Over the past few decades, we have seen many joint programmes between developed countries and developing countries to help the latter in managing their earthquake risks. These programmes span the whole spectrum of disciplines from seismology and geology to engineering, social science and economics. Many of these programmes have been effective in raising awareness, in urging governments to work towards risk reduction and in spawning an ‘industry’ of disaster management in many of the developing countries. However, even as these efforts proceed, we have seen death and destruction due to earthquake after earthquake in developing countries, strongly suggesting that the problems for which those assistance programmes were developed are not so effective. Therefore, it is natural to ask why this is happening. Are the assistance programmes reaching the right people? Maybe we are reaching the right people and doing the right type of things in these countries, but we have not allowed enough time for our actions to take effect. Maybe we are reaching the right people and doing the right actions for most of the miles we need to cover in helping communities mitigate their earthquake risks. However, the issue could be whether we are reaching people who represent the ‘last mile’ on this pathway. Here, I explore whether the work that many organizations and countries have done towards earthquake risk reduction over the past few decades in developing countries is appropriate or not. Why do we keep seeing the catastrophes of Sumatra, Chi Chi, Bhuj, Turkey, Algeria and on and on? I will articulate what I think is the problem. My contribution is intended to generate discussions, self-analysis of our approaches, what we are doing right and what we are not doing right. Hopefully such discussions will result in a better connection between the last mile and programmes around the world which are working towards earthquake risk mitigation.
Over the last three or four decades, great strides have been made in understanding the science, engineering and socio-economics of earthquakes and strategies to mitigate the effects of such catastrophes. On the one hand, due to easy availability of the internet, the scientific, engineering and economics knowledge bases are readily accessible to all experts around the world yet the implementation of the known strategies and the benefits from those strategies have been confined to only few developed countries. To a large extent there has been increasing death and economic disruptions on a global scale rather than reduction in risk.
One of the reasons for this discontinuity between available knowledge and ‘on the ground’ performance is the lack of communication between the knowledge generators and knowledge users with experts talking only to experts. There is also lack of understanding on the part of knowledge generators as to who are the sectors that need to know and who can make a difference. Creating the right partnership for implementation in a country is as important as creating the knowledge base for possible risk reduction. In addition, ownership of the problem and its solution is not shared by all the stakeholders. As a consequence, reaching out and connecting the last mile is not generally done.
So what is needed to create true international partnership to mitigate catastrophe risk? True impact will only be achieved when the issues described above are fully recognized and actions are taken to improve the situation. International partnership means understanding the socio-economic constraints of the two partners. It means understanding the incentive structure and working with that structure. Understanding individual and societal incentive structure could facilitate in developing strategies that would work for a nation in mitigating catastrophe risk. True partnership means working with the strengths of the two partners rather than one partner acting as a giver and one partner acting as a receiver.
Working with partners may be somewhat unconventional from the perspective of the usual engineering and science-related disciplines. However, this approach is very much needed. Insurance and reinsurance companies, banks, media, grass roots organizations, political and commercial leadership and similar other partners can really make a difference to the economic consequences of natural disasters. They should be part of the partnership for disaster mitigation.
The old ways of creating and working with international partnerships have not clearly worked. It is time to be bold and different and to try new ways of collaborative efforts. We need to take a careful and critical look at our old ways and determine what needs to be changed. Through such introspection and through innovative means we can greatly improve global natural disaster risk mitigation.
2. The problem at hand
In recent times, we have seen many joint programmes between developed countries and developing countries to help the latter in managing their earthquake risks. These programmes span the whole spectrum of disciplines from seismology and geology to engineering, social science and economics. Many of these programmes have been effective in raising awareness, in urging governments to work towards risk reduction and in spawning an ‘industry’ of disaster management in many of the developing countries. These industries include non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations, for-profit organizations, and in general, a variety of opportunities for entrepreneurial individuals mainly from urban regions of developing countries.
However, as these evolving opportunities unfold, we have seen death and destruction due to earthquake after earthquake in developing countries (Munich Re Group; Knowledge Series, Topics Geo 2004), strongly suggesting that the problems for which those assistance programmes were developed are not very effective, at least in the short run. We have seen deaths, injuries, social trauma, economic disruptions and general interruption of life continue unabated. So it is natural to ask: why is this happening? Are the assistance programmes reaching the right people? Maybe we are reaching the right people and doing the right type of things in these countries but we have not allowed enough time for our good actions to take effect. Maybe we are reaching the people and doing the right actions for nearly all the miles we need to cover in helping communities reduce their earthquake risks, but the question is whether we are reaching the people who represent the ‘last mile’ of the pathway to effective mitigation.
In the telecommunications industry, they define the most crucial link between available technology of narrow and broadband communication and the use of that technology by a typical homeowner as the problem of the last mile. The concept is that, unless the last connection between the homeowner and the most sophisticated available technology is not there, all the available technology cannot be effective for the vast market of consumers. The problem of the last mile continues to be a challenge in that industry and giants of the telecommunications industry are still struggling for the control of the last mile.
I am not saying that the work many organizations have done over the past few decades in mitigating earthquake risk in developing countries is not appropriate. What I am questioning is whether we have covered that last mile, whether we have reached all the right people, whether we have used the available resources in doing all that we can and should do. Maybe our efforts are not yielding desired results because we have not understood what motivates or does not motivate individuals and societies to plan mitigation efforts even before the catastrophe takes place. It is often said that unless one understands the incentives that drives individuals and societies to take action, it would be hard for any strategy for risk mitigation to be accepted and implemented. So, maybe we have not done enough to educate society on this concept.
With the massive global urbanization the problem of catastrophe risk is likely to increase rather than decrease, unless we start innovative approaches to risk mitigation. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the changing demographic profile of the world. From figure 1 it can be seen that 12 out of the 15 largest cities of the world are in countries with low or medium per capita income. In addition, many of these cities are in high-risk zones for natural disasters. Figure 2 provides an interesting trend. For the first time in human history, there will be more people living in urban areas than in rural areas. This concentration of population has direct impact on increasing natural disaster risk. This paper is written to generate discussions, self-analysis of our approaches, what we are doing right and what we are not doing right. Hopefully, the paper will help in making a proper connection between the last mile and the risk mitigation programmes under way around the world.
3. Some observations
In the context of earthquake risk mitigation in a developing country and the last mile, the following actions will improve the situation for the citizens who will experience the next catastrophic earthquake.
Earthquake codes and their strict implementation in urban and rural communities for engineered structures.
‘How to’ type of instructions for building non-engineered and rural structures.
Help at the village or community level to build safer homes, safer schools, safer hospitals and safer community infrastructures.
Awareness at the individual, family and community level of earthquakes and what to do before, during and immediately after an earthquake.
Social and political preparedness for the next catastrophic event at all levels of public agencies and private enterprises.
A positive role and attitude of government in ‘educating’ people about the cost and benefit of mitigation measures. Policies that develop proper incentives for people at risk to take mitigation measures.
Actions such as the ones suggested above will actually help communities to reduce their earthquake disaster risk. This direct connection between mitigation measures and risk reduction lies at heart of the philosophy of the last mile.
Now, let us look at our own personal experiences over the past few decades. Personally, I have been involved in many professional, non-governmental, philanthropic, academic and similar organizations. Many of these organizations have worked internationally with great passion and dedication to help reduce the problem of earthquake risk in many developing countries. Many of these efforts have resulted in visible improvements in the earthquake risk profiles of communities in developing nations. These efforts have involved meetings, conferences, workshops, seminars, courses, public lectures or just simple networking. All these efforts and means for a noble cause of risk reduction are fine and laudable. However, how many of these efforts pass the test of linking with the last mile? Many of these efforts are between people like us, the academics, senior governmental officials, who are usually the most educated and ‘aware’ people. How many times have we seen that the connection between ‘us’ and the people in the last mile are not complete? It often discontinues after a meeting or a workshop or a conference ends. As an example, how often does a $100 000 grant to help reduce earthquake risk in a specific developing region of the world end up with 90% of that amount being spent in conducting a workshop or a conference with hardly anything remaining for the last mile? In many developed countries, I have often seen hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in developing a programme, in travel, in discussion meetings, in workshops, etc. with very little left for the ultimate beneficiary who is supposed to be helped by us. How will the risk profile and the risk culture ever change in developing countries unless we are connected all the way through to and including the last mile?
As Koffie Annan, Secretary General of United Nations, said in 1999:
Building a culture of prevention is not easy. While the costs of prevention have to be paid in the present, its benefits lie in a distant future. Moreover, the benefits are not tangible; they are the disasters that did not happen.
With the current mode of operation of many organizations around the world who are ‘assisting’ developing nations deal with their earthquake risk mitigation efforts, the score card of how well they are doing will not come until a future date (it could be decades). It is quite possible that this future score card will look good. In the interim, individuals and organizations will feel (or will claim) a sense of success for their programmes and ways of spending resources. Only time will tell. Unfortunately, this delay in getting their score card will result in time and resources spent, maybe making the right connections for the first hundreds of miles but not reaching the last mile, and most important, in lost opportunities.
4. Issues related to the last mile
It is generally accepted by many who have worked towards earthquake risk reduction in developing countries that non-scientific and non-technical issues play a major role in implementing known risk reduction strategies. Let us look at some of these issues.
Perception of risk is an important issue. Without the society's understanding of the type and level of risk, it is very difficult if not impossible to develop and implement strategies for earthquake risk reduction. Many developing societies live their daily lives with many different risks. Unless it is clear to them how earthquake risk fits into their hierarchy of risks, it is very hard for them to either ‘get excited’ or do something about that risk. So the first and foremost requirement for a developing society to implement needed risk reduction strategies is to understand the earthquake risk and how it relates to other human-made or natural risks. In my experience, many developing societies have not properly understood earthquake risk. The experts in these countries have done a relatively poor job of raising the awareness of the citizenry about the problem and possible solutions. Most experts in those countries have not taken special care to travel the last mile.
In a society with many competing demands on available resources, it is not clear to many as to how one can balance the risk/reward equation. What level of resources need to be committed to achieve an acceptable level of safety is a complex problem. Even in industrialized countries the answers to such questions are not obvious. So, in an economically developing country, it is even more difficult to justify the time and resources needed for earthquake risk reduction.
There is a widespread perception that to do anything about mitigating earthquake risk, the immediate or short-term cost is enormous. The technical community has mainly propagated this perception. The message has been that earthquake-resistant structures require specialized knowledge and that the cost is not trivial to build earthquake-resistant structures or to upgrade existing structures to some acceptable level of performance. This may be true, but there are also many non-capital intensive risk mitigation options (Risk Management Solutions, Inc. 2005). They include raising awareness of the citizens and self-help solutions. Community based retro-fitting of schools and other important structures can also be achieved without great costs. Development of disaster management plans and implementing those plans can help post-disaster recovery. Risk transfer options such as insurance pools can be developed. Implementing some of these options can make a great impact on the risk profile of that community.
There is relatively little communication between researchers, academics and a few well-known professionals on the one hand, and the rest of the country, which is at risk, on the other. The few ‘world class’ individuals in the country have not been able to make their citizens, their engineering community, their governmental organizations and their regulators aware about the type and level of risk and what measures would buy maximum benefit at minimum cost. This has created an awareness vacuum. Without a ‘bottom up’ interest in implementing risk management strategies, it is very difficult to make any headway towards earthquake risk reduction.
Professionals, such as architects, structural engineers, contractors, government inspectors, etc. have very little professional accountability for poor performance of structures. Even in countries where good building codes exist, there is very little effort to implement and enforce those codes. As a result, we have seen great death and destruction in many recent earthquakes. Ability to practice these professions is not based on licensing or accountability checks.
In developing countries, usually an organizational infrastructure that allows a good working partnership between academics, engineering practitioners, government regulators, financial institutions and social activists does not exist. Thus, the time between the generation of knowledge and its implementation on the ground is excruciatingly long.
These and many such reasons can be cited for a lack of progress in many countries. One of the most frustrating observations that I have made is that there are groups of countries where there is knowledge, there are resources and there is awareness. China, India, Turkey and Iran are some of these counties where modern understanding of earthquake resistant design and mitigation strategies exist. However, for the reasons cited above, the knowledge is not converted into practice. Therefore, there is very little hope that a major urban centre in India or China or Turkey will perform well in a future earthquake. What can we do in those countries to make a difference? Is the problem of connecting the last mile making it difficult to achieve desired outcomes? For too long, individuals in some of those countries have been ‘preaching’ to their own kind. Moreover, it could be said that foreign ‘experts’ have been preaching to local experts and the resulting information exchange terminates at that level. It is time to change the way risk mitigation and risk management has been approached in these countries. It is important to understand the last mile that will make all the worthwhile efforts connect fully, all the way from articulation of problems to possible solutions and actions.
5. Concluding remarks
The main theme of this paper is whether we are reaching all the right people and are developing all the right strategies for reducing earthquake risk in developing societies. This simple question is put in the context of the last mile. The general concern that is expressed is in terms of the relative balance of expenditure of resources between the last mile and all the previous miles. By their very nature, it seems that considerable resources are spent in articulating the problems, in studying the nature of the problems, and in communicating between like-minded solution providers. As a result relatively very little is left over or available to connect between all the miles that are travelled and the last mile. If, in fact, there is some merit in the central theme of this paper, it may be time for all of us to question our assumptions and our actions and make needed modifications so that there is a robust connection to that last mile.
One contribution of 20 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Extreme natural hazards’.
- © 2006 The Royal Society