Poor quality buildings are responsible for the widespread death and devastation in Haiti, so the rebuilding effort must learn from other countries where a proactive approach has been taken
The tragedy of the Haiti earthquake disaster is that there was the potential to mitigate the extent of the consequences: the number of casualties, the terrible injuries and the extent of the suffering could all have been reduced.
Of course, we should be not surprised; an earthquake of this magnitude occurring in the near future was predicted to be a high probability.
Unfortunately, the devastating effects of this natural disaster are one wholly created by man. Bar the reported killing of a looter, a large percentage of the deaths within the affected area are directly attributed to collapsed buildings, the majority of which were not appropriate, in their design and construction, for such a tectonically active geographical location.
The magnitude of the earthquake would clearly have damaged even the most appropriately designed earthquake-resistant buildings. Hyowever, we could argue that the effects would have been less catastrophic with the benefit of prepared, prior investment in funds and knowledge.
Man-made latent toxicity
Sites such as Haiti are described as possessing "man-made latent toxicity"; where man introduces risk by constructing inappropriately designed buildings. In Port-au-Prince for instance buildings occupied by international organisations such as the UN (reportedly constructed across a known fault line), World Bank and Citibank and a number of government buildings collapsed, completely.
a large percentage of the deaths within the affected area are directly attributed to collapsed buildings
Simply because of the occupier status and function of the buildings the assumption was that due diligence would have been carried out prior to occupation, assuring the design accounted for, to some extent, the impact of such an event and design codes were available to support this.
L’Aquila another site of "man-made latent toxicity" suffered an earthquake in 2009. This medieval Italian city, rebuilt after a devasting earthquake in 1703 was obviously an "at risk" site nevertheless people continued to live and work in the city.
The difference is, unlike Haiti, Italy had planned for such an event and its potential consequences. Whil3 previously we may have accepted such occurrences as "acts of God", in developed countries we are unwilling to accept a fatalistic approach and implement technical solutions to address risks and vulnerabilities.
The morality of 'building back better'
Ironically hundreds of years may pass before such devastating earthquake hits the region again. Undoubtedly with the aid pledged so far will be used to "build back better". But is it morally acceptable to continue to expose hundreds of thousands of people to death, trauma, physical disability and social unrest with the prize of building back better?
Should we not b more proactive and build resilience into communities and countries under threat? Over 200,000 reported casualties and those left bereft would no doubt have preferred the investment prior to the event.
India, classed as a developing country, is one example of the potential benefits of "preparedness". The Indian government has adopted mitigation and prevention as essential components of its development strategy.
The Indian government has adopted mitigation and prevention as essential components of their development strategy
Projects in hazard prone areas will have disaster prevention/mitigation as a term of reference and the project documents have to reflect how projects address that term of reference. The hazards include flooding, monsoons, earthquakes, landslides.
In addition the government is promoting seismically safe construction in a bid to increase the knowledge among national engineers and architects (despite standards specified in the Bureau of Indian Standards and Codes) and increase awareness of the people’s vulnerability within buildings with the potential risks of injury resulting from falling debris or collapse.
This will involve the policing of the building codes to ensure they are adhered to and upgrading the strength of existing structurally vulnerable construction.
While it will not be possible to upgrade the entire building stock, the government has identified key buildings (lifeline buildings) like hospitals, schools, government building and others where people congregate like cinemas and multi-storey apartments to be assessed and retrofitted where necessary.
These challenges are great and will be more so for Haiti but we should be using this disaster as a catalyst to proactive behaviour and not wait for the "where next" to happen and have to deal with the fall out again.
We have the capacity to identify the risk sites and the skills to develop the technical solutions and to manage the process. All that is required is the political will and determination.
Bill Keane is executive director of Clarke Bond and head of resilience & recovery