Earthquakes are perhaps one of natures most breathtaking, yet deadly and destructive wonders that remain untamed by modern day man and his ever advancing technological and scientific evolution. Deaths, fires and economic ruin are all associated with this massive battle with nature.
German meteorologist Alfred Wegener discovered in 1912 the earth’s continents in fact fit together like pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle, and 200 million years ago there would have existed a single land mass, much different to the familiar face of the earth today (diagram 1) . Significant scientific and geological research and developments made since have not only confirmed this, but led to the conclusion that our earth is not as stagnant as once assumed. In fact, on the contrary, it is dynamic and always changing and over millions of years the once united landscape has fragmented and moved apart to create the world as it is now commonly known. The explanation for these amazing shifts of enormous continental land masses lies right at the heart of the earth, hundreds of miles below the surface at the core.
The earth is composed ultimately of three layers; from the outer crust of surface as it is commonly known, the mantle below the surface right through to the hot molten centre, known as the core, where rocks burn at temperatures upwards of 7000 ï¿½C (diagram 2) . The crust is a thin hard layer of rock, which is split into 15 parts known as crustal plates and these float around on the mantle (diagram 3). The mantle is a hotter, denser and ultimately softer layer than the surface and this allows the crustal plates some movement. The core however is the catalyst for these movements and all there resultant problems. Located right at the centre of the earth this vast mass of churning, burning molten rock is always moving and sending currents of burning rock into the mantle region which upon collision with the bottom surface of the earth’s crust and plates wreaks havoc with the planets habitat .
The results are earthquakes; violent shaking of the ground that allows a release of pressure at these plate boundaries where the stress has built up due to currents beneath the crust. Movement of the plates takes place in one of three ways: spreading where two plates are moving away from each other such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, transform faults where the two plates scrape against each other whilst moving laterally in opposite directions and finally subduction zones where two plates move together with one eventually subsiding underneath the other and being forced into the mantle where it melts.
Many earthquakes occur daily worldwide, even here in Scotland, they are so small however they pass unnoticed. These tremors are the result of developing fault lines which are much smaller fractures to the earths crust and in most cases such as the Great Highland Fault have no effect on everyday life and many exist worldwide. Fault lines do however have the potential for major damage as famously documented at the San Andreas Fault which is an earthquake hotspot, however this is a more complex fault with pressure being applied in three ways, making it a time bomb for disaster.
Generally the closer to a plate boundary the greater the risk and usually the most powerful earthquakes occur around these, causing total devastation to the surrounding areas. As most boundaries are undersea 90% of earthquakes happen on the ocean floor and have no effect on human life although tidal waves caused as a result have been known to affect Japan and they can also awaken sleeping volcanoes as its thought happened recently at Mount Etna.
In today’s world there exists a massive economic gulf between those countries in the developed and developing world. Developed countries such as the USA and Japan enjoy enormous masses of financial and technological wealth, whilst those in Bangladesh and India suffer from disease, famine, starvation and extreme poverty. The effects of an earthquake, although universal in terms of devastation and loss of lives, have contrasting consequences in both halves of the world’s great financial divide.
On the 26th January 2001 an earthquake of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale struck the Indian region of Gujaret. The effect was devastating. Not only were 7000 villages in the region affected but an estimated 15.9 million people out of a regional population of 37.8 million, a massive 42%, felt its affect. The official death toll was some 20,005 lives and over 160,000 people were injured either as a direct result of the earthquake or from collapsing buildings, fires and falling debris. The regions economy, as typical with natural disasters in the developing world, was also badly hit on a national and local scale.
People in these poorer areas are dependant on their weekly wage no matter how small and with factories tumbling and crumbling in seconds their livelihood has disappeared for the foreseeable future. 200,000 cattle perished, wreaking havoc with the local trade and as a result of poor government support. It took many months to rebuild the infrastructure and the economy. There is no better example of this than the Kandla port in Gujarat which took over eight months to repair, despite it being responsible for handling over one third of India’s imports. This delay in repairs has resulted in a loss of trading to other ports that were used in the aftermath of the earthquake and still continue to be used.
The high death toll in Gujarat has since been identified by the Government of India partly as a result of ‘sharp practices’ in the building trade, shortcuts taken, corners cut and ultimately lives lost. Many hapless others were simply crushed to death under their makeshift wooden or tin homes, unable to afford ‘proper’ accommodation and stood no chance against one of natures super powers. No water was available for weeks after and heating, lighting and medical help was also of scarce supply. Shockingly and most frustratingly, for the aid workers that had arrived, it wasn’t the lack of help that was the problem but in fact there was such an influx of volunteers that they had no direction, organisation nor a plan to adhere to; “The tragedy is not that there is no one to help, it is the opposite,” the Times of India reported. “Relief is coming in a tidal wave, rescue missions have arrived from across the globe but there is no direction to these efforts.”
Another report in the Guardian newspaper in Britain reported of another problem typical in countries with a distinct lack of government plans. Despite previous earthquakes no one in government had drafted any emergency plans and the people suffered as opportunist armed gangs were reported to be taking full advantage of the lawlessness of the area and were holding up victims who were homeless, vulnerable and traumatised, showing no remorse in a cut throat society were any small amount of money is snatched with both hands.
Yet just at the other side of the continent exists one of the world’s major business players, Japan, an economic super power. Accountable for fifteen percent of the worlds economy and equating a massive three quarters of the rest of Asia’s combined economy and a GDP of $6.7 trillion in 1999 (Britain’s has just surpassed $1 trillion).
Despite this no amount of wealth or technology could still prevent disaster when an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale bombarded the Japanese city of Kobe with massive earth tremors on the 17th January 1995. 4551 people lost their lives and a further 14,678 were injured. Structural damage as reported on by the EQE risk Management Company was 67,821 buildings totally destroyed and 55,000 were structurally damaged in some way. The report also noted that two motorway expressways collapsed onto the roads below, railway lines torn apart and most major communications destroyed or blocked which was a major hindrance to the emergency response. Similar to in India the water, gas and electricity was cut off but a clear government plan, with the financial advantage of having a strong economy to fund it had these essential commodities restored within a week or two. Homeless shelters were set up around the city and handled 236,889 people at their peak, giving refuge to those whose homes and belongings had been destroyed.
The economy however was not to escape unscathed either. The region shaken accounted for one fifth of Japans economy but as a result many companies and factories were damaged or collapsed and relocated elsewhere. The Nikkei index lost 5.6% of its value as a direct consequence and many trillion Yen was needed to repair the infrastructure. Estimates on how much the damage cost to repair ranged from $95 billion and $147 billion not including lost revenue. The Government response to the looming financial disaster was also swift; $10 billion immediately made available to repair rail, roads, water supplies and schools. Tax breaks for victims and relief grants as well as low cost loans could all be absorbed by the strong economy, although people were still left with a massive financial burden as a result of insurance companies capping insurance payouts at 30 to 50% of property value.
The stories told by both these earthquakes in two nations at the opposite ends of the world’s economic scale are truly reflective of the pattern of destruction and effects that are commonly associated in countries of similar economic standing across the globe. In the developing world earthquakes ultimately mean thousands of deaths; densely populated city areas, crammed full of impoverished people in unsuitable housing are killed by their homes collapsing on them, many others by the resultant fires that are fuelled by the wood that they used to call home. Little or no aid comes for days and many more starve, die of hypothermia or infections. The economic damage however to these countries is, although massive to the area affected, on a world scale is minimal. Estimates for Gujarat were 5$ billion.
The economically developed countries tell a contrasting story however. Deaths, although usually a few thousand, are almost always substantially lower than earthquakes of comparable size in the developing world (15000 less in the cases above). This balance however is redressed economically with the Japanese government’s estimates of around $100 billion in damages and losses as a direct result of the Kobe disaster. This is around five times more expensive than that of Gujarat, yet they were of similar size.
The difference in death tolls can perhaps be explained by the different responses of the governments in these two instances. The Japanese government set up shelters, provided aid and released emergency aid fund as they were prepared for such a disaster. India’s response was ineffective. Lack of cohesion, no immediate action and time wasted and lives lost as they pondered over what they should do. The World Bank issued them with emergency funding some two months after the disaster, by then people were sleeping without a roof for weeks, even months. This all despite two earthquakes of over 6.0 on the Richter scale in the previous four years, yet no plan was ever made in the event of a repeat.
Earthquakes are an inevitable part of life in some parts of the world and many countries, mainly in the developed world have put resources and finances towards strengthening buildings and creating action plans and this approach should be echoed across all earthquake prone areas no matter how small the threat, but as shown recently in Turkey the economically less well off nations face a struggle to find the money for such plans. Even the public vetoed an ‘earthquake tax’ which the Turkish government tried to impose, yet it is they who will complain that no help arrived if another strikes soon.
In general large earthquakes will always bring about a loss of life but many can be saved by a carefully thought through plan and so question facing governments and their electorate all over the world is how much do they value the human life?