Countries that face corruption problems and have a history of severe earthquakes should take steps to regulate their construction industries to prevent unnecessary deaths in such disasters, argue Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham.
Over the past three decades, 83 per cent of all earthquake fatalities have occurred in poor countries that are more corrupt than is expected considering their level of income per capita, they say.
By teasing apart the effects of poverty and corruption, which often go hand in hand, their analysis shows that dishonest practices in the construction industry — regarded as the most corrupt sector globally — undermine efforts to limit the death toll in major earthquakes.
Corrupt builders may give bribes that interfere with inspection and licensing, or substitute expensive but essential parts with low-quality materials that damage the structural integrity of a building.
About a year ago, Haiti was hit by an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. A few months later, a quake of the same magnitude in New Zealand's South Island resulted in no fatalities. Ambraseys and Bilham say that careless construction and poorly enforced building codes, not geography, are to blame for turning a moderate earthquake into a major disaster.
Although buildings have become more quake-resistant over the past century, the benefits are uneven because many countries do not require the use of resistant construction designs.
But setting aside aid money to boost resistance will do little good where corruption is rife. The responsibility falls on national authorities to ensure that buildings are inspected properly, the authors say.
Nature doi: 10.1038/469153a (2011)