More than half of disaster deaths occur in low development countries, even though only 11% of people exposed to hazards live there. These countries suffer far greater losses relative to their GDP than richer countries. According to the UNDP (2004), 24 out of 49 low-income developing countries face high levels of disaster risk…six are hit by two to eight disasters each year. The IMF estimates that the average economic cost for each individual large-scale natural disaster event was over 5% of GDP in low-income countries between 1997 and 2001’.
Developing countries experience higher levels of mortality. The 6.5 earthquake, which hit central California in 2003, took two lives and injured 40 people. By comparison, the 6.6 earthquake, which hit Iran 4 days later, killed over 40,000 people. Both events took place in areas with high-density populations.
Poorer countries are of course weaker in terms of their capacity to respond to disasters, both in terms of human resources and in lack of infrastructure, and more likely to suffer from problems of poor governance and corruption, further constraining the ability to respond. Poverty can be much the most important factor in determining vulnerability to disasters and their impacts in terms of loss of life, injury and damage to property. Nevertheless, the relationship between vulnerability to disasters and level of GDP in high exposure countries is not straightforward. Levels of corruption and governmental competence vary from country to country at similar levels of economic development. ‘Violence and armed conflict, governance and social capital are also important factors of risk’ (UNDP, 2004). Better-governed developing countries have higher levels of human development and are better prepared for disasters and able to deal with their aftermath. A focus on education and raising awareness of the risks associated with natural hazards and how these may be mitigated among the population at the local level can achieve results with effective use of limited resources.
Although developing countries are the worst affected by disasters, developing countries are not immune (see case study 2: The Kobe Earthquake 1995). Urbanisation, the increasing proportion of people living in towns and cities, increases the exposure of populations living in disaster risk-associated areas and the associated cost of restoring infrastructure and buildings in the case of disaster striking. Higher population densities and more complex infrastructure will result in greater potential for large-scale impacts, particularly as urban populations often have a poor understanding of their vulnerability’ (DFID, 2006). While the growing number of large and mega cities is often highlighted, much of the population growth is concentrated in smaller urban settlements, where the capacity to deal with the aftermath of a disaster in terms of specialised emergency medical and other professional services, is likely to be much more limited. Clearly, when disasters strike large cities as with the earthquake in Kobe in 1995 or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans last year, the impacts in terms of damage or loss of life are magnified. On the other hand, the more remote and scattered the population, as with the recent earthquake in North Pakistan and Kashmir, the further they are likely to be from help and the more difficult it is to reach them when disaster strikes. Relief and recovery are hindered and the disaster impacts that result from a delay in reaching victims heightened as a result. In remote and rural regions, therefore, urban and infrastructure development may also be mitigating factors in they can provide better access to services that can aid in the relief and recovery process and, if properly employed, in ensuring greater disaster preparedness.
Image: Collapsed and burnt buildings following the Kobe Earthquake in 1995
The Great Hanshin earthquake occurred at 5:46 a.m. on Tuesday, January 17, 1995. This earthquake is also called by the following names: Kobe, South Hyogo, Hyogo-ken Nanbu. The earthquake had a local magnitude of 7.2. The duration was about 20 seconds. The focus of the earthquake was less than 20 km below Awaji-shima, an island in the Japan Inland Sea. This island is near the city of Kobe, which is a port city. The earthquake was particularly devastating because it had a shallow focus. The earthquake had a ‘strike-slip mechanism.’ The resulting surface rupture had an average horizontal displacement of about 1.5 meters on the Nojima fault. This fault runs along the northwest shore of Awaji Island. The earthquake caused 5,100 deaths, mainly in Kobe. The Hanshin earthquake was the worst earthquake in Japan since the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, which is also called the Great Kanto earthquake. The Great Kanto earthquake claimed 140,000 lives. On the other hand, the Kobe region was thought to be fairly safe in terms of seismic activity.
Most of the deaths and injuries occurred when older wood-frame houses with heavy clay tile roofs collapsed. Note that homes and buildings are designed to be very strong in the vertical direction because they must support their own static weight. On the other hand, buildings can be very susceptible to horizontal ground motion. Furthermore, many of the structures in Kobe built since 1981 had been designed to strict seismic codes. Most of these buildings withstood the earthquake. In particular, newly built ductile-frame high rise buildings were generally undamaged. Unfortunately, many of the buildings in Kobe had been built before the development of strict seismic codes.
The collapse of buildings was followed by the ignition of over 300 fires within minutes of the earthquake. The fires were caused by ruptured gas lines. Response to the fires was hindered by the failure of the water supply system and the disruption of the traffic system.
Japanese seismology professor Tsuneo Katayama wrote that he ‘had opportunities to observe the damages caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta and the 1994 Northridge earthquakes.’ However, he thought that Japanese structures would not collapse as U.S. structures had in those earthquakes. Professor Katayama also wrote, ‘While our country was having a bubbling economy, we Japanese forgot to pay due attention to mothernature.’