Sunday, October 09, 2005

When disasters strike developing countries

Graphic courtesy BBC News

Yesterday, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Kashmir region causing massive devastation. Today, estimates show the death toll from this earthquake at over 20,000, with over 42,000 people injured.

The area this earthquake struck is one of the most politically troubled areas in the world. The Kashmir region has been disputed between India and Pakistan ever since the partition of India by legacy colonial power Britain in 1947: Kashmir was given to India in the partition, but Pakistan has viewed it as rightfully part of Pakistan since it is predominantly Muslim. The other areas within reach of this earthquake included Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, and the North-West Frontier, the restive area alleged to be the hiding place of many Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.

In looking at this catastrophe, it is important to realize that earthquakes don't kill people - they damage buildings. It is when those damaged buildings collapse with people inside them that people are killed. Thus, the quality of the buildings, and whether these buildings are properly designed to withstand an earthquake can mean the difference between thousands of deaths and a few injuries.

Consider Japan, where earthquakes occur on a fairly regular basis, and where strict building codes ensure buildings are able to withstand them. In Japan, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake would be considered a moderate earthquake, and would result in some damage and a few hundred people injured, but few or no deaths, because the buildings in Japan are designed to withstand it. And yet, this same magnitude resulted in over 20,000 deaths and 42,000 injuries in Kashmir, mostly due to buildings collapsing with people inside them. In Islamabad, even a highrise apartment building collapsed, killing many people inside it.

It is truly sad to look at a catastrophe like this and realize that many of these deaths and injuries could have been prevented through better building construction standards.