Earthquakes Are Inevitable. Disasters Don't Have to Be.

04/22/2013 01:37 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Earthquakes don't kill people. Poorly constructed buildings do.
Earthquakes are deadly. Every year thousands of people in developing countries are killed or injured due to housing collapses caused by earthquakes, and thousands more are left homeless. The potential for disaster only increases as rapid urban development takes place and more houses are built on steep, unstable land using unsafe building practices and poor-quality materials. The tragic earthquake in Haiti only reminds us how vulnerable these communities are to disaster.

Earthquakes also disproportionately affect the poor, who have the least resources available to cope with disasters. For poor individuals, losing a house reduces security and the ability to earn a living; the trauma of losing a child or parent to a preventable building collapse is unimaginable. For governments, large-scale disasters mean arrested or negative development as scarce human and economic resources are diverted to clean up, rebuilding and caring for the displaced and wounded.

Earthquake disasters are a man-made problem, caused by poverty, lack of building standards and enforcement, and lack of access to affordable materials, skills and tools to build safely. As evidenced by the greatly reduced severity of damage in Chile after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in 2010, the massive loss of life and destruction are absolutely preventable. It just takes the right training, approach, incentives and small changes in construction practices to save lives.

There is a sustainable solution to the man-made problem.
In 2002, I went to Gujarat, India, on a Fulbright fellowship to study and assist with post-disaster reconstruction efforts after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people. After observing these efforts, I learned an important lesson: Housing construction is development. And like any development challenge it comes down to technology, money and people: Earthquake-resistant construction in developing countries will become common only if the right technology is locally available, widely known and culturally accepted. In addition, the cost of the technology must be competitive with existing, but not necessarily safe, building methods.

After putting this theory of change to the test in Indonesia, Haiti and China, I have observed - along with many large humanitarian organizations - that homeowner-driven, post-disaster housing reconstruction not only builds local capacity, creates jobs, stimulates the local economy and builds resiliency, but it also creates an ecosystem in which disaster-resistant construction becomes the norm. In fact, this approach is gaining in popularity around the world. In India and China, it is the preferred method. In Indonesia, it is now the preferred method after the hard lessons learned from post-tsunami Aceh. In Haiti, large aid agencies have been switching from more costly, donor-driven approaches for post-disaster housing reconstruction to less costly and more environmentally friendly homeowner-driven approaches, with a lower cost per impact and long-term, sustainable outcomes.

Earthquakes don't have to be disastrous. Communities can build resiliency and reduce risks.
According to the UNDP, for every dollar spent on disaster preparedness, $7 are saved in disaster response. The return on investment is exceptional - not to mention the thousands of lives saved.

The same sustainable, homeowner-driven approach to housing reconstruction after an earthquake can be applied in a pre-disaster setting to reduce the risk for disaster. The same principles apply - determine no- or low-costs improvements to construction methods; build local capacity; work with governments to develop and enforce simple yet safe building codes; and involve the homeowner.

A key step in the process in a pre-disaster setting is facilitating access to capital that is contingent upon meeting minimum standards for construction quality. By working with financial institutions to bundle housing financing with technical assistance, homeowners who may not normally qualify for home loans can make life-saving improvements to their houses before an earthquake strikes.

This approach is being implemented in Haiti now that funding for permanent housing reconstruction and improvements has slowed. In partnership with Sogesol, the Haitian microlending subsidiary of Sogebank, Build Change is implementing a housing finance and technical assistance project to rebuild and upgrade homes in the earthquake-affected area of greater Port-au-Prince. Early indicators suggest there is a growing market for housing financing with technical assistance. Testing incentives for compliance (such as lower interest rates) and phased loan products and layaways of building materials to reach the widest range of income levels are underway.

While financial products may vary based on local needs, the benefits to implementing a homeowner-driven model in a pre-disaster setting are many including:

• Increased resiliency and reduced risk for future disasters, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars in disaster response
• Improved housing safety in the informal sector
• Improved access in the informal sector to financial instruments and incentives to support safe-building improvements in construction practices
• Increased number of construction professionals in Latin America and other vulnerable regions in the world who have the skills to retrofit and build earthquake-safe houses
• Increased jobs and incomes
• Models for building standards enforcement

While there are always challenges to development, we know there is a sustainable solution to earthquake disasters. Now is the time for governments, public and private entities, financial institutions, NGOs and communities to work together to create change in construction practice and build resilient communities before the next earthquake strikes.