Earthquakes don't kill people. Buildings do.
You hear that line from seismologists each and every time a deadly quake strikes. And it's become horrifically relevant again Saturday, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, leaving at least 4,000 dead (and counting).
It's a basic truth that earthquakes are much, much deadlier in places where buildings are poorly constructed, unreinforced, and not designed to withstand shaking. Kathmandu, Nepal, was a gruesome example: observers told CNN that buildings in the city often aren't up to code. As a result, a shallow quake easily turned the city into rubble, trapping people underneath.
The tragedy here is that humans have the technology to reduce earthquake deaths. Vulnerable regions like California, Japan, and Chile have taken steps to modernize their building codes and dramatically reduce their risks over the past century. So why hasn't this happened in countries like Nepal or Iran or Pakistan, where experts have warned again and again that massive earthquakes are inevitable?
This issue was raised in an important 2013 paper in Science by Brian Tucker, founder of GeoHazards International, which works to reduce casualties from natural disasters. Too many countries, he argued, have been slow to take the necessary steps to prepare for earthquakes. And thousands of people are dying as a result.
Often, Tucker points out, it's a funding problem, particularly for poorer countries. Upgrading buildings is expensive, after all. In some cases, there might be unique obstacles at work (in Nepal, civil unrest made the task of retrofitting even harder). But in many areas, the biggest barriers appear to be psychological — people aren't even thinking about preparing for earthquakes.
"The psychological reasons we don't prepare for earthquakes are often ignored," says Tucker. "Just as an example, we still find a lot of people who think of earthquakes solely as an act of God, and don't think about the very real ways to reduce risks."
Why poor countries often fall behind on preparing for quakes
One key area to look at is south central Asia. More than one-quarter of the world's population lives here — in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma.
These countries also sit near the northern edge of the Arabian and Indian tectonic plates, which are colliding up against the southern edge of the Eurasian plates. This collision created the soaring Himalayan mountains. But the sliding plates can also produce massive earthquakes in the area that kill thousands of people — like the one that devastated Nepal:
This is clearly a seismically active zone. It's hard to say exactly when and where the next earthquake will hit, but we know big quakes are inevitable. Yet throughout the region, buildings continue to be shoddily constructed and topple easily in earthquakes.
Earthquake experts Roger Bilham and Vinod Gaur took stock of this problem in a 2013 paper for Science. In many of these countries, contractors often fail to adhere to building codes. What's more, the building codes that do exist often only apply to civic structures — not the places where people live. The result? In an earthquake, these buildings collapse, and lots of people die.
Tucker says there are a number of reasons why poorly-built buildings persist so many earthquake-prone regions:
1) Rapid population growth. For starters, populations are often growing extremely fast in many developing countries — particularly as more and more people move to cities. "When you have this tremendous demand to build hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, it's very difficult to build good buildings at the rate that is needed," he says.
The chart below shows that the number of people who live within 60 miles of a fault capable of generating a magnitude-7 (or stronger) earthquake has been soaring, with the biggest increase in the developing world:
This was a factor in Nepal, where people were fleeing civil unrest in the countryside and moving to cities like Kathmandu. New buildings were often hastily built, and retrofitting became more difficult..
2) A lack of money. Funding is another obvious problem, particularly for poorer nations. Upgrading buildings, after all, is expensive.
In his paper, Tucker cited estimates that only about 1 percent of all disaster aid actually goes to prevention. The United States and other wealthy countries give a fair bit of assistance to nations after they've been ravaged by earthquakes — but we devote considerably less to preventing these tragedies in the first place, even though that's proven to be far more effective. (See Tim Kovach's piece on disaster aid for much more on this.)
3) Corruption and weak governance. It's also significantly harder for countries in earthquake zones with corruption problems to enforce their building codes. "You can't just retrofit buildings and enforce building codes," says Tucker. "You also have to fight corruption."
4) Complacency and other psychological barriers. This is a big one. Tucker notes that too many countries don't take the risk of earthquakes seriously enough. This is an understandable tendency, particularly in developing countries that often have more immediate concerns, such as poverty or everyday pollution. "Humans respond to threats that are personal and visible or rapidly changing," Tucker says. "Earthquakes are examples of slow-moving problems that we just have not evolved to respond well to."
This complacency can take a variety of forms. For instance, Tucker recalls a meeting in the mid-1990s with a minister of Nepal who told him the country had no need to worry about another earthquake because "Nepal had already had its big one in 1934." (This despite urgent warnings from experts that Kathmandu was extremely vulnerable to another major quake.)
In some places, Tucker notes, religion can also be a barrier — people view earthquakes as an act of God or a punishment for sins. "I've had people say that what I'm doing is blasphemous," he says. "That's just nuts." Even in less extreme cases, many people think of natural disasters as largely natural — rather than something that can be mitigated.
Countries often take action only after tragedy strikes
Unfortunately, it often requires a tragedy before countries start taking the threat of earthquakes seriously.
In his 2013 paper, Tucker examines Chile and Haiti as a stunning exercise in contrasts. In 1960, a 9.5-magnitude earthquake struck Chile, after which the country embarked on a massive earthquake-safety program and enforcing new building codes. By contrast, Haiti did nothing during this period, lulled into complacency by a lack of seismic activity and hampered by constant political unrest and extreme poverty.
The results? In early 2010, two similar earthquakes struck the two countries. Only about 0.1 percent of Chileans affected by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake died. By contrast, 11 percent of Haitians affected by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake with similar shaking died.
"In other words," Tucker wrote, "Haitian buildings appear to be 100 times as lethal as Chilean buildings." It's a stunning illustration of the value in preparation — which, sadly, often doesn't happen.
We may need public health campaigns for earthquake readiness
I asked Tucker what practical steps he would advise Nepal to take, now that it has had its own horrific wake-up call. He suggested two big places to start. First, Nepal should begin retrofitting schools. Not only is spending money on schools politically popular, but it also helps educate schoolchildren that earthquakes aren't a purely "natural" disaster and their risks can be reduced greatly.
Second — and this was surprising — he mentioned that foreign-owned luxury hotels are often a good place to start reinforcing buildings. The reason? It creates incentives for competitors to also start reinforcing their hotels. What's more, it provides jobs for masons and architects, who learn how to build buildings that are up to code. That, in turn, can have positive spillover effects elsewhere.
That said, it's far better for countries to start preparing for earthquakes before tragedy strikes. And on that score, our current method of preparing for earthquakes seems to be failing. Tucker suggests that earthquake experts may need to start trying public-health-style campaigns — "similar to the ones that get people to use seat belts or quit smoking."
In his 2013 paper, Tucker noted that an earthquake campaign would have to have many facets — not just information, but also incentives to increase preparedness. "Publishing statistics on the increasing occurrence of lung cancer and auto fatalities was not sufficient; nor were photos of black, leathery lungs on cigarette packages or photos in driver education movies of gory accident scenes. Taxes, fines, and opprobrium were used. ... The earthquake risk reduction community might find effective lessons, models, and tactics from studying those public health campaigns."
But something needs to change. Twice as many people died from earthquakes in the decade between 2001 and 2012 as died in the previous two decades combined, despite a variety of campaigns to reduce earthquake risk. And those deaths are only likely to increase in the future, as more people are expected to move to cities near seismically active areas.
"More of the same," he concluded, "is not enough."