When responding to earthquakes, which is most important: economic development or a country’s level of earthquake experience?

When an earthquake that has a magnitude high enough to cause significant damage and disruption, the level of the effected country’s economic development often determines how well they respond to the disaster. Countries that are well-developed have more resources available to them to help them deal with the earthquake. they are less likely to have to rely on foreign aid, are more likely to have the emergency services available and the equipment needed to search for people underneath fallen buildings. They are also most likely to have the capability to respond in the long-term by constructing earthquake-proof buildings. However, money is not the only factor that can determine why some countries are better at responding to earthquakes than others; the level of experience a country has of major earthquakes is a big factor too. more experienced countries are most likely to have an emergency response system in place to deal with an earthquake quickly and the people will know what to do in an earthquake. also money that is available will be spent in the correct ways to reduce the risks of the earthquake.

The seismometer readings for the Kobe earthquake in Japan, 1995. Photo credit: trionfopublishing.com

The economic development of a country is often the main reason why some countries have better responses to earthquakes than others. This is illustrated by the Kobe earthquake that occurred on the 17th January 1995 and measured 7.4 of the Richter scale. The earthquake did cause significant damage to people and property. 6,300 people were killed, thousands of buildings destroyed and thousands of people made homeless. However, in comparison with the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan which had a similar magnitude of 7.6, the damage that occurred in Japan was not as extreme as that of Kashmir. In Kashmir, the earthquake that stuck on the 8th October 2005, killed 79,000 people, caused major landslides that killed further people and cut off main roads, water contamination when sewerage pipes broke resulting in more dying from water-borne diseases and many buildings collapsing resulting in a loss of shelter from the harsh winter leading to further deaths. This earthquake was of a similar magnitude to that in Japan so the strength of the earthquake was not the cause of the significantly higher levels of damage. Pakistan is a poor country with a HDI value of around 0.485 and so struggles to respond to big disasters like these effectively. A lot of the responses came from foreign aid and although many buildings were eventually rebuilt, these were rebuilt in the same way as they were prior to the earthquake and were not earthquake-proof which does not prevent the disaster from happening again. whilst the technology is available for this, the funds are not. The poor quality sewage systems also meant more died when they weakened and burst contaminating water and killing people through water-borne diseases such as cholera. many also died through exposure to the winter weather as there was insufficient temporary shelter as so many buildings were destroyed. Therefore the level of economic development can have a large impact on the extent to which a country can respond to an earthquake when it occurs.

However, the level of economic development is not always the most significant reason for why some countries react better than others as the level of experience that a country has with major earthquakes can lead to them coping better with these types of natural hazards. There are cases of countries which are not the most economically developed coping extremely well with a major earthquake as they have learnt from past experiences how to deal with them.  Chile is a good example of this: it is located along a major destructive plate boundary and so experiences earthquakes frequently. As a result of several devastating earthquakes that struck the country in the past, Chile has adapted to earthquakes and even though it is still classed as a NIC it has developed strategies to respond to and cope with earthquakes such as more earthquake-proof buildings, stricter building regulations and a good emergency procedure all of which were tested earlier this year in April when an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 struck just of the coast of Chile, this was followed by several very large aftershocks that lasted for days, the highest being 7.6. This should have been a major disaster and it would have been thought that thousands would have died as a result of that earthquake. However, only 6 people died and although there was damage to many buildings, it was not as bad as expected. This suggests that Chile’s experience of earthquakes was the most important factor at reducing the level of damage and responding to an earthquake effectively.

The epicentre for the magnitude 4.1 earthquake in the Bristol channel, UK. The UK rarely experiences earthquakes bigger than this. Photo credit: itv.com

Therefore in some cases experience of earthquakes and having plans and procedures in place as a result of this can often be more crucial at reducing damage and deaths resulting from earthquakes, rather than just the money a country has available to deal with these disasters. It is interesting to think about how well the UK would respond if a big earthquake struck the country. This is extremely unlikely of course as the UK sits near no major active fault lines, but if we imagine it did happen how well would a very economically developed country respond? The UK would have more money for disasters than countries such as Pakistan and Chile although the UK experiences very few earthquakes and those we do get tend to be of a low magnitude. Therefore the UK is extremely inexperienced with earthquakes so it could be that if a major earthquake did strike we would not know how to be prepared or how to react effectively, unlike poorer countries around that world that experience them more frequently, despite having the money available. We can look at how the UK responds to earthquakes such as the small earthquake that occurred in the Bristol channel in February, although no damage occurred the fact that it was all over the news and was discussed in high frequencies across social media, suggests that it is something that shocks the UK- it’s something we are not at all used to. Therefore I think that although economic development is important in determining how well a country can respond, the level of experience a country has with earthquakes is more important as it determines how people react and how that money is spent.



  • information on the Kobe (Japan) and Kashmir (Pakistan) earthquakes sourced from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/natural_hazards/earthquakes_rev5.shtml
  • information on the HDI of Pakistan for 2005 sourced from: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/Country-Profiles/PAK.pdf (page 2)
  • information on the Chile earthquake of April 2014 sourced from: https://getrevising.co.uk/resources/earthquake_case_study_chile_2014

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