For richer, for poorer

This post was contributed by Jeff Dayton-Johnson, Head of the Americas Desk at the OECD Development Centre

John Stuart Mill decried Nature’s “injustice, ruin and death.” We tend to throw up our hands in despair before natural disasters like the earthquake earlier this month in Haiti — the human cost of which, though not yet tallied, is certain to be catastrophic: unjust, ruinous and deathly.

But is it “natural”?

A Policy Brief by the OECD Development Centre argues that “hazards” — drought, earthquakes, epidemics, floods, windstorms–are naturally occurring, but that “disasters” are not. It’s unfavourable conditions–like irregular urban settlements, environmental degradation and weak regulatory practices–that render a society more vulnerable and less resilient to shocks.

Consider the example of Hurricane Mitch, which struck most of the Central American countries in October 1998, ultimately killing nearly 19 000 people.

Though loss of life, injury, and economic damages of the hurricane were widespread in the region, one of the disaster’s most striking features was its uneven impact across the affected countries. Different countries had differing underlying vulnerability to a hurricane.

If we take per capita income as a crude approximation of vulnerability–richer countries are better able to withstand and recover–we find that the ranking of Central American countries in terms of the severity of the hurricane and a ranking in terms of the poverty of the country would be almost identical. In general, poorer countries fare worse when exposed to a similar shock.

Unfortunately, then, Haiti was not only exposed to the risk of earthquake (a geophysical fact), it was vulnerable to a disaster (a social fact). The coming weeks will demonstrate how resilient Haiti is after the quake.

In societies exposed to risk of natural hazards, there is much that policy makers can do to reduce vulnerability and build up resilience.

This starts with improving the health and education of the poorer members of the society, and extends to monitoring and enforcing building codes and standards.

International agencies and the private sector can play their part by exploring ways to create innovative financial instruments to pool disaster risk and to provide insurance against it.

Haiti: Not a hope in hell?

A common reaction to the earthquake in Haiti has been to talk about the country as “cursed”. This could give the impression that what happened is somehow beyond human capacity to forestall. But one of the most chilling aspects of the earthquake is the lack of surprise expressed by experts from a number of domains about the scale of the destruction and loss of life.

In his 2009 Mallet-Milne Lecture on The Seismic Future of Cities, Roger Bilham stated that “It should be appalling to the people of the world that in 2009, more than a 100 years after earthquake resistant construction began to be understood and implemented by engineers, that it is possible to write an article forecasting large numbers of future earthquake fatalities from the collapse of cities.

For Professor Bilham and his colleagues, geophysics is only part of the explanation. Loss of life on the scale seen in Haiti is not “natural” in the modern world. A similar quake that hit the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995 caused widespread destruction and even if it killed 6434 people, casualties in this densely-populated area were far less than in Port-au-Prince.

Why did Haiti’s capital collapse? It’s on a well-known seismic fault line and has experienced shocks before, but nothing seemed to be built to resist earthquakes. Even the presidential palace was destroyed. For Bilham, it’s a political question. “In some cities… corruption has effectively replaced governance… Officials and politicians may find themselves being pressured to exercise flexibility in the interpretation of building codes. The resulting structures may contain numerous violations, to be discovered only when the structure collapses.”

But what does governance mean here? An OECD report cited Haiti as a “paradigmatic example” of the severest form of fragile state, where the legitimacy of the state is challenged, where the states’ capabilities and resources are low and where there are only rudimentary or fractured political processes for handling the resultant tensions. (more…)