Tremors and treatments: how developing nations can mitigate the destruction of earthquakes

Rescuers braved landslides and blocked roads to help victims of twin earthquakes in northwest China.

Why do a disproportionately higher number of the people die from earthquakes in developing nations compared with developed ones, and what measures are at their disposal to protect against extreme damage?

Earthquakes don't kill people, collapsing buildings do. So goes the conventional wisdom among earthquake engineers.

According to a 2009 policy research working paper from The World Bank called 'Why Do People Die In Earthquakes?' thousands of people continue to die every year as a result of earthquakes, "despite the fact that engineering solutions exist that can almost completely eliminate the risk of such deaths".

Unfortunately, these solutions are expensive and technically demanding. Developed nations are willing to put the money on the table, constructing buildings with materials that are more resilient to earthquakes. But in developing countries there is often a resistance or financial inability to fund large-scale infrastructure projects that help shield a population from the worst impacts of natural disasters.

The introduction to the World Bank study states; "The benefit-cost ratio of such solutions is often unfavourable compared with other interventions designed to save lives in developing countries."

“If the goal is to save lives, the money could be better spent on nutrition, bed-nets or antibiotics,” the paper reads.

"Nonetheless, a range of public disaster risk reduction interventions (including construction activities) are highly cost effective. The fact that such interventions often remain unimplemented or ineffectively executed points to a role for issues of political economy."

Communities and countries that have frequent low-level seismic activity, such as New Zealand, Japan and California tend to have better construction standards and preparation than those where earthquakes are devastating but rare, such as Haiti, and the Pacific Northwest. 

For example, the 1988 earthquake in Armenia measured lower on the Richter scale than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. However, more than 25,000 people are estimated to have died in Armenia, while less than 100 died in San Francisco.

Here are a few affordable methods developing nations can adopt to mitigate earthquake devastation, as well as a few examples of what some countries are already doing in anticipation of possible disasters.

A combination of less red tape and stricter regulations 

Does regulation improve construction outcomes in developing countries?

Yes. But it’s not as simple as tighter enforcement.  

On one hand, poorly-constructed buildings are a function of a lack of compliance with existing earthquake-safety construction rules. On the other, it’s the binding red tape and administrative lethargy that developers and families face when building homes.

For example, “the average number of procedures [required in order to build a warehouse] was 16 in rich countries, and 20 in low-income countries, with the time taken to comply 157 days in rich countries and 229 in poor countries” according to The World Bank paper.

“It is not clear that this extra regulatory burden is improving outcomes - there is no correlation between the number of procedures and the number of worker accidents across countries.”

Evacuation exercises

In 2010, Chile experienced a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake, which resulted in more than 500 deaths and substantial damage to infrastructure.

In response, Chile developed a disaster plan called Chile Prepares, which involves regularly running evacuation exercises.

Richard Toro, who is in charge of Chile's disaster relief agency ONEMI, told the Guardian; "Every year we – at a minimum – run six or seven evacuations of entire regions."

When the Chilean city of Coquimbo was hit by an earthquake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale on 16 September 2015, only nine people died in the 150,000 person city, and four elsewhere in Chile.


Infrastructure upgrades

In May 2008, Sichuan province in southwest China was hit by one of the most damaging earthquakes in history.

The 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook Sichuan and the neighbouring provinces for more than two minutes. Mud brick houses and even reinforced concrete buildings near the fault line were damaged or collapsed immediately.  According to the BBC, 87,000 people were killed or missing, 4.8 million people were left homeless after their houses were destroyed, and $137.5 billion was spent on rebuilding.

As a result, China implemented a new emergency response system, replaced outdated technology both in terms of housing construction and communication, and improved the scope and ability of their rescue forces.

When another earthquake hit Sichuan in April 2013, none of the buildings built since the 2008 event collapsed. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake left around 200 dead, but a more timely military rescue response was able to prevent further fatalities.


New technology that cancels out seismic vibrations

The University of Brighton has developed a vibrating barrier (ViBa) to reduce the vibrations of nearby structures caused by an earthquake's ground waves, similar in principal to noise-cancelling headphones.

The device is buried in the soil and detached from surrounding buildings, and should absorb a significant portion of the dynamic energy arising from the ground motion, reducing the seismic response by 40 to 80 per cent.

However, the problem with ViBa is its size, as it needs to be at least 50 per cent of the mass of the average building it protects, and how much it would cost to build and install.

Though there are relatively affordable ways for developing nations to make sure they’re prepared for the worst, disaster mitigation is still looked upon as a “luxury good”, an expectation in privileged countries and out of reach for many developing countries.

Source Dateline