Expert: With more earthquakes in Haiti likely, more research, knowledge sharing needed


Experts say that the majority of fatalities in the 2010 earthquake were due to collapsed buildings.
 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert.

Since a 7.2 magnitude earthquake shook southwest Haiti on Aug. 14, people the world over have witnessed the rubble of decimated buildings and survivors seeking shelter under tarpaulins. For a seismology expert, the jarring event is an opportunity for more research to take place and for other countries prone to natural disasters to share mitigation strategies with Haiti. 

“Scientists need to monitor seismicity and crustal activities along this fault zone as a case study,” said Yoshihiro Ito, a professor of earthquake seismology at Kyoto University’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute, which monitors natural disasters throughout the world. 

“We need to share some knowledge and technologies of risk management and assessment for these disasters between Japan and Haiti,” Ito said. “Accumulation of this knowledge could be helpful to forecast and predict future earthquakes.”

Future earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 7.0 will likely occur at both ends of the last two earthquakes in the western peninsula, and also just below or eastward from Port-au-Prince, Ito said. His warning is the latest in a long list that seismologists have issued about Haiti over the years, given the country’s place on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone and propensity to be battered by tropical storms, hurricanes, floods, deforestation, soil erosion, landslides and drought. 

Haiti is ranked fifth out of 96 countries likely to see higher death tolls from natural hazards, according to a study by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Fifty-six percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product and 48 percent of the population is at risk each time a natural disaster occurs.

The Haitian National System for Risk and Disaster Management, known by its French acronym SNGRD, entrusts the Civil Protection Department, or DPC, with the task of responding to natural disasters at the national, provincial, and communal levels. 

Ever since a devastating 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit Hispaniola — the island that the Dominican Republic and Haiti share — in 1946, the Haitian government urged people to construct buildings out of wood and stone rubble work.

In a report by three academics for the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs Works looking at Haiti’s emergency response system to natural disasters, researchers who traveled to Haiti found there is a lack of stable structures built to withstand strong earthquakes. The researchers noticed buildings “on slopes without strong foundations and insufficient steel, homes in rural areas built with sand, clay and water mixed with sticks and straw.” They concluded people could not build homes out of wood because they could not afford the high cost.

“Haiti neither has adequate building codes, nor are engineers, contractors, and architects required to have licenses,” wrote the three authors. “Most deaths from the 2010 earthquake resulted from collapsed buildings.”

What other countries have done

Ensuring buildings are stable and able to withstand disasters is a key strategy adopted by countries around the world plagued by similar events.

Japan, similar to Haiti, experiences frequent earthquakes along its numerous fault lines as well as tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and mudslides. After a 1923 earthquake killed 143,000 people, the government began implementing measures that “dramatically reduced the number of people who die or become missing as a result of natural disasters,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Each year, the Japanese government allocates an average of $5 billion to constructing buildings that can withstand natural disasters. The money also pays for research in disaster prevention, recovery operations and effective communication between the response agencies. 

If a building is found in “substantial violation of seismic standards,” it is demolished and the owner may face three years of prison time and a fine, according to an academic study of building code implementation in Japan.  

Another country comparable to Haiti is Nicaragua for their similar GDP. Nicaragua’s is $12.15 billion and Haiti’s $14.29 billion. Nicaragua is viewed as having a well-funded, successful disaster risk management plan, according to the GFDRR. Both Nicaragua and Haiti have major urban centers in earthquake-prone zones, situated as they are on major fault lines, with the Caribbean Plate and the Coastal Plate running through Nicaragua. Like Haiti, Nicaragua is also prone to drought, flooding, tsunamis and hurricanes. 

After a magnitude 7.7 earthquake in the 1990s, Nicaragua created the National System for Disaster Management and Prevention. The system developed risk maps for 30 municipalities, products for land use planning to limit population vulnerability and risk management knowledge in national school curricula. It also coordinates cooperation between national, departmental and municipal governments.

The risk maps have been instrumental in mitigating greater damage from future disasters, according to a Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation study. When new infrastructure is built, hazard maps and a risk analysis are factored in, helping to reduce the buildup of new risks. 

The GFDRR report proposes solutions in Haiti similar to those adopted by Nicaragua, such as implementing mitigation strategies in urban centers. This entails creating land use and zoning ordinances that reduce vulnerable regions, identifying hazardous areas and relocating residents to locations less prone to disaster.

This story was originally published in The Haitian Times.