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Rubble blocks a Christchurch street. Image courtesy of John McCombe, New Zealand Fire Service.

Risk Reduction Gulf: The two sides of Earthquake Disasters

With the tragedy that played out after Nepal’s earthquakes this year, there were stories of heroism. There were also stories of people who could have taken proper precautions to save themselves and their loved ones. A larger story is a tale of two realities in relation to earthquakes and loss of life.

The official death toll was just under 9,000 after Nepal’s twin earthquakes in late April and early May this year, but for those who work in disaster risk reduction worldwide there is a grim awareness that the number of lives lost could have been a lot more. Tens of thousands of individuals dying was not out of the question, based on previous events – earthquakes are the most perilous natural hazard, causing the greatest loss of life across the globe. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction states that in the 10 years prior to 2013, deaths worldwide in earthquakes were more than deaths in all other disasters combined.

But it is also based on a two-sided reality. Developing countries like Nepal bear the brunt of the deaths in earthquakes worldwide. By contrast, more developed earthquake-prone countries, like New Zealand, do experience catastrophic consequences, but do not see death tolls like those in less-developed countries.

Haiti’s earthquake in January 2010 was referred to as a mirror image of the two Christchurch earthquakes (September 2010 and February 2011) in seismic terms. Christchurch experienced just under 200 deaths across those two events whereas, depending on estimates, Haiti experienced 50,000–300,000 deaths in the one quake. Other comparisons in similar magnitude events (e.g. Bam, Iran, 2003 vs Paso Robles, USA, 2003) replicate massive differences in the numbers of lives lost.

There really is no question that the built environment in New Zealand and other earthquake-prone developed countries like the USA has been responsible for reductions in lives lost in those countries over time. Equally, governance and a regulatory environment that supports building sturdier structures that can withstand increased seismicity are also responsible.

In the face of complications such as traditional building locations and local attitudes to building and risk-reduction practices, how can risk be reduced to increase lives saved?

It is not an easy answer but, equally, it is a problem that ultimately has some science-based and policy-translated solutions that can lead to advances, including reducing deaths and injuries. Take the example of deaths in storm-related events worldwide. Over time, lives lost in storms and cyclones have dropped significantly worldwide.

One success of the first United Nations-level international disaster risk-reduction accord, the 10-year Hyogo Framework for Action, has been this reduction. For example, over a more extended period, Bangladesh has seen deaths from cyclones reduce about a hundredfold.

The same story can be told in other countries.

Reasons for reductions include the built environment but also, critically, behavioural and socially based solutions. Our and others’ research has shown that disaster risk-reduction strategies such as early evacuation are quite likely difficult, perhaps very difficult, to carry out if there is not proper planning, social buy-in and acceptance for such actions. If a community believes such actions are ‘over the top’, getting buy-in is likely to be very difficult. And, as neighbours watch neighbours, the one family that chooses to enact a safety plan and leave in a false alarm then can become the subject of quiet back-fence talk. Fortunately, as early warning system infrastructure has improved worldwide, so too does it appear that awareness and acceptance of early evacuation in many countries has also improved.

Research on disaster risk-reduction messaging has also suggested ways forward. As a local, anecdotal example, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk emphatically stressed numerous times a ‘single actionable’ set of sheltering behaviours designed to save lives and reduce injuries during February’s Cyclone Marcia in Queensland. Research supports the idea that promoting a reduced list of ‘key safety and risk-reduction messages’ is more likely to be taken up and accepted by the public than a laundry list of non-prioritised actions. My own view, from researching in this field for 20 years, but also having been through Marcia in my home in Rockhampton, is that the messages on safety-related key behaviours from the Premier, and others, probably saved lives and reduced injuries. We are currently planning research to see if this hunch is supported.

In earthquakes, there is no doubt that saving more lives in many countries will require built environment solutions – sturdier construction that can withstand large-magnitude earthquakes. However, as our analysis of just under 10,000 injuries related to the two major Christchurch earthquakes shows, planning, socially transmitted messages and safety-based risk-reduction behaviours are also necessary. In fact, our analysis suggested about 40% of the injuries sustained during and after the earthquakes were probably preventable through knowledge and enactment of important key disaster risk-reduction messages.

One of these messages is based on the finding that movement during shaking tends to increase risk. Will Swanton, a journalist at The Australian, observed both mass panic and mass movement during the shaking in Nepal, including seeing a major risk unfold through people tripping and falling (it was a major risk for injury in both Christchurch earthquakes; getting hit by projectiles and falling objects while moving was another).

Now, it is critical to emphasise that this discussion is not to diminish the cascade of tragic consequences produced by a major natural disaster, both on infrastructure and on people in Nepal, Haiti, Christchurch and elsewhere. No matter how we improve our disaster risk-reduction preparedness and response landscape, disasters will continue to kill and injure people and produce massive consequences. There were, and continue to be, a plethora of consequences in Queensland after Marcia.

We need to deal with consequences of disasters, including honouring and remembering those who may not have survived, helping those affected and learning important lessons. However, we need also to acknowledge bona fide progress, even in the face of what can be tragic circumstances. If we do not, we will continue over time to be caught in the same disaster movie and narrative for too long.

The signing off of the new international disaster risk-reduction accord, the Sendai Framework, occurred in March in Japan. As it now includes more countries, it now reflects near international consensus, will and collaboration to reduce risk related to disasters. To do so, a science-to-policy understanding of major challenges related to earthquakes and other hazard types needs to be coupled with learning from failures and from advances. If we as an international community can reduce deaths in storm events, we have the capacity for doing so in other events. This includes for earthquake, the natural hazard that currently takes the most lives.

For more information, go to www.bnhcrc.com.au

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Professor Kevin Ronan is a Project Leader at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and CQUniversity.

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