Supercities face high quake risk

20 Apr 2011

image Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Photo: UNDP Haiti) New York – More than half of the world’s supercities, with populations of 2-15 million, are at future risk of being affected by nearby magnitude seven or greater earthquakes, warned Eric Calais, Haiti-based seismologist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

A significant number of very large cities with high population density such as Tokyo, Mexico City, Port-au-Prince, Istanbul or Kathmandu, many in developing countries with rapidly expanding population, are located near fault zones that have caused major earthquakes in the past – and most likely will again in the future.

“The good news is that we know how to mitigate earthquake risk with proven prevention measures. Any country that faces that risk therefore needs to proactively invest in risk reduction measures before the next event strikes, including Haiti and its Caribbean neighbors,” said Eric Calais during a briefing this week at UN headquarters in New York.

These cities also face escalating social and economic losses due to natural disasters. Within 35 seconds, the 2010 earthquake cost Haiti 100 percent of its GDP, while seven hurricanes between 2004 and 2008 cost the country 25% of its GDP.

“Haiti now has the opportunity to become a champion for disaster-safe reconstruction if there is political will, international support, and coordinated action,” Calais said.

Calais presented studies showing that the fourfold increase in earthquake-related fatalities during the last two centuries is due to population growth, especially in developing countries where urban dwellers live in zones of hyper-concentration with poor urban planning.

Calais, a Professor of Geophysics at Purdue University who had been studying the earth’s shifts in Haiti for about 20 years, started working with UNDP in the aftermath of the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake 15 months ago.

Haiti: Building back better

“One of the solutions – and challenges – is having more trained Haitian professionals involved in rebuilding their country to endure future earthquakes and the yearly threats of hurricanes, cyclones, floods and other natural disasters,” Calais said.

“In addition to seismic monitoring and seismic zoning, we are working to train and educate construction professionals, decision-makers and academics,” Calais concluded. “Unfortunately, brain drain—the emigration of skilled workers—is a serious barrier to building back a more resilient Haiti in a sustainable manner.”

According to a recent report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development, more than half of Haiti’s university-educated professionals have moved to more industrialized countries seeking better work and living conditions.

Working with the Government of Haiti, UNDP led the design of a seismic risk reduction “roadmap” for the country, sponsored the preparation of seismic zoning maps for Port-au-Prince to help guide safer reconstruction, and is leading the design and implementation of an earthquake risk reduction plan for the northern part of the country.