Earthquakes are caused by the sudden release of energy stored on fractures in the Earth’s crust called faults. Every year they are responsible for thousands of fatalities around the world.
For this post I’d like to focus on the role of corruption in the building industry and its impact on lives lost in earthquakes. The global construction industry was worth $8.7 trillion in 2012 and is recognised as being the most corrupt segment of the global economy.
Corruption in this industry takes the form of using inadequate and/or insufficient building materials, bribes to inspectors and civil authorities, substandard assembly methods and the inappropriate siting of buildings. Spontaneous building collapses even without earthquakes, such as the 2013 Savar factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1129 people, are a stark reminder of the consequences of construction oversight and a terrifying view into what could happen if there is an earthquake in these regions.
The 1999 Izmit earthquake (magnitude 7.4) in Turkey resulted in around 18,00 deaths. After the earthquake, inspectors found that nearly half of all the structures within the damage zone had failed to comply with building regulations.
Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham calculated that almost 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes in the last 3 decades occurred in countries that are poor and anomalously corrupt.
Corruption by itself is dangerous but when combined with poverty, it is disastrous. Corruption, poverty and ignorance essentially become indistinguishable for many low income countries. And even if corrupt practices are eliminated these countries will have inherited a building stock that is of poor quality and prone to failure in the next earthquake.
However, it’s not all bad news. There are some great examples of how reconstruction can happen under correct management and regulations to improve resilience to earthquakes and other natural hazards. For example, in 2012 the Turkish government passed the Law on the Regeneration of Areas Under Disaster Risk. Under these new guidelines all buildings that are not up to current earthquake risk standards will be demolished and rebuilt.
The reconstruction of the Macedonian capital of Skopje after it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 is another great example. Not only was all the infrastructure rebuilt to be earthquake-resistant, the city planners also ensured that the river Vardar was re-routed in order to control future flooding.
Achievements on this scale requires strong governance and management, and transparent national and local administration. With the rapid growth of cities into so-called megacities (>10 million population), often in high earthquake risk regions, this is even more important. We have yet to have an earthquake that has killed a million people. But at the rate these cities are growing under limited to no management, such an event might not be too far in the future.
 Global Corruption Report 2005: Corruption in construction and post-conflict reconstruction, Transparency International
 Global Construction 2020: A Global Forecast for the construction industry over the next decade to 2020. (2010)
 Global Construction 2025: A Global Forecast for the construction industry to 2025. (2013)
 Ambraseys, N. & Bilham, R., 2011
 Vladimir B. Ladinski 2010