How to save humanity from nature’s whims

The differences between the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes show why we need real development in the Third World.

Alex Standish

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Coming so soon after the devastation wreaked by the earthquake in Haiti in January, Saturday’s earthquake in Chile inevitably invites comparison. Measured by energy released, the Chilean quake was some 500 times more powerful than Haiti’s, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale in comparison to Haiti’s 7.0. And yet the impact on human life has been small in Chile in comparison with Haiti. Some 500,000 homes have been damaged and 700 people are known to have died (though this number is expected to rise), while there were an estimated 200,000 deaths and 1.2 million people made homeless in Haiti.

What explains the vastly different impacts of these two major earthquakes? While no two earthquakes are the same, Chile is an example of how human development can mitigate against the effects of natural disasters. While humanity cannot – yet – tame the extreme forces of earthquakes, we can, through experience, knowledge, technology and planning, do a great deal to prevent another tragedy on the scale of what happened in Port-au-Prince and other Haitian towns in January.

Comparing earthquakes is not easy, because various natural and human factors are at play. The Haitian earthquake was the result of two tectonic plates (the American and the Caribbean) moving laterally in opposite directions. The quake took place along the southern fault-line of the Gonave micro-plate, situated between the Caribbean and American plates. While 7.0 is by no means a historically large earthquake (Japan experienced a 6.9 earthquake just last week), Haitians were unlucky that the epicentre was shallow (about eight miles beneath the surface) and was situated just 15 miles from a capital city of 1.2 million people.

Chile’s much larger earthquake took place along a very different kind of plate boundary. Along the coast of Chile, the Nazca oceanic plate crashes into, and under, the South American continental plate, forcing the latter to rise (hence the Andean Mountain Range). Saturday’s earthquake was a result of vertical slippage between these two plates. And because it took place at sea, water above the plates was displaced and tsunami warnings were issued. Chileans were lucky that the epicentre of the quake was offshore, 60 miles from the nearest town (Chillan), and an estimated 22 miles underground. Although the force of the quake was larger than Haiti’s, more of its energy had dissipated by the time it shook urban areas. So, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), where some 12.5 million Chileans experienced ‘severe’ and ‘very strong’ shaking of the ground, in Haiti over two million residents experienced ‘violent’ and ‘extreme’ shaking.

Yet while natural factors and pure misfortune can explain some of the different casualty and destruction figures, it is also the case that Chile as a country is better prepared and far more capable of handling a natural disaster than is Haiti – because it is more economically and socially developed.

Probably the biggest factor accounting for the scale of the destruction in Haiti was the absence of enforced building codes. As is the case in many poor countries, most construction in Haiti takes place on the cheap without adherence to building and safety standards, let alone with any consideration of earthquake-resistance. In Haiti’s many shanty settlements, the aim is to get a roof over one’s head, quickly, and things like foundations often get overlooked. This is what some seismologists call ‘rubble in waiting’.

In contrast, Chile has learned from its past experiences and has strict building codes based upon advice from engineers with specialist expertise in earthquakes. With a 3,000-mile coastline spanning one of the largest subduction zones in the world, Chile has developed expertise in seismology and has learned how to prepare for earthquakes. Following the biggest ever recorded earthquake (9.5) at Valdiva in 1960, and an 8.0 earthquake affecting Santiago and Valparaiso in 1985, Chile’s building standards, its Earthquake Resistant Design of Buildings, include steel skeletons and reinforced concrete, which allow structures to move with the ground. Even low-cost housing is built to an approved earthquake-resistant code. During Saturday’s quake, most of the buildings that collapsed were those constructed before the codes were enforced.

Earthquake preparedness goes beyond concrete and steel. It also involves educating communities about what to do in the event of an earthquake. In California, for example, children are taught to get outside, hide under tables or get under doorframes as soon as the ground starts shaking. But more than this, it takes a developed society to respond to a natural disaster effectively, and again Chile, unlike Haiti, has the resources needed to manage an earthquake scenario, including a National Office of Emergency, emergency response teams, and a respectable healthcare system.

Yet Chile was not always in such a competent position. For much of the twentieth century it experienced economic and political instability, interference in its political affairs by the US, and the much maligned dictatorial regime of General Pinochet. Only since the late 1980s has Chile achieved significant economic growth and improved levels of wealth and development. Trade agreements have been signed with the US, the EU, China, Japan and Mexico, among others. With a significant population that is of European decent, ties to home countries have facilitated trade and investment with European nations, and Chile has also exploited its Pacific location by signing on to the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation Organisation. Since the 1980s, Chile has reduced its poverty by half and has become a leading South American nation with a per capita annual income of $14,299 (at Purchasing Power Parity). Chile is ranked forty-fourth in the world in the Human Development Index, just below Poland and Hungry, and in December 2009 it was invited to join the OECD.

In comparison, Haiti has remained an impoverished, and troubled, nation since its people overthrew French colonialists in 1804. It has suffered from foreign debt obligations, American invasions and political meddling, and numerous natural disasters (notably hurricanes and tropical storms). It has been left with an economy and political leadership that is weak and ineffective. Haiti’s per capita GDP is a measly $1,340 per person per year, and it is ranked 149 out of 182 nations in the Human Development Index, alongside the likes of Sudan and Kenya. In the aftermath of January’s quake, Haiti’s already weakened government was nowhere to be seen. As of 22 January, the United Nations had taken responsibility for law and order and the US had taken responsibility for transportation and communication in the country.

Fortune aside, this week’s earthquake of historical proportions in Chile demonstrates how much can be done to prevent hundreds of thousands of lives being lost from a natural disaster, even in nations that are not among the wealthiest. It is an example of the difference that can be made by real development, by significant structural leaps forward and increases in wealth and living conditions, as opposed to Western-imposed notions of ‘sustainable development’ which encourage poorer nations to ‘live in harmony with nature’. As a New York Times article reminded us last week, there are many other cities, such as Istanbul, Bangkok and Cairo, that are also relatively under-developed and situated close to plate boundaries, and thus potentially ‘rubble in waiting’(7). The expertise and knowledge to avert another catastrophe on the scale of Haiti’s is there. It will take investment, development and will to extend it to the whole of humanity.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Killick explained why earthquakes don’t have to be as devastating as the one in Haiti. Frank Furedi argued for more risk taking in rescue missions. Elsewhere, he looked at how humanity’s reading of catastrophes has changed through the ages. Daniel Ben-Ami said development should be about more than survival. Or read more at spiked issues Natural disasters and Latin America.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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