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How can we make earthquakes less deadly?

by Robert Glasser | UNISDR
Wednesday, 20 April 2016 07:06 GMT

A woman walks down an alley covered with debris of a house that collapsed during twin earthquakes last year in Bhaktapur, Nepal, January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Real opportunity lies in building better in the first place

A four-storey hotel collapses, killing a family of four who were bringing a precious daughter to start her first year at medical school. Across Ecuador and Japan, hundreds of thousands are left homeless. Bridges have collapsed. Roads are torn to shreds and blocked by landslides. Farmland is churned back to raw earth.

Thankfully no tsunami ensued from these or other earthquakes recorded in recent days around Tonga and Vanuatu as the Pacific’s Ring of Fire lit up with alarming intensity.

These headline-grabbing events are a cruel reminder of how deadly and destructive earthquakes are in a world that is building and expanding cities and towns at an unprecedented rate.

Japan and Ecuador have invested considerably in building codes and engineering standards for major infrastructure projects, and even if it is not always possible to avoid the worst ravages of an intense earthquake, we can still do a lot to minimise the impact and save lives.

Over the last 20 years or so, about 750,000 people have lost their lives in earthquakes and tsunamis - which are the most deadly of all natural hazards.

Some 3 billion people live in seismic zones around the world where awareness of earthquake risk needs to be a constant concern in the home, the workplace and the classroom.

Above all it is the built environment that must give us the greatest cause for concern. As is often said, it is not earthquakes which kill people but buildings. Thousands of children have died in unsafe schools in recent years.

The loss of life in Ecuador from its magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considerable - but it is not going to reach the toll of 8,700 as happened in Nepal when another magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck on April 25 last year. The difference can at least partly be explained by Ecuador’s greater prosperity and higher standards of compliance with building codes.

Nepal’s reconstruction phase is just about to get underway. Some 500,000 homes will have to be rebuilt and over 3 million people have been living in temporary and makeshift shelters for the last 12 months while policies and structures were put in place for the reconstruction phase.

The Nepal experience provides a powerful lesson in how difficult it can sometimes be to take advantage of the window of opportunity that opens after a disaster, and to ensure new development avoids risks rather than reconstructing them, brick by brick.

Nepal, with the support of partners such as the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), is determined not to revert to business as usual. Uniquely, the Nepal Building Code sets out standards for non-engineered housing which recognises the reality that trained masons can construct low-cost housing using local materials to earthquake-resistant standards.


In other words, each country has to build back better within its means and available resources - which will differ depending on whether you are in San Francisco, USA, or Kathmandu, Nepal. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the global plan for reducing disaster risk and disaster losses adopted last year, recognises the importance of revising building codes and reconstruction practices “with the aim of making them more applicable within the local context”.

By revealing risks, disasters uncover their underlying drivers and provide an impetus for change. The establishment of a Reconstruction Authority by the Nepal government and its acceptance of a curriculum designed by NSET for training 60,000 masons is one example of how to go about building back better.

Using the recovery space to introduce changes that reduce future risk is complicated because it requires a degree of consensus among a variety of stakeholders including governments, local governments, community groups, affected households, business interests, utility providers and others.

Real opportunity lies in building better in the first place. The projected expansion of urban land cover between the years 2000 and 2030 is in the range of 56 percent to 310 percent. According to the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, by 2030, an estimated $25 trillion to $30 trillion will be invested in new infrastructure including urban road construction, water and sanitation, energy and transport systems, and buildings.

Much of this expenditure will be in low and middle-income countries which are home to 75 percent of the world’s urban population and have most of its largest cities. The fear is that speculative urban development will fuel informal urbanisation in cities with weak capacities for urban planning and management, in hazard-prone locations such as seismic zones, cyclone-exposed coastlines and flood plains.

Ultimately the capacity to manage disaster risks depends on good governance and the best way to do it is to involve and empower citizens and build partnerships with civil society and the private sector.

Social mobilisation is a key element of the Nepal government’s plan to build back better. Raising the public’s awareness of risk and involving householders actively in re-building their own homes, working alongside trained masons and technicians, recognises that both the social and environmental drivers of disaster risk have to be taken into account.

Robert Glasser is the head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.