Natural disasters and countries of different development levels – the issue of perception

Natural hazards affect a variety of countries, both developed and developing, but the effects of the events when they do occur are noticeably different according to development. It would appear that in scenarios where hazard levels may be similar risk is often higher in the poorer developing country. Developed countries such as Japan or the USA would typically be primarily concerned with the financial cost of an earthquake or volcanic event, whilst poorer countries such as Haiti are often left to count the cost in terms of lives.

The 2010 Haitian earthquake was one of the most deadly in recent times, with an estimated 316,000 deaths. The quake itself, which occurred at the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system where the North American and Caribbean plates slide past each other, had a magnitude of 7 – relatively large but not the kind of magnitude that would be unduly troubling the infrastructure of Japan or California. It was in many ways it was a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that contributed to such a large death toll. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of 670 USD in 2010 before the earthquake hit. With that low a level of development the focus is on providing a basic level of food, shelter, and education with no thought on earthquake proofing buildings or specifically monitoring the fault line which poses a threat to the country. Earthquakes in Haiti are extremely infrequent with the last major quake occurring in 1770, long before the living memory of any of the residents. With education levels low many did not even realise earthquakes were a threat at all. With so many caught unawares and killed by the initial falling of buildings the death toll continued to rise in the weeks and months following the earthquake, largely due to the fact 1.5 million people were made homeless and forced into temporary camps of tarpaulin tents. Diseases such as cholera and dysentery spread rapidly through these camps, not helped by bodies piling up on the sides of roads with morgues overwhelmed. Aid being brought into the stricken country was not as efficient as possible as the infrastructure in Haiti had been devastated with many roads blocked and the only airport near the epicentre badly damaged. Despite all of these catastrophic human effects the total financial cost of the disaster was only $7.8 billion, not a scratch on the $40 billion total cost of the Christchurch earthquake the next year for example – and that only killed 185 people. Whilst this phenomenon may seem slightly odd it’s easily understood why. Whilst the number of buildings destroyed in Haiti was highly significant at 280,000 very few of those buildings had much, if any, financial value (the presidential palace being one notable exception). Furthermore in an already ailing economy there is only limited scope to incur heavy financial cost. Most natural disasters in the developing world tend to have a much more noticeable human impact than financial impact.

Whilst an earthquake of magnitude 7 is disastrous in Haiti it is much less of a problem in a more economically developed country such as the United States of America where earthquakes are a known, common threat and are planned for as such. The Loma Prieta earthquake, of magnitude 6.9, is an example of such an earthquake. Indeed this case study represents something of a ‘worst case scenario’ for that part of the country as since the earthquake occurred in 1989 significant modernisation of roads and buildings has taken place to prevent death tolls reaching the level they did in 1989. A far cry from 316,000 in Haiti this death toll only reached 63, but 42 of those came as a result of the collapse of a double decker motorway at the Cypress Street Viaduct – these double decker motorways no longer exist in Oakland. Unlike in Haiti the various fault lines around California are well monitored by the USGS and it is known when earthquakes are likely. Indeed in 1988 it was said there was a 50% change of a magnitude 7 or above earthquake occurring in the next 30 years, so it was known an earthquake was more or less due. California has strict earthquake proofing building standards to prevent disaster in one of the most tectonically active areas in the world. This is especially the case in the 21st century with lessons from Loma Prieta learnt. The vast majority of the area affected by the earthquake, including San Francisco and Oakland, was not overly affected as the buildings were designed to withstand the force of the earthquake. This was in sharp contrast to Haiti where nearly everything close to the epicentre was razed to the ground. The deaths that did occur can be effectively grouped to 3 major groups. 42 people were killed as the top layer of a double decker motorway collapsed onto the bottom layer where they were driving, crushing them to death. 3 people were killed by collapsing buildings at Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz whilst 5 people were killed by a falling wall on Bluxome Street, San Francisco. It is widely suggested the death toll would have been much higher on the roads if it wasn’t for the World Series baseball championships which involved both the teams in the region, and had just began when the earthquake occurred. People had either left work early or stayed behind to watch the game, meaning the roads were up to 5x quieter than usual when normally they would be packed in rush hour. Any potential for further deaths was quickly minimised by a rapid response involving heavy lifting equipment freeing people from underneath the collapsed motorway and electricity was restored within 2 days.  Financial cost was minimal with very few buildings being destroyed at all.

A similar pattern can be noticed in volcanoes, with large eruptions in developed countries being more of an economic nuisance than anything else due to the proper prediction of an eruption and efficient preparation, capped off with prevention often in the form of efficient evacuation. The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland did not cause a single death, despite having a VEI of 4 with 250 million cubic metres of tephra ejected. It is not hard to find a volcano of roughly the same violence causing numerous deaths – the Mt Merapi eruption of the same year and the same VEI killed 353 people. There are several reasons for this, one being simply that fewer people live close to the volcano in Iceland than the one in Java. Many locals on the Indonesian island rely on the fertile volcanic land close to the summit for their livelihood, with agriculture a key aspect of life. With more people living close to the volcano there is always greater scope for disaster, especially with people not keen to leave their livelihoods behind and not properly educated about the threat of the volcano. Whilst 25 October 2010 saw the warning level at its highest with 19,000 people told to evacuate not everybody complied and nobody was forced to. However in Iceland the locals knew the threat the volcano posed and when told to evacuate did so immediately, preventing any loss of life. Monitoring of the volcano was comprehensive, in part due to the fact it was known a volcanic eruption was about due by looking at historical records, with text warnings sent out to residents telling them to evacuate. Despite the lack of deaths after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption it still made international news for days after the eruption. This was due to the disruption to flights across Europe caused by the ash cloud, with 6 flightless days and 95,000 flights cancelled in total. This led to a loss of £130 million per day for airlines and related businesses over the course of the week. This actually exceeded the financial cost due to the Merapi eruption ($600 million) and the press coverage of the air travel chaos was on the whole longer lasting and more comprehensive than the disaster at Mt Merapi. The difference in perception of the main threat of a volcanic eruption in the developed and developing world is clear to see – whilst developed countries typically have the prediction, preparation, and prevention in place to prevent a catastrophe in terms of deaths financial losses are still common and seen as a major annoyance. In Indonesia the financial losses are barely given consideration given the loss of lives that is still a major problem on many occasions, though individuals may have trouble making ends meet if their livelihoods are destroyed by eruptions.

Clearly then there are massive discrepancies in what is seen as a ‘catastrophe’ in the developed and developing world. With such huge contrasts in systems of prediction, preparation and prevention it is almost expected that there will be some loss of life in developing countries when an earthquake of magnitude 7 or volcanic eruption of VEI 4 occurs. Yet these same events in the developing world, where monitoring is excellent and buildings and people are prepared, will have very little impact at all.

This entry was posted in Geography. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *