Corruption Kills: Earthquake Death Tolls and the Role of Corruption

by Jake Amatruda:

Seismic activity has had a high profile in the news recently. The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 was the latest in a wave of major tremors; in the past month, New Zealand and China also suffered damaging earthquakes.

While the damage from the Japanese quake is still being assessed, it appears that precautions such as strict building codes and earthquake drills saved countless lives. Japan is well prepared for disaster, having invested in technology to ensure the sturdiness of its buildings and limit the extent of destruction from earthquakes.

Last January, an earthquake struck about 10 miles from Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, causing widespread devastation and prompting a massive international relief effort. The disaster was estimated to have cost between $7.2 billion and $13.2 billion USD, with a death toll of 200,000 to 250,000 people (according to the Inter-American Development Bank). It brought devastation on a massive scale; yet an earthquake of equal magnitude, 7.0, in New Zealand last September led to zero fatalities. Why is there such a disparity between these two events?

The answer, according to a study published in the journal Nature by Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham, is corruption. They found that 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes in the past three decades have occurred in countries that are “anomalously corrupt” – those with more corruption than is expected, given their per capita income. Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is also one of the world’s most corrupt.

Poor construction practices, which are common in Haiti, are “largely to blame for turning moderate earthquakes into major disasters,” say the two scientists. In the construction industry, considered to be the most corrupt segment of the global economy, corruption can take many forms. Bribes are given in order to bypass inspection and licensing, essential components are omitted as a way to reduce costs, and developers violate building codes that require specific materials or earthquake-proof designs.

Images of Port-au-Prince, Haiti taken on Jan 15, 2010 following a magnitude 7 earthquake that hit the city on January. (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Since the poorest countries tend to have higher levels of corruption, it can be tricky to untangle the effects of poverty versus corruption. The two forces are connected in important ways. Wealthier countries are better able to enforce rule of law, and address things such as building codes that might, and often are, left by the wayside in countries like Haiti. Poverty can lead to the use of low-quality building materials, and to a lack of education that creates ignorance about proper construction practices. Or it may simply be that building safety comes as a lower priority in poor areas, where less is taken for granted and where every dollar counts.

To isolate the roles of poverty and corruption, the researchers compared per capita Gross National Income with the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a metric of corruption based on the views of residents, business people and foreign visitors. They found that certain countries are perceived to be more corrupt than might be expected from average per capita income – and that this is particularly true of Haiti.

This paper provides mathematical evidence of the tragic consequences of substandard, corrupt, building practices. However, earthquakes cause deaths even in high-income countries that have little corruption. Despite Japan’s state-of-the-art technology to protect its buildings from damage, the recent earthquake and tsunami have left more than 10,000 dead (See NYtimes, 3/13), destroyed entire towns, and triggered explosions and radiation contamination in multiple nuclear power plants. The devastation in Japan has exposed the limits of our technological defenses against disaster. It has shown the truth behind a frightening thought: that there is only so much that human preparation can accomplish in the face of nature’s immense power.