This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY, along with Belinda Archibong and Danni Pi, economics students at Columbia College.
Let’s imagine it is January 10th and I tell you that my seismologist colleagues and I have just found how to predict earthquakes. I can forecast that there will be two large earthquakes quite close in time, one of magnitude 7.0 in Haiti on January 12th and one of magnitude 8.8 in Chile on February 27th.
The well-known Richter scale measures amplitude of ground motion, not energy release; when comparing energy release, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake is about 500 times greater than a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, so those two are very distinct physical events.
But even though I can tell the time, location and magnitude of future earthquakes, even though I can rank them by their respective sizes, I don’t know how many people will die, or the financial losses, or any social outcomes. The difficulty to predict the consequences on the population constitutes an immense limitation to this imaginary forecasting.
How many people would have predicted that although the energy release was 500 times greater in Chile the loss of life would be a thousand times greater in Haiti –casualties were more than 200 in Chile, and in excess of 200,000 in Haiti. Also, how many would have suggested that looting would be so much greater a problem in Chile?
The reason that is given over and over for the very large loss of life in Haiti compared to Chile is building codes, or more specifically the lack of building codes in Haiti. It is true of course but the lack of codes should be thought of as a proximate cause, not an underlying one. There is much more in the substrate of the two societies that pre-conditioned the different outcomes.
Haiti is much the poorer place. The GDP per capita is only $1300, the lowest in the western hemisphere. Haiti ranks 149th by the Human Development rating of the UNDP; Sudan being the next lowest country. Unemployment is thought to be affect 2/3 of the labor force in Haiti. The economy is weak with most of its base in agriculture but that is subsistence level. Little is exported. Remittances make up 25% of the average person’s income.
Chile is more than 100 countries higher up the HDI ladder at 44th, in the same region as Poland and Croatia and will soon join the OECD. A couple of notches higher and it would be described as having “very high human development”. It is the wealthiest of the Latin American countries, Haiti the poorest. The Chilean economy is export-based with a large dependence on copper, but includes forest and wood products, fresh fruit and processed food, and seafood. Chile’s unemployment rate is one tenth of Haiti’s. The average Chilean has many possessions; the average Haitian has few.
Yes, building codes were a big part of the problem. Like everything else in Haiti they were in short supply. Maybe Haiti does have building codes but it makes little difference, for if they existed they were seldom enforced. Poor countries hardly ever have good institutions of governance and Haiti is no exception. Poor people construct buildings as best they can and that typically means weak buildings, prone to collapse by even modest shaking.
What would be the point of inspecting them when people cannot afford to make them safe? Chileans are not smarter, more responsible citizens; they are wealthier. And Chileans also have more experience to build on. The largest earthquake ever recorded had a magnitude of 9.5 and occurred along the same coastline in 1960. Chile has frequent earthquakes. Almost everyone in Chile has experienced numerous tremors. The danger is clear and obvious.
The town of Concepcion was actually moved in 1751 following a series of devastating earthquakes and associated tsunamis. Not that it seems to have helped save the city from damage this year. The year that Concepcion was moved is around the time the last major earthquake occurred in Port-au-Prince. Earthquakes are not part of the collective experience of Haitians and that is an important reason why people would not be prepared for them.
What’s more, a Haitian leader charged with protecting the greatest number of Haitians from premature death with the very limited resources available to him could not be faulted for directing efforts to public health interventions, such as improved sanitation. That decision would provide much more bang for the buck in mortality reduction than spending on the costly task of retrofitting buildings to resist earthquakes.
If you make the grim calculus that it has been 200 years since the last major earthquake and 200,000 died in January, that then annualizes to a rate of around 1000 deaths per year; far fewer than Haiti’s current infant mortality rate. It thus makes no sense to spend the little money Haitian authorities have on improving buildings.
In Chile, by contrast, it makes perfect sense. The news media has much to be ashamed of in the way it covers disasters, especially in the way it focuses on looting. But even through the obvious distortions it seems clear that Haitians were not looters like Chileans were. Why was that? Was there simply less to loot in the stores in Haiti? Perhaps, but we did not hear of the poor in Haiti breaking into the homes of rich families either. We did not hear of vigilance groups forming to protect neighborhoods as happened in Chile.
Haitians seem to have a stronger social cohesion than Chileans. Maybe in Haiti the tragedy brought people together while in Chile it tore people apart. Maybe the scale of the disaster in Haiti was such that literally everyone felt like they were in the same boat, whereas the buildings codes in Chile ensured that suffering was more indiscriminate.
Were Haitians just so used to their government doing nothing for them that they expected nothing when the earthquake came, while Chileans were angered by government inaction?
Natural disasters always divide. Some suffer much more than others; the poorest always suffer the most. Poverty is the strata upon which the buildings and lives stand or fall when disaster comes. Building codes – or their absence – are just symptoms of this sad reality.