Almost 60 per cent of the earthquake-related deaths in the 20th century have been due to collapse of houses. In the 1993 Latur quake, the pucca houses built of granite walls and timber roofs collapsed and caused maximum deaths. So, communities use weak structures as a defence against earthquakes. Palm-leaf roofs and plant matting walls in Indonesia have proved to withstand. But traditional houses can also rumble. Such structures in Pakistans quake-prone Karakoram belt succumbed as they were built against the vertical side of mountains, prone to landslides and rockfalls.
Drawn to danger
Serious environmental changes urbanisation, poor ways of managing land and commercial methods of agriculture, have also done the damage. In poorer countries, over 80 per cent of people depend on agriculture, but most do not own the land they till on. In times of stress, like droughts or floods, they are left without any means of livelihood. So, they are forced to move elsewhere for work. To cities that are already burdened.
Some 20-30 million of the worlds poorest people move yearly from rural to urban areas. The density of the population in cities is far beyond their carrying capacity. In Turkey, most of the rural-urban migration has been to cities with high seismic risk. Coastal areas that are quake-prone, like Japan and the US west coast, have been built on loosely compacted sediments that are likely to fare badly in earthquakes.
The unequal burden of costs
Japan, the Philippines and Bangladesh are all Asian countries exposed to tropical cyclones. Bangladesh faces a more severe damage as compared to Japan, because it does not have the alarm systems to prepare for large-scale evacuations. It has little to do with the kind of storms or their intensity.
The economic burden (the cost of damage of property and money spent on relief) of natural disasters is also unequal. The World Disasters Report says that the cost of natural disasters has skyrocketed. In the last 20 years, the economic losses have multiplied five times to US $629 billion.
The devastation is higher in poorer countries in terms of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP the value of all the goods and services produced by a nation). This makes these countries difficult to recover from the losses. By the time they manage to rehabilitate, another disaster strikes, leaving them gasping. And the poor do not have the means to build safe environments to resist the next disaster.
But the scale of damage can be controlled by applying building codes, safety regulations, proper use of land and agricultural methods (flood proof crops). In India, the National Building Code lays down rules for constructing buildings.
To be prepared for disasters, long-term steps need to be taken. Early warning systems, creating awareness among people and training them to safeguard themselves are some of the ways to keep more people from unsafe situations. Some responses need to be immediate like evacuation. This is one area where we need to act. In the massive 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, there was a major delay in the relief work. Actual relief operations started only two days later! It focused on Ahmedabad and the larger towns, and ignored the smaller villages. Reports say that the government authorities did not act for about 36 hours after the quake struck.
Despite this gloomy picture around, there is some good news. The number of deaths has fallen in the last 20 years from 2 million in the 1970s to eight hundred thousand in the 1990s. But more people have been affected over 2 billion in the last ten years. What quality of life can the people who have survived, hope to recover to?