forum discussion #27

Does Corruption Make Earthquakes Deadlier?

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Listen to a story by The World’s Rhitu Chatterjee about Haiti’s seismic risks. It’s followed by our interview with Roger Bilham. He is a geophysicist at the University of Colorado and was the guest in this Science Forum discussion.

Corruption can kill in an earthquake. That’s the conclusion of an article co-authored by Bilham in the latest issue of Nature. His research shows that, over the last 30 years, 83% of all deaths due to building collapses in earthquakes were in countries that are especially corrupt. He contends that an atmosphere of corruption fosters shoddy building practices.
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  • Was the high death toll in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti due to corruption?
  • Is Haiti rebuilding with future earthquakes in mind?
  • Does corruption influence the extent of damage from other natural disasters?

Roger Bilham took questions from our listeners. Read the conversation below.

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The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Thanks for your intriguing comments — and intriguing study.

    The U.S. is, of course, not immune to corruption, nor is it immune to earthquakes. Where do we stand on the spectrum of deaths due to earthquakes, and to what extent might those deaths be blamed on corruption? And would you link deaths in other natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina, e.g.) to corruption?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? RBilham

      The US is indeed on the graph of fatalities, and comes out as one of the good guys. Corruption is present in the US, but its level is low and the US lies slightly on the side of better than expected. The building inspection process is difficult to circumvent as a result of the US being a society where bribes are almost unthinkable in certain sectors of US business.
      In earthquake zones building inspectors are particularly vigilant for substandard assembly, and step N+1 in construction cannot proceeded without an inspector signing off on step N.

  2. Jane Mercer

    Implementing across the board simple standardized, structural design details (for EQ or wind) that utilize economical, readily available materials – for construction or retrofit – with the information available to all – would simplify the construction as well as review and inspection process. Many of our standardized building practices were once just an alternative method.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? RBilham

      Agreed. In many cases significant improvements in structural strength can be made by engineers visiting villages and modifying existing assembly methods. Elizabeth Hauslers Buildchange initiative
      is a superb example of what can be done.

  3. Haiti and China in particular seem destined, despite your piercing analysis, to follow the exact same road into the near future. Only investment in sweeping reforms across all layers of governance and contracting can turn this pattern around.

    But what about 1st world Canada, my home country? Victoria B.C.’s 200-year construction history antedates the last major quake (26 January 1700) by a century, and the same kind of massive stone building, and later concrete-and-steel construction (only higher) as in Port-au-Prince seems ready to tumble down in the predicted +9.2 Cascadian and +7.4 side-fault quakes. If anything, the time-line for those big quakes (and Seattle’s better-prepped but equal size version) has moved earlier since Santiago, has it not?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? RBilham

      Most concrete and steel building in the US and Canada is subject to rigorous inspection and and assembly, and corrupt building practices are expected to be low based on their ranking by Transparency International.

      There is indeed a problem with early structures that have not been retrofit to withstand earthquake shaking. One important difference between shallow nearby earthquakes (Haiti’s M7), and M>8 subduction zone earthquakes is that the shaking frequency tends to be lower, the accelerations marginally lower but the duration of shaking longer longer. Earthquake engineers have a good idea of what to expect in Vancouver.

      • Sorry Roger – I may not have been clear. Vancouver’s not expected to take too much of a drubbing from either the anticipated Cascadian jump, or connected Surrey Mt./N. Whitbey Is. fault and Leech River faults… which run practically through Victoria harbour.

        It was Victoria’s antiquated buildings and lack of retrofitting I was asking about, which may benefit (?) from a surfeit of “historic” landmarks built of massive blocks, as well as a highly-developed downtown which owes part of its skyscraper growth to the 50′s… when nothing if anything was ‘quake-proofed.”

        The fact that it is B.C.’s seat of government may act as a sort of not-exactly-corrupt sitting upon hands and ignoring the obvious… but isn’t the impending situation *there* a tad similar to Lisbon in 1755?

        best regards

  4. Sargon Bighorn

    Is timber bamboo a possible building material in Haiti? I know that in Colombia the Guadua bamboo is used. It’s cheap, renewable, easy to use, can be made bug resistant, and survives earthquake.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Roger Bilham

      Yes bamboo is good material. It grows fast but my impression is that efforts to grow it in Haiti will be too slow to have much impact on the rebuilding effort. There is abundant limestone in the hills south of Port au Prince and elsewhere and I suspect that concrete skeleton structures will remain the dominantassembly method for a long while.

  5. Jerry Alcone

    Looks like, based on lack of rebar in pictures of the rubble, that corruption, or very poor building standards for concrete structures was responsible for the disaster.

  6. Roger

    Maybe you could compare to earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. The earthquake was massive but luckily no one got hurt.

  7. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions here.

    I’m wondering if you’re able to distinguish between the effect of poverty and associated lack of education on buildings, as opposed to the effect of corruption.

    Also, to what extent was corruption responsible for the damage in Haiti? And do you think Haiti is rebuilding with future earthquakes in mind?


    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Roger Bilham

      Before the January 2010 earthquake local people in Haiti suffered from three problems: an absence of information about Haiti’s history of catastrophic earthquakes, an absence of education about earthquake resistant construction, and an absence of money to use such information to build appropriate structures.
      Armed with insight or solutions to just one of these pre-earthquake syndromes in the decades preceding the earthquake, the building quality of dwellings in Port au Prince and surrounding villages would have been far superior.
      Corruption kicks in when a government imposes regulations. Although
      corruption in Haiti in rampant, the absence of building regulations means that deaths from corruption should be considered a minor contribution.

  8. Roger,

    How does the prevalence of earthquakes lead to poverty and the rise of corruption in the first place? Regular earthquakes must impose a large social cost, as do other natural disasters. Some countries are less disaster prone, so are these the ones that tend to be wealthier, or does culture play a stronger part?


    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Roger Bilham

      Poverty, ignorance and corruption have no effect on earthquakes.

      Earthquakes tend to be more damaging when these three societal ills are present.

      In wealthy countries, earthquake damage is costly but tends to stimulate the local economy by the influx of national repair funds.

      In impoverished countries, the repair costs are usually quite small. Haiti is an exception because of the destruction of the capital city.

  9. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Roger Bilham

    I’m now leaving this conversation. Thank you all for your questions!
    Prof. Ambraseys and I have highlighted a problem that many engineers have known for years. We recognize that the problem is endemic, and that deaths from earthquakes are also linked to poverty and ignorance. Perhaps a less ignorant society is also one that is likely to be less corrupt.
    But there is no doubt that corruption exists in many countries, and will be responsible for a large number of future deaths in earthquakes.
    Senior economist to the World Bank, Charles Kenny, ( has published an authoritative account of corruption in the building industry -
    “Construction, Corruption, and Developing Countries, that emphasizes the depth and breadth of the problem and offers global solutions.(World Bank Poli

  10. Dr ved parkash Sheoran

    Does Corruption Make Earthquakes Deadlier?

    Yes of course. Loss will be more in the countries where system is more corrupt. It will be verified in Delhi if earthquake strike Delhi. Kalmadi, Raja, Pawar, Amar Singh etc……….all live here.

  11. Perhaps after the earthquake, but not always during. Look at Japan recently. They got wiped out from the earthquake and subsequent damage caused by the tsunami. They had good structure in place but sometimes nature is going to do what it is going to do. At least though with their government they stand a better chance of rebuilding without as much corruption as other places might have to deal with – like Haiti

  12. This is a very interesting concept! I’m currently enrolled in a physical geology class at my local college and I’m going to definitely pick my professors brain on this topic and see what he thinks.

    @ Jason – I completely agree!

  13. Very interesting theory indeed. But there are other factors that are much more relevant to earthquakes. You have to admit that some of the most developed countries at present are situated in areas with high earthquake activity, and it has been like this before this countries had even existed.


  14. @ Jason, your take on Roger’s article is interesting and thought provoking, you’re right, you can’t help nature and when deadly tsunamis and earthquakes occur death and destruction is going to occur however corrupt a nation is…but in less impoverished and less corrupt nations there is a stronger chance of rebuilding the economy and buildings and infrastructure to a more stable state.

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