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Loris De Nardi
researcher Marie Curie in the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), University of Navarra
The 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes that recently shook southeastern Turkey and northern Syria remind us that we are not the masters of nature. The more than 24,000 deaths show that our development cannot happen with our backs to the natural environment. Likewise, the more than 3,500 buildings that collapsed like houses of cards make it clear that the catastrophe should not be attributed to telluric forces. In other words, this earthquake offers a further test that natural disasters do not exist: catastrophes related to natural hazards are always result of human actions and decisions.
Today it is not possible to predict earthquakes accurately, but we do know that, sooner or later,the earth will shake again where it has already shaken once. Therefore, earthquake-related disasters should be considered a historical and political product, since they are the result of an eminently social process, i.e., driven and shaped by the society that suffers them.
The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have resulted in such a high number of casualties because the vast majority of buildings in those areas did not comply with the rules and regulations seismic-resistant issue . After the 1999 earthquake, which killed 17,000 people, the Turkish government recognized the urgency of reducing the seismic risk in the country. To comply with this goal it introduced new construction standards the following year, as well as much stricter controls on the design of new buildings. However, the State put scarce resources on the table to comply with this goal and assigned a scarce issue of officials to inspect new constructions. Many of them were erected without going through the certification process and this allowed several unscrupulous companies to build without respecting the new architectural rules and regulations .
Investing in prevention
Although it is known that it is more profitable to invest in prevention than in intervention, many governments, including the Turkish government, see no political benefit in spending money on very costly, but at the same time almost invisible, policies. On the other hand, highly destructive earthquakes usually occur between long time lapses, which prevents both the population and the authorities from internalizing an adequate perception of risk. Our collective historical report is very fragile, which together with the leave temporal frequency of large earthquakes, reduces public awareness of risk.
This generates a greater tendency for the population not to strictly respect the anti-seismic rules and regulations and for the authorities to act more laxly when it comes to enforcing compliance with the rules and regulations. It should be borne in mind that just as disasters are not natural, neither are risks. Each society builds its own risks and this explains, in the case of Turkey, the large issue of collapsed buildings in the region affected by the earthquake.
The case of Chile
Some nations have learned their lesson well. Authorities in countries such as Chile or Japan, which usually experience a major earthquake every ten years or so, have imposed very high earthquake-resistant construction standards and, above all, have managed to ensure that these standards are respected by the population. Earthquakes in these countries are so frequent that they have become an integral part of their cultures.
For example, in Chile the population is so accustomed to telluric movements that they have two different terms to classify them: earthquakes are those that reach up to a magnitude of 7.9 and those that exceed this figure are called earthquakes. All Chileans are aware that in their lifetime they will experience the cathartic experience of an 8 or 9 earthquake and every year somewhere in the country there is at least one earthquake of intensity 6 or higher. This means that Chileans have a very clear perception of seismic risk, and precisely because of this, they demand that the authorities ensure compliance with the strict rules and regulations that exists in this subject.
The close relationship between report, risk perception and construction allows us to be better prepared to face adversities related to natural hazards and prevent them from turning into a tragedy.