Poverty, Earthquakes and the Need for a New Orthodoxy

13 Feb 2023
Poverty, Earthquakes and the Need for a New Orthodoxy
Poverty, Earthquakes and the Need for a New Orthodoxy

This article was first published on Sourceable in 2017 and there are over 127000 views of the piece to date. Much of what is said in the piece is still very much on point. 

About 75 per cent of the deaths that occur during earthquakes are caused by building failure rather than the actual earthquakes themselves. And the sad fact is that it is the poorer and most densely urbanised areas that register the highest body count.

This is not surprising, as this is the realm where one is likely to find the highest concentration of compromised as-built product.

There is a strong correlation between poverty and disproportionately high levels of fatality in earthquake events. Equally disquieting is the reality that poorer high-density regions often witness a higher level of corruption where lax building control is sometimes fostered by commercial inducements proffered to malleable officials.

When earthquake calamities visit themselves upon stricken environments, western experts are invariably deployed to advise governments on how best to improve earthquake resilient regimes in the post-calamity aftermath. However, often the advisers promote best practice concepts that have been designed for affluent jurisdictions but simply cannot be embraced in poor countries, as the cost of creating and maintaining best practice regimes is prohibitive.

It is all very well to adopt best practice regulations and construction practices in affluent economies, where there is sufficient wealth and a skills heritage to integrate best practices with the local built domain. But for those countries that are home to millions of people living in abject poverty, the challenges of adoption, implementation and maintaining of ‘best practice’ regimes is nigh on insurmountable in a contemporary setting.

The challenges do not abate with population explosion, which is allied with the expansion of high density, and ad hoc unregulated urban sprawl. Shanty towns organically form an elastic shape of sorts and negligible regard is had to “as built” quality or construction best practice for the simple reason that these types of environments are bereft of funds and the cost of compliance with best practice building control regimes is too high.

Hence, there exists an evangelical naivety where some well-meaning advisers endeavour to bring bear “world’s best practise” (“WBP”) earthquake resilience regimes to impoverished regions. This naivety and determination to impose WBP building control ‘holistics’ upon regions that live below the poverty line is at best aspirational but often not achievable.

It follows that until there is a fundamental rethink and the establishment of a new orthodoxy with respect to the development of building controls and meaningful earthquake resilience codes for developing and economically challenged nations, compromised buildings will still kill the poor at a disproportionately higher level than Western counterpart nations. Because “world’s best practice” is fashioned for environments that harness certain givens – a high level of uniform affluence, skills heritage, a sophisticated and evolved law enforcement arsenal, and an absence of corruption.

The Guardian ran a very good piece in April 2015 and a couple of extracts hit the nail on the head. Author Robin Cross stated that the rush of urbanisation has produced some of the most dangerous environments: multi-storey buildings, over-reliance upon concrete and a loss of knowledge that protected previous generations. The pressure to meet the needs of growing populations, along with improperly implemented building regulations, can lead to lethal weakness. Cross makes mention of the 2008 Sichuan quake where thousands died, many of whom were schoolchildren on account of problematically engineered school buildings.

He then went on to say, “low cost and informal buildings are most likely to fail, meaning that earthquakes disproportionately affect the poorest in the community, and usually leave them even poorer.

“The technology and skills to practically eliminate this scale of fatality are available…earthquakes are not just a natural crisis: they reflect a poverty crisis.”

In the same piece, the author makes mention of the laudable efforts that the international community brings to bear in post-disaster response but also laments that there is far too little emphasis brought to bear to develop long term earthquake resilience measures once the immediate post-calamity hangover wears off.

Cross poignantly observes that history will then repeat itself which is probably true, a case of ‘back to the future’, or maybe a return to apathy or “out of sight, out of mind.”

There is much to take out and dissect from The Guardian piece, such as:

The use of concrete and a reluctance to use ‘knowledge’ ironically imparted in ‘previous generations’ is telling. Concrete disintegration kills, concrete crushes, and the cost of and the logistics associated with post-collapse concrete removal particularly in a lifesaving dynamic are as delicate as they are colossal.

Cross’ observations about the intelligence of forefathers reminded me of my childhood in Africa. Most of the non-urbanised abodes did not involve concrete but were built out of mud and sticks, with thatch roofs. Traditional Japanese homes were lightweight, durable yet pliable wooden frames, lightweight walls. The irony of these traditional forms of construction is that despite being old school, they are resilient, harbouring far less potential for menace in an earthquake and the build cost is low – very low.

There is also the add-on of being able to use that which is available in the immediate vicinity of the local environment. On point, I remember as a youth making the mud bricks for my late father’s mud brick house in Melbourne Australia. The mud that we mixed with straw was baked by the sun in steel moulds and we were able to make about 130 large bricks by hand a day. The dirt came from an immediately accessible locality: our property. Locally manufactured, hand-made product with one added benefit being that the hard menial work made us exceptionally fit.

I’m not commending mud brick as having highly evolved earthquake resilience qualities, but the fact is that one can develop codes that honour indigenous, cost effective modes of construction. If the Japanese experience is any indication, these modes may be honed to develop superior yet economically-achievable earthquake resilience outcomes.

There needs to be less obsession with looking at developing economies through rose-coloured lenses, for there are no Camelots. Take NZ, a nation that was for many years feted for ostensibly best practice building controls – until the leaky building syndrome, a phenomenon that adversely impacted upon in excess of 40,000 homes and according to some consultants will cost the country’s citizens somewhere between $11 billion and $23 billion by the time the back wash rinses through the system.

Earthquake resilient architecture, regardless of whether one is talking about regulatory architecture or built architecture, has to be purpose built for the given local environment and has to be empathetic to the local socio-economic, environmental, topographical and ecological drivers if there can be any transcendence from the aspirational to the achievable. This should be part of the new orthodoxy.

The current obsession with world’s best practice is an obsession that presupposes a utopian world. It presupposes a high level of uniform spread of affluence, and assumes the world does not face serious issues with poverty.


This article is not legal advice and discusses it’s topic in only general terms. Should you be in need of legal advice, please contact a construction law firm. The experienced team at Lovegrove & Cotton can help property owners and building practitioners resolve any type of building dispute.

Written by Adjunct Professor Kim Lovegrove MSE, RML.