February 2, 2001

Indian Earthquake Tragedy Demonstrates Need for Global Disaster Prevention Mentality

Palo Alto, CA — Relief organizations and governments from all over the world are responding to the second major earthquake crisis in two weeks. In the tragedies that have recently affected India and El Salvador, more than 25,000 lives have been lost, and damage can be expected to run as high as billions of dollars. While response to these disasters should be the current focus, now is also the best time to plan for future disasters, say GeoHazards International (GHI) earthquake experts, who have helped cities find low cost ways to prevent wide spread devastation currently being experienced in India and El Salvador.

Urban communities of developing countries are especially vulnerable to disaster due to their burgeoning populations, generally non-existent land-use and emergency response planning, and poor construction. The economic allure of these urban centers draw inhabitants to them, often resulting in large populations residing in high-risk areas. However, the economies of these countries are fragile and a major disaster can usually take years to recover from.

"Unfortunately and far too often, decision-makers and the general public in communities of developing countries assume their risk is minimal or that the options to reduce their risk are just too expensive," said Dr. Brian Tucker, president of the Palo Alto based nonprofit organization. Consequently, he said, they live in hope that a disaster will not occur during their term in office or their lifetime. The latest tragedies in India and El Salvador indicate that this is an unfortunate gamble.

Early observations in an on-going project involving the Indian city of Mumbai, located approximately 350 miles from the epicenter of Friday's Indian earthquake, indicate that 50% of the city's 12 million people are concentrated in the main business district of the city, at the tip of a peninsula from which there exist only a few transportation routes. Moreover, buildings in the city lack any seismic design considerations despite the fact that Mumbai has recently been evaluated to be in a zone of significant seismic activity.

Stressing the need to anticipate as many problems as possible before the characteristic chaos of any disaster sets in, GHI expert Amy Young argued that cities should take the time to carry out such vulnerability assessments. "Similar accessibility and construction problems as those identified in Mumbai have been identified in other cities GHI has worked in and, after being assessed in terms of their relative effectiveness, appropriate risk reducing actions can be proposed."

While many people continue to think of building seismically safe construction as the only, and expensive, answer to earthquake preparedness, in its Kathmandu Valley Earthquake Risk Management Project, GHI estimated that incorporating earthquake resistant design and materials would require only an extra 5-10% of the new construction cost. Many other inexpensive risk reducing initiatives have been identified.

For example, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where it has been estimated that more than 25,000 people would be killed in the event of a large earthquake, GHI helped the city to identify the need for a disaster mitigation unit. This unit was created and has been granted municipal funding to supervise and coordinate the many other activities necessary to reduce the city's risk. "Whereas the mechanism for measuring accountability was previously inexistent," said GHI Latin American project coordinator Dr. Carlos Villacis, "Guaya-quil's newly created department is the first step toward providing the supervision necessary to ensure appropriate actions are taken before, during, and after the disaster strikes."

Similar efforts are being seen in other GHI project sites, such as Tijuana, Mexico and Antofagasta, Chile. In Tijuana, a city with more than 1.5 million inhabitants and an exploding population and construction rate, a risk mitigation council has been formed. One of the council's first actions was to formulate a regulation that requires proof of earthquake-resistant construction be shown before permits to open a school can be granted. In the Chilean coastal town of Anto-fagasta, the first of six schools identified as being located in areas of tsunami potential is currently being relocated.

Even the costlier solution of retrofitting vulnerable construction has been possible in poor regions like Kathmandu Valley. Earlier this month, Tucker attended the inauguration of four retrofit schools in the Valley — an effort made possible by local support and donations of material, as well as Silicon Valley support channeled to the region by GHI. To date, 10 schools have been retrofit in Kathmandu Valley and Quito, Ecuador, another GHI project site, resulting in a safer environment for thousands of children.

Experts at GHI believe nations and entities that can afford to help these communities must do so. Many global corporations have plants or headquarters in developing countries. Even if these corporations can afford to construct their own earthquake-safe buildings, there is no guarantee that their business will be uninterrupted in the event of a disaster. "What good is an undamaged manufacturing plant if its workforce is unable to reach it due to damaged roads or, even worse, if a large percentage of this workforce is killed?" This is the scenario Villacis speaks of in Tijuana, Mexico. There, GHI is working with the local risk mitigation council to involve the city's multi-million dollar maquiladora industry in the effort to share the responsibility of making the city safer.

Such prevention foresight is especially important in cities of developing countries, where GHI has focused its work since its inception in 1993. "Economies of developing countries are fragile, and the whole world benefits when these areas grow strong," said Tucker.

Resources in developing countries are generally limited, and, in case of a disaster, entire countries can be overwhelmingly affected. Take a recent example — costs to avoid loss through preparation and planning are insignificant compared with the billions of dollars that are now expected will be needed to help El Salvador recover from the earthquake that struck it two weeks ago.

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