Drawn to disaster
Hurricanes are not new to New Orleans and earthquakes are not uncommon in the Himalayan region. But people were unprepared for the scale of damage, as their homes were unable to resist the forces of nature. 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 Pakistan’s quakeprone Karakoram belt succumbed as they were built against the vertical side of mountains, prone to landslides and rockfalls.
Drawn to danger
A common episode becomes a major disaster when there is heavy loss of life and property. Disasterprone areas today are more unsafe today as more people live there. Two-thirds of the world’s earthquake deaths have occurred in the zone stretching along Himalayas and Indonesia, and have caused more damage than those of quakes in the Pacific region, mainly because it is densely populated.
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 world’s poorest people move yearly from rural to urban areas.
Every news channel, every newsdaily features their images. The desperate faces of people who have been struck by a natural disaster — the quake in Kashmir, or the floods in New Orleans, or the tidal wave in Indonesia. They may be from any part of the globe, but they are comrades-ingrief... Today, the world is facing natural disasters at an unprecedented scale. In the second half of the twentieth century, about 250 great natural disasters were reported. By the late 1980s and 1990s, the recorded level of events was about four times higher than in the 1950s. Worse is the scale of these horrific incidents. In the last five years, over 303 million people were affected by disasters — a rise of more than 40 per cent from a decade ago. And the cost of damage and ruin has risen by 14 times since the 1950s! What does one make of all this?
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 quakeprone, 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
“Nature creates hazards, says scholar Piers Blaikie, but it is humans who create vulnerability through unequal access to resources.” People in poor countries face the brunt because they are unable to cope. Over 300 people die per disaster in poor countries, as compared to 44 people per event in the more well off countries. 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.
Recovering from huge losses is difficult. It is better to equip oneself with information and reduce the scale of damage. In the case of earthquakes, it has not been possible to predict the exact time, intensity and location. Only seismic zones have been identified. 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?
Grounded in China
In 1966, China asked its people to spot the warning signs of quakes. They looked out for chickens roosting on trees, snakes leaving ground, rising wellwater levels. In 1970, a gap was noticed in earthquake activity in Liaoning province. On February 1, 1975, seismic activity fell sharply. On February 4, many cities in the province were evacuated. Later that afternoon, a Richter 7.3 quake wrecked over 1, 000 square kilometres in the city of Haicheng. The loss of life was minimal. Two years after the successful prediction came the Tangshan quake killing 242, 000 people.