquake in Turkey. It counts 40 members, including ministry officials, officers in the army’s Home Front Command, research institutions and emergency services organization.

Yahav stressed that a powerful earthquake could occur at any time. He said the risk to buildings was mainly an engineering one and that it applied even to those in the center of the country, despite their relatively great distance from the expected Dead Sea epicenter.

Yahav said that most of the estimated 80,000 structures not deemed resistant to earthquakes are in areas of central Israel where National Master Plan 38 is currently being employed. For about 36,000 buildings located in the periphery, the cabinet has budgeted 5 billion shekels [$1.4 billion) for earthquake reinforcement and defense against rockets and missiles.

Figures from the interministerial committee show that through the end of 2018, applications for building permits under National Master Plan 38 had been received for a total of 134,000 apartments. The number of people who have or would be getting quake-resistant housing as a result numbered about 540,000.

National Master Plan 38 has been criticized as failing to meet its original goal.

“Tama 38/1 has limited effectiveness” because it involves trying to reinforcing an existing building, sometimes many decades old, for which there is limited or no information on its superstructure, says Yigal Govrin, chairman of the Construction and Infrastructure Engineers Association. A separate provision, National Master Plan 38/2, involves razing and replacing an existing building. In both cases, the developer pays for all of the work, in exchange for ownership of the new apartments that are added.

“In the case of an older building, there are two problems: The first arises from adding the addition, a complex issue made more complicated by the requirements of the reinforcement against earthquakes. All this is without reliable information about the original building, not about its structure and certainly not about  its foundation,” Yahav said.

Officials who attended  last week’s meeting said that Yahav was less certain that buildings in communities closest to the Syrian-African Rift — the closest earthquake hotspot — would necessary suffer the greatest damage, so the fact that National Master Plan 38 has not been implemented in them was not a strong reason to end the program. 

He recommended that National Master Plan 38 be kept running another five years, rather than three. He criticized the decision of planning authorities last week to transfer via new legislation most of the authority to deal with quake-resistant building to local planning authorities. The legislation is expected to take shape only after the next government is formed. 

“If National Master Plan 38 is cancelled, the issue [of earthquake-proofing] will be handed over entirely to local planning and building committees, which have other priorities that are likely to take precedence over reinforcement buildings against earthquakes,” said Yahav.