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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Are poor Countries more affected by Catastrophes ~ Nepal Earthquake

Earthquake struck in our neighbour land ~precious human lives have been lost – the count is going up – and a couple of days after the event, the survivors are also struggling  wanting expeditious relief.  Some state that disasters  are only likely to get worse in the future,  owing  to a combination of climate change, population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation, and violence.  In someways, tremors don't kill people. Buildings do. We get to hear this often from seismologists each and every time a deadly quake strikes ~sadly, it has become horrifically relevant again Saturday, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, leaving at least 4,000 dead (and counting).

India  has given  a massive thrust to  rescue and relief mission in quake-devastated Nepal - 'Operation Maitri' - pressing into service 12 heavy-duty military aircraft and 18 helicopters besides opening up four land routes to connect to Kathmandu and Pokhara valley to reach out to the affected with men and material.  The joint Army-Air Force operation managed to evacuate 5,400 people till Monday, including 30 foreigners, who were stuck in Nepal.  Mr Narendra Modi acted swiftly without waiting for any formal request, extending a helping hand to neighbours when most needed.

Now getting back, it is 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.

But - 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.

According to Tucker there are host of reasons 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.  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)  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.
3) Corruption and weak governance. It's also significantly harder for countries in earthquake zones with corruption problems to enforce their building codes.
4) Complacency and other psychological barriers.  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."

Often, 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.

According to Tucker, the practical steps are :  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 —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.

Foreign policy experts often focus on problems like violence, terrorism, and instability, but the reality is that disasters are far more destructive.* Between 1980 and 2000, disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods killed roughly 1.5 million people and directly affected at least 2.3 billion people worldwide. Economic losses from these catastrophes average between $250 billion and $300 billion per year, a number that's expected to increase in the future. And the impact falls disproportionately on poor countries. Clearly, there's a tremendous demand for disaster relief. So it's a huge problem that disaster aid from wealthier countries rarely lines up with actual needs.
fallen Kathmandu

~~and the worst disasters do not always get the most aid !!! -   sadly, disaster relief is heavily influenced by politics and media coverage.   More than the affected countries not seeking globally,  donor countries often have their own political interests in mind.  Media coverage can be arbitrary — but it seems to influence aid decisions.  In a 2007 study, Strömberg and Thomas Eisensee examined 5,212 disasters to see what factors affected media attention to these events. Using data from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, the authors examined the level of coverage of each event on nightly newscasts in the US. First, they found that other big stories can crowd out disaster coverage. For every 2.4 extra minutes the networks spent on their top three stories, the probability that they would cover a disaster fell by 4 percent. They also found that media was more likely to cover disasters with lots of deaths — "if it bleeds, it leads." A tenfold increase in the number of people killed by a disaster increased the likelihood of news coverage by 10 percent. By contrast, a tenfold increase in the number of people affected by a disaster only generated a 3 percent increase in coverage.  Media focus on some disasters over others isn't entirely random. The type, scale, and location of a disaster all matter.

At a geographical level,  Strömberg notes that "to have the same chance of receiving relief, a country at the other side of the earth must have 160 times as many fatalities as a country at zero distance." This type of neighborhood bias has clear ramifications for countries in the developing world. Compared with disasters in Europe, those occurring in Asia-Pacific and Africa garner 36 percent and 21 percent less relief aid, respectively.

The above is majorly reproduced from – taken  together, this research paints a bleak picture. While those of us in the developed world may like to believe that our governments provide humanitarian aid on the basis of need, the evidence tells a different story.  More importantly,  developed countries are better off and are probably less affected by a disaster of the same magnitude !!!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
28th Apr 2015.

PS :  Vox is an American news website run by Vox Media. It was founded by Ezra Klein and launched in April 2014.  The New York Times described Vox Media as "a technology company that produces media" rather than its inverse, associated with "Old Media".  I found the article to be relevant and interesting and circulating to my group of friends too.

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