Quake tragedies can be avoided

We are witnesses to a new millennium but an old story: devastating earthquakes in both India and El Salvador.

The toll is tragically familiar. In the Indian state of Gujarat, thousands of people are dead. In El Salvador, more than 700 are dead, 2,000 missing, and two-fifths of all hospital capacity is destroyed. But it wasn't earthquakes that killed these people. It was a combination of human error, indifference, corruption, and greed. And it doesn't have to be that way.

In the case of the middle-income neighborhood of Las Colinas, outside the Salvadoran capital, 400 homes were lost beneath a wall of debris from a collapsing slope above. This was not an "act of God."

A group of Las Colinas residents and environmental groups were in court only last year to stop development on that slope and the ridge above. The judge ruled against them. A former planner in San Salvador, Clarisa Rodriguez, told The Economist magazine that restrictions against building in high-risk areas are sometimes not enforced. Experts agree that steep slopes made of volcanic soil are unstable. Geologists know this. Planners know this.

It is not an act of God that no more than 10 percent of the multi story structures in Indian cities are built according to earthquake- resistant norms. The earthquake didn't kill, but the buildings did. And the buildings go up rapidly with little planning and inspection in a boom economy like Gujarat's.

In El Salvador and also in Gujarat, both the poor and the middle class suffered. In both places, hungry rural people have been migrating in search of work to cities like San Salvador, Ahmedabad, and Bhuj. They become squatters who live in makeshift dwellings in some of the most potentially dangerous earthquake-prone areas. They have little or nothing to invest in making their homes safer, and little incentive because they don't own the land where they've built.

In San Salvador and Ahmedabad, the middle class is attracted to the rapidly growing edge of the sprawling cities. Developers and contractors rush to fill this demand, often in too much haste to observe building codes. This is where the landslide buried hundreds in Las Colinas, and where new apartment houses for Ahmedabad's salaried workers came crashing down.

Why not set our sights on an international treaty that commits governments around the world to applying low-cost solutions based on available knowledge to prevent such loss? The knowledge exists. It is possible to identify zones subject to landslide. The engineering knowledge exists, and there are building codes that would provide for survivable collapse of most buildings. Likewise, the Pan American Health Organization knows how to protect hospitals. There is absolutely no need to lose as much healthcare space as was lost in El Salvador. It wasn't necessary that the major civilian hospital in the Gujarat city of Bhuj collapsed on patients and staff.

Networks of scientists and engineers exist that could take on the technical work of defining standards. These networks were created in part by the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-99) - 10 years of scientific exchange mandated by the United Nations. However, this International Decade left unfinished business. Science was exchanged all right, but generally it hasn't been applied.

Such an effort would require thousands of experts to work out the low-cost, minimum practices required to avert such tragedies. These scientists and engineers would have to sit down with lawyers, legislators, and policy experts to work out how the minimum standards would be enforced. The devil is in the details, but scientists and lawyers eat details for breakfast.

This is not an impossible task. It has happened before. There are many internationally agreed safety standards for the chemical industry, airline industry, nuclear- power industry, etc. It has happened already where global warming is concerned. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has mobilized thousands of scientists, and their work has gone into the treatymaking process that led to the 1997 Kyoto Accord on greenhouse-gas emissions.

What is to be done during the years that such a treaty is in the making? The beauty of this process is that the low-cost solutions will filter out into society. Citizen groups will demand action by their governments, as they did in Turkey (after the earthquake of 1999) when it became clear that contractors hadn't followed building codes and had used low-quality materials. Prevention of disasters has to come from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

It is also worth noting that lax enforcement of building codes isn't a problem just in the developing world. After the destruction wrought by Hurricane Andrew in south Florida in 1992, serious questions were raised about how vigorously the codes were enforced there.

Absolute safety is not a human right. Safety from avoidable loss, injury, and death is. Nothing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes sense if the people who are supposed to enjoy these rights can be wiped out because a government failed to enforce its building codes.

Ben Wisner is a researcher in the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, Ohio. He is vice-chair of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, vice-chair of the International Geographical Union's Commission on Hazards and Risks, and a research coordinator for the United Nations University's project on urban disasters. He is author of 'At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability, and Disasters' (London: Routledge, 1994).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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