Inequality in resilience to environmental shocks: now more important than ever?

Freetown, Sierra Leone, after a landslide in August 2017 which left  1,141 dead or missing. 
Source: FlickrFreetown, Sierra Leone, after a landslide in August 2017 which left 1,141 dead or missing. Source: Flickr

Although natural disasters strike indiscriminately, the extent of the damage caused is anything but random. Similar events still produce disparate levels of destruction according to the development of the affected country, and as is the case with many global tragedies, the countries worst affected tend to be those that are least developed. Natural disasters are an unavoidable feature of our planet but a manageable one: they should not result in economic ruin for a country.

This is particularly prevalent with earthquakes. Although they are a common hazard, a cursory look at the figures shows the correlation between the levels of destruction and a country’s level of development. For instance, in 2010 earthquakes of similar magnitudes hit Haiti and New Zealand (7.0 on the Richter scale in Haiti and 7.1 in New Zealand). The death toll was, however, significantly higher in Haiti, killing an estimated 160,000 people, while the New Zealand quake and its aftershock the following year killed a combined total of 185.

The contrast is stark. Although this is partly due to differences in population density, this factor alone is not enough to account for such a significant disparity. A look at the human development index confirms the correlation between levels of development and damage: in 2010 Haiti ranked 145th on the human development index, while in the same year New Zealand ranked 3rd.

What does this have to do with the amount of damage caused by earthquakes? The simple answer is that richer, more developed nations are generally able to pour more resources into designing buildings and infrastructure that are more capable of coping with any environmental shock they might face, whilst less developed nations, strapped for resources, end up with poorly constructed buildings and sluggish official responses to earthquakes.

You need only to look to Haiti, where the damage to infrastructure following an earthquake is almost unparalleled, to see the effects of both problems. For example, the container crane of the seaport in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, subsided at an angle due to weak foundations, rendering the harbour unusable for immediate rescue operations that would no doubt have saved a substantial number of lives. On top of this calamity, the main road linking Port-au-Prince with Jacmel was blocked, and remained so for an astonishing 10 days after the earthquake, impeding vital aid delivery to Jacmel. The destruction of countless homes meant that many (an estimated 20% of the Haitian population of 10.4 million) were forced to live on the streets. The low construction standards responsible for the widespread collapse were largely due to the lack of building codes in place in Haiti.

By contrast, New Zealand’s building codes were far more stringent, making collapse a rare occurrence. Immediately after the Christchurch event buildings were inspected. Inspectors identified only 45% of buildings within the central city as having any safety problems compared to the 70% estimated in Port-au-Prince, highlighting the superior construction standards. Although these contrasting statistics might seem unjust, such comparisons are far from uncommon: the similarly sized magnitude 6.6 earthquake of 2003 in southern Iran (2010 HDI rank of 70th) killed around 30% of the population of the historic city of Bam. Although Iran had taken the step of introducing earthquake regulations in 1989, failure to enforce them had devastating consequences: at the time mud brick was still the standard construction material.

If these tales of destruction are concerning the near future may bring worse: recent predictions suggest that 2018 will be a bumper year for catastrophic earthquakes. One study identified a link between periods of slower earth rotation, and corresponding periods of more intense seismic activity. A year of more intense seismic activity would entail roughly 30 earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater, as opposed to the usual 15.

Put simply, the science behind this study dictates that this link exists largely due to the liquid outer core of the earth, which oscillates in a regular way, causing it to change the rate of the earths rotation. In the event of a slowdown, as is predicted for 2018, the molten core continues to strain outwards as it attempts to remain in constant motion, according to Newtons laws of motion. This strain propagates upwards through the overlying tectonic plates, rocks, and existing faults, thus increasing the frequency of large earthquakes.

The expected uptick in seismic activity has already begun, with 3 large earthquakes since mid-September 2017, which makes increasing the resilience of less developed regions a priority.

Two things are clear: there is an imbalance between more and less economically developed countries in their resilience to environmental shocks and it is imperative that this is addressed as soon as possible. It is less clear how to tackle such a gargantuan problem.

One of the many issues faced by those committed to bridging this gap is helping policymakers to make informed urban planning decisions, a task often made more difficult by an absence of essential data. At the forefront of targeting problems like lack of data are groups such as Geology for Global Development (GfGD). This group has been doing fantastic work mobilising the geoscience community, pushing geologists to collect and interpret the data required to inform policymakers, merging detailed research and applied science. Crucial here is the chain from science to intervention, requiring people at every point along it for any given problem.

A brilliant example of the benefits of this kind of cooperation can be see in Freetown, Sierra Leone (2010 HDI rank of 158th), where in August 2017 a landslide resulted in the death of 1000 people. Since the landslide the entire city has been modelled in 3D using community mapping, led by Dr Matthew Free, with the population distributed through this model to assess the relative risk due to different natural hazards. Although this comes too late for many, it is hoped further loss of life can be prevented, as risk assessments based on such data can be incorporated into better land use planning by government officials. This would include relocating schools and hospitals out of particularly high-risk areas, such as the steep deforested slopes many of the residents of an overcrowded Freetown now have no choice but to call home.

Although this is a clear step in the right direction, even with the data, there is no guarantee that it will reach policymakers, or influence their decisions. This was recognised in Iran, and so after the 2003 earthquake in Bam, a framework was established to address urban planning problems, and to rebuild in compliance with strict seismic regulations. Government ministers and international organisations, as well as local engineers and local people, rebuilt the city together using this framework.

A large part of reducing the death toll in such instances depends on public earthquake preparedness. A good example of this is in Los Angeles, California, which experiences frequent seismic activity due to the San Andreas fault. To make matters worse, Los Angeles sits on a basin of soft sediments, which have the unfortunate effect of amplifying deadly seismic waves. A problem for maintaining public preparedness is that serious events are infrequent, the risk doesn’t remain at the forefront of public consciousness.

The ShakeOut programme hopes to combat this by organising community response teams for different areas, realising that 90-95% of the immediate first response is done by neighbours. If this was replicated in less developed countries, it would result in trained neighbours taking the place of expensive Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in dealing with these events at ground level, making the response time significantly quicker. There would still be room for NGOs to come in and provide secondary relief, however, this community-minded approach would be a step towards increasing the resilience of areas where earthquake preparedness is lower.

Inexpensive natural disaster defence tactics exist in the developed world: transferring these to lower income countries could save a significant number of human lives. With seismic activity set to increase in 2018, applying informed thinking to the specific risks associated could hold the key to reducing the death toll in less developed countries to the entirely attainable level of the more developed.