20 years after Kobe quake, world rethinks disaster risk
By Margareta Wahlström

Thursday, 15 January 2015

In a year likely to be dominated by discussions on climate change, the 20th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake this Saturday is an opportune moment to reflect on the growing threat to life and economic wellbeing posed by seismic activity in hazard-prone locations around the world.

Earthquakes combine with poor-quality buildings to kill more people than any other natural hazard. It is noticeable that of the 10 earthquakes with the highest death tolls worldwide since 1900, four have occurred since 2004.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake destroyed the capital, Port-au-Prince and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami affected 14 countries. The 2008 Szechuan earthquake in China and the 2005 Muzaffarabad earthquake in Pakistan each took over 80,000 lives.

These earthquakes had a combined death toll of some 500,000, injured many more and disrupted the lives of millions.

A fifth event – the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 – brought to light a new downside of risk in the nuclear age. It also taught us a lesson on how natural hazards can have unforeseen cascading impacts with long-term consequences for public attitudes and policy towards technology and energy production.

These five catastrophic events over a short period of time convey a strong message about risk and exposure in the 21st century as our cities and towns become home to a growing majority of the world’s population, expected to rise from 7 billion today to 10.1 billion by 2100.

The worst disasters that could occur have not happened yet. One only has to look at the explosive rate of urbanisation across many active seismic zones to realise that land use and poor implementation of building codes are driving up the potential for disaster.

Worldwide, 3 billion people live in regions prone to earthquakes, and every year there are on average about 150 earthquakes which measure at least 6.0 on the Richter scale.

It went unremarked at the time, but the real significance of the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the loss of over 1,000 lives, was how such a disaster would be replicated many times over if the teeming mega-city were to be struck by a major earthquake.

The age profile of many earthquake-prone countries means that high numbers of schoolchildren are among the most vulnerable segments of the population, along with the elderly, people with disabilities and others who are less mobile, bed-ridden or house-bound.

The Pakistan earthquake destroyed more than 7,500 schools and an estimated 17,500 children died in the rubble. In Port-au-Prince over 90 percent of the schools collapsed.

In 2003, 84 Turkish children were crushed to death in their dormitory following an earthquake which has spurred efforts to retrofit, or demolish and reconstruct, all vulnerable schools in the country by 2017.

It is this kind of commitment that has turned Turkey into a leader of the Worldwide Initiative on Safe Schools which will be launched in two months’ time at the Third U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan.

The last World Conference was held in Kobe, in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, in 2005 on the 10th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake which claimed 6,437 lives and sped up the decline of the city’s port which plunged from being the sixth busiest in the world to 47th, 15 years later.

Hyogo has since become synonymous with the worldwide spread of disaster risk management. The 2005 World Conference adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action, a comprehensive blueprint on how to reduce disaster losses. Kobe’s generous sharing of its experiences has inspired others and helped spread a culture of disaster risk reduction around the globe.

Earthquakes expose economic vulnerability to disaster events like no other natural hazard, with the possible exception of recurring extensive floods. They also demonstrate the futility of trying to implement building codes without the buy-in of the private sector.

Much has been done to correct this in recent years given that the private sector is responsible for 70 to 85 percent of overall investment in most economies.

One example is the US$6 million electricity distribution company Orion invested in seismic strengthening work prior to the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The New Zealand firm saved more than US$65 million in direct losses.

As we recall the impact the Kobe earthquake had 20 years ago, many eyes are now focused on another Japanese city that has been tested by an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear accident.

Sendai is well on the road to recovery but not so much so that participants in the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will be able to avoid imagining for themselves what it must have been like there on that March day four years ago when the ground shook and the sea came in at the speed of a jet with just a few minutes’ warning.

Hopefully, Sendai is also destined to be associated with the adoption of a positive, action-oriented agenda for dealing with disaster risk in the 21st century, and tackling the drivers that make earthquakes and other hazards so dangerous, including land use and building codes.

Margareta Wahlström is the Head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.