December 5th, 2014
Regions of the world at high seismic risk are hit from time to time by powerful earthquakes or tsunamis.
It appears that the damage caused by these cataclysms is not strictly proportional to the quake magnitude, but it depends mostly on the degree of preparedness of the region where it occurs.
In the last twenty years the United Nations Office ”International Strategies for Disaster Reduction” has promoted a program whose stated goal is “to substantially reduce disaster losses by 2015 by building the resilience of nations and communities to disaster”.
Is this program working?
Have countries at high seismic risk been adopting the building strategies suggested by the UN?
In an article published in Science, Brian Tucker reports that despite the UN efforts, earthquakes in the last decade (2001-2012) have been three times more lethal than in the previous twenty years (1981-2000).
Significantly, deaths have occurred mostly in developing countries that are less inclined to apply the directives suggested by the UN safety program.
A striking example is represented by the different impact of the earthquakes that hit Chile and Haiti in 2010: in Chili a strong earthquake of magnitude 8.8 caused the death of 0.1% of the population that was subjected to it, whereas in Haiti a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed 11% of the affected population.
Thus, as Tucker points out, Haitian buildings that crumbled in the earthquake were 100 times more lethal than Chilean buildings.
The reason for this tragic difference in earthquake impact in the two countries seems obvious: Chili was prepared to the event, Haiti was not.
In fact, after the 1960 earthquake of magnitude 9.5, Chili invested efforts and money in an earthquake safety program meant in particular to implement the realization of seismic-resistant buildings.
On the other hand, Haiti overlooked the risks of being a known seismic hot spot of the world and did not adopt the new building code.
When taking a more general look at the history of earthquakes, Tucker finds that earthquakes of magnitude between 6.0 and 7.9 that occurred from 1970 to 2012 were about 90 times more lethal in developing countries than in industrialized countries.
So, why are developing countries at high seismic risk disregarding the safety measures that would reduce earthquakes’ impact?
According to Tucker it’s not simply because of lack of technical personnel and quality materials, increased costs, problems of corruption. The author points to another main factor that consistently slows down the adoption of the safety programs: human psychology. Strong earthquakes are in fact rare, even in regions at high seismic risk, and for this reason their chance of happening seems remote to people.
In other words, the threat of a devastating earthquake is perceived as not imminent and not personalized, and as such it does not stimulate the alertness associated with the perception of a fast approaching danger.
Tucker suggests that it’s because of this aloofness towards remote dangers that an industrially proficient country like Turkey started a systematic safety program only after experiencing two magnitude 7 earthquakes a few months apart from each other in 1999.
Clearly the UN deadline of 2015 to reduce disasters’ losses cannot be met, and this urges a change of strategy: as Tucker suggests, it’s necessary to shift focus when designing safety plans, and to envision new initiatives targeting people psychological attitude towards remote disasters.
This will imply larger investments in disaster prevention, an area that today receives less than 10% of all international aid for humanitarian assistance, which mostly goes to post-disaster relief and reconstruction.
The first step is to convince people that powerful earthquakes may really occur at any time, even today and to themselves. At the same time, it could be helpful to circumvent the psychological obstacle and offer rewards to those who adopt the building safety plan.
Practically, Tucker suggests the enforcement of educational programs, as well as the introduction of a series of economical incentives for those who build earthquakes-resistant structures. These incentives may include for example tax reductions, preferred bank loans, acknowledgment in travel and country guides of those administrations that have embraced the Disaster Reduction program.
In conclusion, in Tucker’s view it will be possible to reduce earthquakes’ losses if sociological and psychological issues related to danger perception are overcome first; only at that point the building safety plan can be carried out productively.
Tucker B. E. (2013). Reducing earthquake risk Science DOI: 10.1080/02688867.1987.9726634
More information: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Hyogo Framework for Action