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Tom Loughlin

Tom Loughlin

Posted: July 12, 2010 01:35 PM

Haiti's Lesson: The Need for Sustainable Answers

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Today marks six months since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. With horrific images of destruction and human suffering still haunting us, we must reflect on this tragedy's enduring lessons -- in particular, by focusing on what we can do now to minimize the deadly potential of such events in regions of the world that, because of enduring economic disadvantage, bear an unacceptably disproportionate share of the pain brought about when catastrophe strikes.

The earthquakes in Haiti on January 12, in Chile on February 27, and along the Pacific Coast of U.S. and Mexico on Easter Sunday, reminded us yet again of our vulnerabilities to nature's forces. Natural catastrophes are unavoidable, but lessening their impact remains within our control. It is a responsibility that we, as citizens of the world, cannot ignore.

Consider that the Haiti event's human toll exceeds 200,000. Yet, the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that wracked Chile killed fewer than 500, the "World Series" earthquake of similar 7.0-magnitude that hit San Francisco in 1989 killed fewer than 70 -- and the recent West Coast quakes killed just four.

Nature's wrath did not discriminate between Port-au-Prince, Santiago, San Francisco or Baja California. In reality, the factors that spell the difference between life and death are rooted locally. They include geography and topography, but especially the robustness and integrity of infrastructure -- which, in Haiti's case, has been tragically neglected as a result of that nation's abject poverty.

A disturbingly prescient study by the Organization of American States concluded in December last year that many shoddily constructed buildings in Haiti were unlikely to survive any disaster -- much less an event like the January 12 quake. As reported by CNN.com, structures were built on slopes without proper foundations, using improper building practices, insufficient steel and poor attention to development control. Cletus Springer, OAS' director of the Department of Sustainable Development, concluded that much of the inferior work could be traced to Haiti's grinding and pervasive poverty -- compelling its citizens to simply build "where they want, how they can."

The strength of local building and engineering codes -- indeed, whether or not they exist in the first place -- is far more a predictor of a catastrophe's devastation than is the Richter Scale.
In the U.S., we are confident that toilets will flush, electric power will flow, tap water is safe and buildings will remain standing. Reliability and public safety are assured through robust codes and standards developed in a mature, open, consensual process that is supported by industry, and validated, monitored and enforced by local regulation.

But merely transferring our standards to the developing world won't work. Engineering and construction that helps avoid or mitigate the effects of natural disaster must reflect internationally accepted principles but must also incorporate locally workable standards and practices, developed in concert with local governments, non-governmental organizations, and those directly impacted.

Development of locally-informed and "implementable" standards would do far more than help reduce the toll of local tragedies. Such an effort would also address the urgent goal of improving fundamental quality of life at the "base of the pyramid" - the 4 billion people globally who currently live on less than $4 a day - by helping ensure clean and reliable drinking water; efficient power generation; effective waste treatment, and a more livable and durable infrastructure.

In the developing world, standards must reflect deep understanding of local economic realities, locally available resources, and recognition that only those standards that can be locally executed will be sustained to the benefit of those most directly affected.

As one example, Marcial Blondet and Gladys Villa Garcia M. of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru and Svetlana Brzev of the British Columbia Institute of Technology have developed creative approaches for making adobe buildings earthquake-resistant with locally available materials and techniques - an exercise that would significantly safeguard building design for the many millions of the world's population living in earth-made construction.

Sustainability is an urgent principle not only for disaster preparedness, but also for disaster response. Consider 1298, Mumbai's first private ambulance service. 1298 uses Google Earth technology and GPS units to efficiently and quickly respond to those with urgent medical needs in one of the world's most congested cities. Backed by readily available technology that's unlikely to fail even in extreme disaster situations, 1298's ambulances were well positioned as first responders to that city's traumatic terrorist bombings in July 2006.

Sustainable solutions for natural -- or man-made -- disasters can never eliminate future potential death tolls. But they can help lower them -- while simultaneously driving lasting improvements in security and safety for billions of people the world over.

So, as we mark the six-month anniversary of this disaster, will we merely think back in horror as we recall the utter devastation of Haiti's infrastructure and the ensuing agony of her people - or will we mark the occasion by rededicating ourselves to supporting and implementing standards that safeguard health and life in the world's neediest places?
What will be our choice?

Thomas G. Loughlin is the executive director of the ASME, a not-for-profit professional organization that enables collaboration, knowledge sharing and skill development across all engineering disciplines, while promoting the vital role of the engineer in society.