Lessons learned from the Ezgeleh–Sarpol Zahab earthquake of November 2017: status of damage and disposal of disaster waste
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A massive earthquake of magnitude Mw 7.3 shook Kermanshah Province in Western Iran along the Iraqi border on November 12, 2017. The epicenter of the earthquake was approximately 10 km southwest of Ezgeleh Town in Kermanshah Province. Field observations almost 4 months after the disaster indicated that the earthquake had caused tremendous damage to most structures in both urban and rural areas, and left an enormous amount of disaster waste. To investigate the status of the damage and disposal of the disaster waste, remote sensing was conducted using an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone). Through the capture of low-altitude images by drone and the generation of 3D models, the quantity of debris accumulated in a waste disposal facility near Sarpol Zahab was estimated at approximately 480,000 m3. A compositional analysis of the disaster waste was performed using an imaging technique. This revealed that the disaster waste was largely composed of concrete (39.6%), hollow brick (35.4%), and gypsum (21.2%) in the urban area, whereas soil was the dominant component (77.4%) in the rural area. The damage caused to most buildings was essentially due to their non-standard construction. The management of debris from the damaged buildings was a critical issue for the authorities, and the lack of preparedness was a serious drawback that consumed an enormous amount of time, budget, and workforce. A practical post-disaster preparedness plan would help the decision-makers and the public to manage the otherwise overwhelming nature of the post-disaster conditions in a more reasonable manner.
Keywords2017 Iran Earthquake Ezgeleh–Sarpol Zahab Disaster waste disposal Waste compositional analysis Remote sensing
Over the past few decades, the occurrence and intensity of climatic and geological hazards have increased significantly. Earthquakes are one of the most devastating hazards, typically hitting an extensive geographic area and leaving an enormous amount of debris from the partial or complete destruction of buildings, roads, bridges, and infrastructure in a very short period of time. Earthquakes may also trigger secondary hazards, such as tsunamis, landslides, land subsidence, liquefaction, site amplification, lateral spreading, and other geohazards.
The earthquake was the deadliest of 2017 and was felt as far away as Turkey and Pakistan3; it was worse than the powerful September 19, 2017 earthquake in Mexico, which killed 369.4 According to the latest reports, the death toll rose to over 660, of which 518 were from the city of Sarpol Zahab.5 The earthquake was preceded by a foreshock of Mw 4.3, which alerted the community to leave their buildings, thereby potentially reducing the number of fatalities. The Iranian Seismological Center reported other smaller foreshocks that occurred in the epicentral area.6
In a preliminary report, the Kermanshah Governorate announced an estimated damage cost of 26 trillion Iranian Rials (IRR) (ca. 84 million US$) to residential, administrative, and infrastructure facilities in the province. This was proportioned as some 8 trillion IRR (ca. 26 million US$) of damage to residential, service, and commercial units of the province, and approximately 18 trillion IRR (ca. 58 million US$) of damage to government buildings and infrastructure. It needs to be emphasized that these figures were only preliminary estimates in the early days after the disaster.
Regarding the damage to the 31,000 urban and rural residential units, 100% damage to at least 12,000 rural residential units and 5000 urban residential units was reported across the province. The number of damaged governmental units, including schools, offices, hospitals, and infrastructure, including water and electricity, was notably high7,8. In addition, critical water and power shortages were reported across Kermanshah Province. Piped water to the areas closest to the epicenter was cut off, and the water sources in Sarpol Zahab were contaminated.9 The earthquake also affected regions of Eastern Iraq; however, its impacts on Western Iran were more detrimental than those on the Iraqi side.
Direct observation plays a substantial role in understanding the features of a disaster and the dominant phenomena affecting the people, infrastructure, and natural environment. Fan et al.  suggest that the disaster damage assessment process is crucial for rescue and relief operations, providing a basis for developing a recovery and reconstruction plan in the disaster region and helping the authorities to prevent and mitigate future disasters. One of the most significant consequences of a disaster is the generation of an enormous amount of debris. In the past few decades, there have been efforts to assess the status of damage [6, 7] and the impact of natural disasters on waste generation , through direct observation and/or remote sensing.
Scientists from various geographic regions including Turkey [9, 10], Iran [11, 12, 13], and New Zealand [14, 15, 16] have suggested strategies for the sound disposal and recycling of wastes from natural disasters, particularly earthquakes. They have emphasized the identification, classification, management, recycling, and disposal of disaster debris as a key factor for rapid recovery and reconstruction. Remote sensing has contributed significantly to damage assessment and has proved to be an efficient technology for this purpose . Several research groups from across the globe have systematically used this technology for precise damage and recovery assessment , risk management , disaster management and monitoring [5, 7], structural damage assessment , and building damage mapping [19, 20].
In order to evaluate the status of damage, disaster waste disposal, and its direct impact on the surrounding environment, a team composed of three members from Kyushu University departed for the region to conduct a field investigation on March 15 and 16, 2018, almost 4 months after the disaster. Time constraints, budget management, and administrative procedures, as well as necessary preparations for an overseas trip, were the main reasons for the delayed visit to the disaster area. The present investigation only focuses on the consequences of the earthquake in Kermanshah Province (Fig. 1).
The prime objective of this investigation was to observe the earthquake-induced damage and to evaluate the status of waste and debris disposal in the disaster area. The next objective was to use the following techniques in the field: (1) evaluate the capability of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology to capture images from the damaged zones and estimate the amount of accumulated disaster debris based on the generated 3D models, and (2) employ an innovative photography technique for on-site quantification of debris left from the disaster.
Earthquake mechanism and seismic features
In Western Asia, no fewer than four major tectonic plates (Arabian, Eurasian, Indian, and African) and one smaller tectonic block (Anatolian) are responsible for seismicity and tectonics in the Middle East and the surrounding region. The geologic development of the region is a consequence of a number of first-order plate tectonic processes, which include subduction, large-scale transform faulting, compressional mountain building, and crustal extension .
To elucidate the focal mechanism of this earthquake, Zare et al.  proposed that the earthquake occurred owing to the activity of a fault dipping shallowly to the east-northeast or a fault dipping steeply to the southwest. Based on the active fault map of Iran, they suggested that this earthquake was presumably triggered by the movement of Zagros Mountain Front Fault (MFF) in the Pol-e-Zahab Region. Farzanegan et al.  also suggested that the earthquake had a thrust focal mechanism. Such earthquakes generate stronger shaking compared with earthquakes that occur because of normal or strike-slip faults.
From the epicenter and the focal mechanism of the earthquake, it was also reported that the fault responsible for the earthquake was probably one of the segments of the MFF with a north–northwest direction, dipping shallowly (10°–15°) to the east . The very low angle faulting might have been responsible for the broad width of the aftershock zone. In addition, the existence of scattered clusters of aftershocks indicates that they might have been associated with the movement of a group of pre-existing minor faults that were activated by the earthquake. Despite the generally scattered distribution of the aftershocks, it is possible to define a NW–SE trend in them, which is consistent with the trends of the MFF and the High Zagros Fault (HZF) .
The preliminary results of geodetic source modeling suggest that the earthquake was generated by blind ENE oblique-thrust faulting, with an average slip of approximately 4 m at a depth of between 17 and 22 km . Based on interferometric SAR (InSAR) analysis, Kobayashi et al.  proposed a deformation pattern in which a reverse slip occurred on a low dip angle fault plane, with a NNW–SSE strike direction. They also suggested that the seismic motion might have triggered many localized displacements at the mountain slopes. The IIEES  reported that the earthquake had at least three foreshocks, with magnitudes between 1.9–4.5, and 526 aftershocks with magnitudes of 1.8‒4.7 until November 28, 2017, 17 days after the occurrence of the main shock.
In the most recent analysis, Tavani et al.  indicated the coexistence of thin- and thick-skinned thrusting, the reactivation of inherited structures, and the occurrence of weak units promoting heterogeneous deformation within the Paleo-Cenozoic sedimentary cover and partial decoupling from the underlying basement. According to their study, the main shock of the November 2017 seismic sequence was located within the basement along the low-angle MFF system of the Zagros Mountains.
Scope of the study
Study area and field investigation
The entirety of the evidence indicated that the major damage had occurred in a north–south direction, extending from Ezgeleh (near the epicenter) in the north to Sarpol Zahab and its suburbs in the south, very close to and parallel with the Iran–Iraq border (Fig. 3). The team attempted to cover the most heavily affected areas during this field survey. On day 1 (March 15), the team primarily focused on Sarpol Zahab and its surrounding districts. Sarpol Zahab is the largest human settlement in this zone and the one that received the most severe impacts from the earthquake, with entire buildings undergoing partial or complete collapse [6, 25]. The team also visited several dumping sites, including the main disposal site in which the disaster waste from Sarpol Zahab and the surrounding communities was accumulated.
On day 2 (March 16), the team visited several communities and locations that had received severe damage from specific earthquake-induced phenomena such as landslides. This survey mission started from one of the nearest villages to the epicenter, Emam Abbas in the north, and extended to Tapani, Koeeke, Mela Kabud, and Ghorchi Bashi in the southern regions. All of the visited areas are located north of Sarpol Zahab City (Fig. 3).
The principal goals of this investigation were to observe the status of damage and the ongoing operations for handling and disposing of disaster debris, and to conduct field measurements. In order to observe the damage and calculate the amount of disaster waste at a disposal site near Sarpol Zahab, an aerial survey was conducted using a UAV or drone (DJI Phantom 4 Pro). The drone was controlled by DJI GS Pro Software, which was installed on an iPad 4 mini device. For still image shooting, the flight altitude was set to 30 m, and the overlap ratio between the images was set to 80–90% front and 60% side. The images captured were later imported to Agisoft Photoscan v.1.2.5 for 3D modeling and estimation of the disaster waste. In order to estimate waste volume at the disposal site, the Structure-from-Motion (SfM) technique was used. SfM is a photogrammetric imaging technique for generating three-dimensional structures from two-dimensional image sequences [26, 27].
In order to quantify the components of disaster debris categories, a photographic compositional analysis method was adopted from the technique that was initially employed in Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 . Based on this technique (with slight modifications), the compositional ratio of the disaster waste was estimated at several waste piles in Shiroudi Housing Complex and Emam Abbas Village.
Impact of the earthquake on the built environment
Sarpol Zahab City
The buildings and city infrastructure in the southern part received more serious damage from the ground motions than those in the northern areas (nearest to the rocky outcrops). According to Ozcelik , the earthquake forces during the main shock are amplified by the poor dynamic characteristics of alluvial soils. This phenomenon was presumably a major factor causing additional damage to the buildings in the southern segment of the city.
As a result, the majority of the buildings in the city became uninhabitable owing to a series of major to minor failures, although some looked undamaged in their exteriors and façades. Figure 6c shows a two-story private housing building that displayed almost no defects on the front face but became unlivable owing to internal damage, including fractured ceilings and tilted columns. In rare cases, however, it was possible to find structures that exhibited relatively successful performance. Figure 6d is an outstanding image that displays a building with a concrete frame structure and walls made of hollow blocks, which survived the earthquake (right), beside a large concrete structure (left) that suffered from a presumably progressive collapse. When a primary structural element fails, a building undergoes progressive collapse, resulting in the failure of adjoining structural elements, which in turn, causes further structural failure .
Case study: The Shiroudi Housing Complex
The Shiroudi Housing Complex, which is located in the northwest corner of Sarpol Zahab (see Fig. 4), is the largest housing complex in the city, and is composed of several public buildings (seven stories) and a series of private houses (two to four stories). They are essentially concrete structures and were mostly occupied by their tenants at the time of the disaster. The government had completed the public housing for lower income families approximately 5 years before the earthquake. The earthquake caused serious casualties in this housing complex, leading to the deaths of at least 100 and serious injury of hundreds more.
Consequently, the entire area was uninhabitable, and only demolition and debris removal activities were in progress at the time of the survey. It was noted that the removal of the exterior walls and other non-structural components of the multistory buildings had been completed (Fig. 8b). There are plans to reinforce the existing frames of the public buildings and reconstruct them for future use. However, the privately owned houses of the Shiroudi Complex that were severely damaged had not been demolished at the time of the survey, possibly owing to legal issues and lack of budget.
In general, Alavi et al.  suggest several reasons for the instability of the concrete structures at this location and in the other zones across the disaster area. These include the following: inappropriate reinforcement of the joints and the critical ends of columns and beams; lack of transverse reinforcement; shear failure of short columns; poor quality of construction; inadequate length or location of splices; poor compressive strength of concrete; soft-story effect; and weak-column/strong-beam mechanism. Researchers from the countries neighboring Iran, including Pakistan  and Turkey [34, 35], reported similar structural failures caused by heavy earthquakes in their regions.
Emam Abbas Village
Although this village was farther from the epicenter (Fig. 3), it had also suffered from very severe damage, based on field observation. There was no intact structure in the village, and almost everything was destroyed. The original population of the village was 535, of which approximately 16 were killed. The village was in a state of abandonment, and reconstruction was rare. Most of the residents had been evacuated to the temporary shelters in the neighboring villages.
Mela Kabod and Ghorchi Bashi Villages
These small villages were not directly affected by the earthquake; however, a huge mass movement (landslide) triggered by the earthquake partially damaged some dwellings and endangered the entire settlements. The landslide occurred shortly after the earthquake on the flanks of Mt. Shahneshin (Fig. 11b). Rock and soil were displaced from their original position by a huge mass movement to the west, along an approximately 4 km rupture that displays a NW–SE direction (Fig. 11b). Both Mela Kabod and Ghorchi Bashi Villages (Fig. 11a) are located immediately before the “toe” of the landslide.
Such significant ground failures and the magnitude of the landslide should be taken as warnings that the landslide might have immense potential for further movement at any time in the future, wiping out the surrounding settlements. In such circumstances, the authorities must prioritize the instant evacuation of the inhabitants in order to prevent them from any potential threat. The populations of Mela Kabod and Ghorchi Bashi are 100 and 240, respectively, which are not large for an urgent evacuation. Further geotechnical, geological, geophysical, hydrological, and remote sensing investigations should be carried out to evaluate the stability of the landslide and its future impacts on the human settlements, environment, agriculture, and hydrological regime of the region.
Disaster waste analysis
Identification of the quality and quantity of disaster waste can play a crucial role in post-disaster damage and recovery assessment [14, 15, 16]. As well as direct observation, remote-sensing-based investigations and associated technologies (using satellite data and UAV images) are vital assessment tools that have significantly contributed to the rapid identification of structural damage and post-disaster operations [5, 7]. Remote sensing technology can play a particularly significant role in the collection of rubble from demolished buildings, as well as the management of disaster debris. Based on these facts, we were determined to observe the status of waste disposal in the disaster area and to assess the capability of UAV technology and an on-site imagery technique as a tool for direct measurement of disaster waste.
Status of disaster waste disposal in the earthquake-affected regions
This earthquake affected a vast geographic area in Kermanshah Province (Western Iran) and consequently damaged several urban and rural areas across the region, including Sarpol Zahab (the largest settlement) and many other smaller communities. The direct observations revealed that the disaster had left an enormous amount of debris that originated from the completely or partially collapsed structures. Under such critical circumstances, the local government authorities generally lose control over public affairs, and exhaust workforce, organizational infrastructure, administrative integrity, field equipment, and resources. Therefore, handling the huge amount of waste generated from the disaster and subsequent relief operations would be completely beyond their capacity. In particular, when there are no national or local guidelines for waste management in emergency conditions, the situation becomes even more complicated, as was the case in this area. The status of disaster waste handling and disposal in a number of locations is described below.
Sarpol Zahab City and its suburbs
Disposal of waste and debris in unauthorized areas, including roadsides and farmlands, was encountered not only in this area, but also across the entire region, causing serious problems for the local authorities. Another location visited was an open dumping site SW of Sarpol Zahab (location 3 on Fig. 3), which regularly receives solid waste from household sources. In the aftermath of the earthquake, however, it became a destination for illegal (often nocturnal) dumping of disaster debris.
Apart from the aforementioned locations, the local authorities had designated a disposal facility in the mountains almost 10 km west of Sarpol Zahab (location 4 on Fig. 3) as a final destination for the majority of the disaster debris that originated from the city and the surrounding communities. At the disposal facility, mixed wastes were accumulated. The composition of the debris was principally soil and sand, stone, ceramics and tiles, glass shards, concrete, brick, hollow brick, and plaster (gypsum). Steel bars and other metal items were separated at the source (demolition sites) by private sector operators as valuable and recyclable construction materials; hence, they were not (or seldom) brought into this disposal facility.
The Provincial Support Headquarters (PSH) of various provinces (locally called Setad Moien Ostan), affiliated with the Iranian Housing Foundation, were involved in debris removal operations. Personnel and equipment from the PSH of Isfahan, Mazandaran, and Khorasan Razavi Provinces were responsible for transferring debris from Sarpol Zahab to the disposal facility. In parallel, the PSH of Hamedan, Markazi, and Ardebil Provinces were involved in transferring debris from the rural areas to this facility. The on-site personnel stated that apart from the disaster debris, combustible waste and household appliances were previously brought to the facility. It was intended that the facility would accept disaster debris until July 2018.
Emam Abbas and Tapani Villages
The debris left from the disaster was mostly scattered inside the village next to the damaged buildings, without separation or treatment (Fig. 13c). A significant amount of waste was also accumulated in the agricultural lands outside of the village or along the main road that connects the village to Ezgeleh. It was not clear whether this place was the final disposal site or whether the debris would be subsequently moved to a different location. The debris was essentially composed of soil and sediments, chunks of bricks and hollow blocks, stone, and concrete. Steel and other metal components were generally separated, with some sold to local customers for reuse. In Tapani Village, the situation was similar. The disaster debris had been left across the village or next to the destroyed buildings, and no disposal site was observed in this village.
Considerable amounts of debris were distributed across these villages. In addition, a large volume of debris was laid on the foothills of Mt. Shahneshin as a final disposal site (Fig. 13d). This site is topographically located above the village, and it is believed that this location could enhance the risk of additional disasters, such as flooding during the rainy season, or airborne dust caused by the strong wind. Flash flooding could wash the loose disaster debris downslope and cause a secondary catastrophic event for the residents. The debris was compositionally similar to the other villages, and remained untreated. It largely consisted of soil and sediments, bricks, hollow blocks, stone, and concrete.
Aerial survey and 3D modeling of the final disposal facility
Scientists have attempted to use remote sensing technologies in order to identify and estimate quantities of post-disaster debris/waste for the purpose of designing a rapid recovery process [5, 7, 17, 18, 36]. To this end, data from various sources (satellites or UAVs) have been efficiently processed to evaluate the status of the damage and debris generated [8, 19, 20].
The original topography of the land beneath the disposal facility consisted of several small V-shaped valleys surrounded by ephemeral watercourses (Fig. 14b). It occupied a large piece of land where a considerable amount of disaster waste was accumulated. By processing the 3D model, the quantity of waste accumulated on site was estimated at approximately 480,000 m3. However, as the accurate topography of the original ground was unknown at the time of the aerial survey, the disaster waste volume might have been underestimated. The personnel on site proposed that the height of the active zone (top surface) of the disposal site from the base (original topography) was approximately 70 m; however, it was estimated at 42 m by analyzing the 3D model. In such circumstances, a combination of ground mapping and aerial surveying would suggest more accurate and reliable results for the volume of waste deposited.
Compositional analysis of the disaster waste
Average compositional ratios of disaster debris components in three waste piles, Shiroudi Housing Complex, Sarpol Zahab City
Average compositional ratios of disaster debris components in three waste piles, Emam Abbas Village
The aforementioned technique provides a cornerstone for rapidly estimating the total volume of the disaster waste, its components, and the compositional ratio of each waste category. However, weight conversion factors (e.g., density of each category of waste, compaction status, and homogeneity of the waste piles) would be required for precise estimation of the total amount (weight) of the disaster waste. Such simple and practical techniques provide a valuable opportunity to local authorities, policy-makers, and engineers, helping them adopt appropriate post-disaster waste management policies, including waste hauling and transfer, reuse, recycling, and disposal.
Lessons to be learned
Field observations indicated that tremendous damage had occurred to both the residential and administrative buildings across the city of Sarpol Zahab, the largest community in the region. For instance, the governor’s office, which operated as the command center for most activities across the region, was significantly damaged. However, because of the emergency conditions and despite severe aftershocks, the building was in use by the governor’s office employees. As another instance, the city hospital largely collapsed when the earthquake occurred, and its medical services were completely suspended in the early stages of the disaster. The collapse of the hospital caused significant injuries and deaths to the personnel and inpatients. Achour et al.  reported the satisfactory performance of a hospital following the 2011 Van Earthquake in Turkey, which effectively withstood the tremors. Such successful cases indicate that designing and building a structure according to updated building codes can save the structures and their residents. Therefore, in a seismic hot spot like Iran, developing and enforcing seismic codes would be the most reliable policy to minimize the losses caused by an earthquake.
Almost 4 months after the earthquake, management of debris from the damaged buildings as well as demolition and cleanup processes were among the most critical issues for authorities across the region. The disaster waste was a barrier to clean-up activities and reconstruction, as it blocked the roads. In addition, municipal waste and waste arising from relief operations were either mixed with or accumulated on top of the disaster waste. It was observed that the unmanaged disaster waste was a local source of airborne dust, which sometimes intensified during the dry and during windy periods, leading to an adverse impact on the environment, citizens, and agriculture. The entire region is a hub for several major agricultural products, particularly wheat, barley, maize and oilseeds, which are the main sources of income for most of the inhabitants.
The composition of disaster debris was significantly different depending on its source. Compositional analysis of the disaster waste in a typical urban area (Shiroudi Housing Complex) and a typical rural area (Emam Abbas Village) indicated that debris derived from recently developed urban areas was essentially composed of concrete-brick materials, while in the rural areas, soil and mud were the dominant components. In either situation, only a few buildings were observed that had withstood the earthquake shocks, possibly owing to their standard design and construction (Fig. 10).
Construction and retrofitting of buildings according to safety guidelines, such as Standard 2800 , must be prioritized for public, multi-purpose facilities, including healthcare centers, fire and police stations, armed/defense forces buildings, governmental offices, educational facilities, and sports complexes. Such facilities play substantial roles in the emergency response and evacuation operations in the aftermath of a disaster. It was observed that such facilities in Sarpol Zahab received almost the same level of damage as the other weak structures across the city, most probably owing to substandard constructions. Therefore, taking special precautions to protect educational facilities and other public buildings would be an important measure for saving the lives of the inhabitants and offering safe and secure shelters to the victims in the post-disaster stage. As an example, public buildings, particularly sports facilities, effectively provided temporary shelter to evacuees after an earthquake that hit the Kumamoto area of Western Japan in 2016 .
Although the Western Iran earthquake was the deadliest in 2017,13 the number of injured residents and the death toll were not significantly high, despite heavy structural damage. The main factor that saved the lives of the residents was a series of foreshocks (the most powerful measuring Mw 4.3) that occurred shortly prior to the main shock, causing people to be on alert. In addition, the earthquake and its aftershocks occurred in a region where the communities were geographically scattered, and there was no large city in the immediate vicinity of the epicenter. Special care must be taken when interpreting statistics on such disasters, as it was the above factors that led to the reduced number of casualties, rather than the efficiency of the infrastructure or reinforcement of buildings. Therefore, in planning for future scenarios, the magnitude of this earthquake and its potential impacts should not be overlooked owing to the relatively small death toll.
A critical issue that was very evident was the lack of sufficient financial resources for demolition of collapsed buildings, debris removal, and retrofitting/reconstruction projects. This was a serious problem for the local authorities and for most of the residents who suffered from the earthquake. An effective measure to cover the aforementioned costs would be to offer an early national insurance program (either compulsory or optional) to the citizens in order to support their housing against natural disasters including earthquakes. Earthquake insurance can significantly reduce the vulnerability of a society and speed up post-disaster recovery operations.
Lack of preparedness among the local authorities had clearly led them to taking hasty decisions. It was evident that the difficult post-earthquake conditions caused an enormous waste of time, resources, and manpower. If the local authorities and citizens had been prepared in advance, public safety could have been guaranteed. Instead of waiting until a disaster occurs, any society needs to have a concrete and operational disaster-preparedness plan, drafted by lawmakers, engineers, scientists, and government executives. In addition, both central and local governments must give priority to planning for a systematic recovery from any disaster instead of diverting attentions from them.
The authors are grateful to Prof. Mehdi Zare of IIEES for providing impressive comments and suggestions before and during the field survey. Special thanks are due to the directorate of Kermanshah Provincial Government and Sarpol Zahab Governor’s Office for facilitating and supporting the site visits across the region.
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