Lessons From The Chile And Haiti Earthquakes

Investing in disaster risk reduction saves lives and livelihoods

While many factors determine the impact of an earthquake, the difference between the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile is stark. The Chilean earthquake was one of the ten most powerful earthquakes recorded in the last century . It released 500 times more energy than the earthquake that struck Haiti in January. Yet, less than 1,000 people are thought to have died in Chile, in comparison to the over 300,000 people who lost their lives in Haiti.

Despite the differences, both earthquakes show us how important it is to reduce the risk of disasters. At the World Food Programme, disaster risk reduction is an integral part of what we do. We focus on two main tasks: (i) strengthening the capacities of governments to prepare for, assess, and respond to hunger arising from disasters; and (ii) assisting communities to build resilience to shocks.  

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Six quakes

Chile has experienced at least 6 major earthquakes resulting in severe damage over the last 100 years, including the biggest earthquake every recorded. In 1960, an earthquake registering 9.5 on the Richter scale caused massive damage in Chile and sent a tsunami all the way to Japan. Since then, Chile has enforced strict building codes, reinforced its emergency preparedness systems, taught earthquake awareness in schools, and as a result has greatly reduced potential of earthquakes – a natural hazard – to become natural disasters. 

In contrast, the last severe earthquake to strike Haiti occurred in 1887.  As Professor Roger Bilham, one of the first seismologists to visit Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake points out, there is now a significant risk of a second major earthquake along the fault that runs through Haiti. Read article in Nature

Respond better

The prospect of a second major earthquake in the coming months, years, or decades, in Haiti should act as a call to all of us to help the people and government of Haiti ensure that both buildings and communities are more resilient when the next earthquake hits and that the government and its institutions better able to respond. 

Professor Bilham also points out the growing risk of earthquakes in other cities around the world including Kathmandu, Tehran, and Istanbul.  Combine these risks with the growing risk of more frequent and intense storms, droughts, floods, driven by climate change and investing in disaster risk reduction becomes an even more urgent and important priority for us all.   
  
Richard Choularton, the author of this piece, is a Senior Policy Officer at WFP.