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Mitigation and education — not early warning systems — are the keys to making earthquakes less lethal in rapidly urbanising developing countries, say experts.

The comments were made yesterday (12 September) at the Geological Society of London's conference in London, United Kingdom.

James Jackson, professor of active tectonics at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, said that many communities, particularly in Arab and Asian countries, have long existed in areas with good water supplies, strategic defence positions or trade routes. But he added that such features are often the result of geological phenomena such as earthquakes.

Many communities in the arid Middle East, including those that established Tehran, the capital of Iran, tapped into fresh water behind ridges created by fault lines, where their populations are vulnerable to earthquakes.

Jackson said improvements in earthquake-proof building methods had not generally accompanied the growth of these communities into towns and cities.

Earthquakes that kill over 10,000 people have become more common as cities have developed, he said, warning that an earthquake that kills over a million people in the developing world was likely "in the next decade or two".  

But early warning systems for earthquakes are not the way to save lives in developing countries, said Brian Tucker, president of Geohazards International, a nongovernmental organisation for global earthquake safety.

Buildings in developed nations are now vastly better able to withstand earthquakes, but buildings in the developing world are actually getting worse, he said, adding "Many are high-rise buildings, made of unreinforced masonry".

Tucker called for a global standard for constructing new buildings and reinforcing existing ones in earthquake-prone areas.

Politicians, in both developed and developing countries, should be "shamed" into making earthquake safety a priority, rather than only putting money into disaster response, he added.

Jackson highlighted the need to educate people in less developed areas about what to do during an offshore earthquake. He cited the island of Simeulue, off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, which suffered relatively little loss of life in recent earthquakes because inhabitants recognise the warning signs of tsunamis, such as receding waters.

The advice came as Indonesia experienced three earthquakes of 8.4, 7.8 and 6.4 on the Richter scale this week. At least 13 people are known to have died, according to the BBC.