Alex Steer

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Predicting earthquakes the easy way: the what, not the when

508 words

Natural disasters are among the most unpredictable drivers of the future. If you're Arnold Schwarzenegger (you never know), governing a state whose economic powerhouses sit along and around the San Andreas fault, you can make as much economic policy as you want, and it won't matter much if an earthquake or an eruption knocks San Francisco off the map and Los Angeles into the sea. There is a science to measuring and predicting this sort of thing, but it's not good enough yet to provide reliable early warnings. For now, natural disasters can still take us by surprise.

The reason we try to predict natural disasters is because the future we're interested in is the human one, not the geological one. While oceanographers and vulcanologists were fascinated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, most of us cared about it because of the destruction and the loss of human life it wrought. We still call these phenomena acts of God, because that's how they feel: immense, violent, utterly unpredictable.

But that's fundamentally not true, and we're being dishonest as a global society if we claim radical unpredictability. While it's true that we don't know when or (to some extent) where natural disasters will occur, we know what happens when they do, and we know why.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has just published its first Global Assessment Report, Risk and poverty in an international climate. The contents are neatly and powerfully summarised by Tim Radford in the Guardian. The message, based on 32 years' worth of disaster statistics, tells a simple, compelling story about disasters past and present.

The story is that poverty and corruption kill people in natural disaster scenarios. Poor housing, poor infrastructure, poor healthcare, poor governance, poor resourcing, poor urban planning: these are the determiners of life or death for many who are caught in the middle when the earth starts shaking or the water starts pouring in.

These things are not unpredictable, and they are not unpreventable. Those in power cannot know if, when or where a natural disaster will strike, but they can know what impact it will have if it does. A government that does not try to protect against the excess harms caused by poverty and corruption is a government that has given over its people as hostages to the future. It is a bad government.

Whether we're talking about earthquakes, crime rates, epidemics or MPs' expenses (just to be topical), civil society's job is to make sure that the spectre of the unpredictable is never used as an excuse.

# Alex Steer (22/05/2009)