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Earthquakes Don’t Kill People, Poverty Does

January 25, 2010

UN relief teams distribute food at Port-au-Prince | Getty Images via CNN

The vast amount of money that pours in from developed countries to poor communities in the event of a disaster seems like a clear sign of the economy’s self-regulating mechanism when it can no longer be forced to stand on its head. The unequal distribution of wealth finds its consequences in situations like Haiti (to name the latest), where poverty (and whatever its disputed causes), is the main cause of disaster and obliges, in all fairness, wealtheir nations to compensate for their lack of resources and inability to respond.

AFP/Getty Images via CNN

According to the US Geological Survey, the loss of life from earthquakes is typically 10 times higher in developing countries than the West and the damage can be up to 100 times worse. Whatever the natural disaster, it is the buildings that fail to protect, or in effect, injure or kill people.

Damage in Haiti, via Huffington Post

AFP/Getty Images via CNN

Unsafe building practices, lax building codes, low-grade materials, inadequate design; these are all results of poverty, whether they result from a lack of access to proper education, corrupt or inefficient government, or simply the struggle to survive on a daily basis. The concrete Haitians buy from the US isn’t cheap. Can we blame them for adding more sand or water to the mix to get more for their money, when its a matter of putting food on the table?

Satellite image depicting the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right), 2002.

Where building with timber would offer many advantages over concrete in withstanding earthquakes, the country’s notorious deforestation problem makes that completely inviable. Again, a matter of survival. As their sole source of fuel, Haiti’s once lush forests have been leveled over the past 200 years, using wood to make charcoal for cooking, and feeding 6 million people. Of course when it comes to placing the blame, you can’t just point one finger, it’s more like a thousand fingers, and some of them will somehow end up pointing back at us.

World Poverty Map via

I’m no economy expert, but I think it is safe to say that the system that has royally failed right before our eyes is not one that breeds equity. As the making of history, globalization and unchecked free-market systems go, the issues are complex and deeply interconnected. So yes, while bad buildings kill people, not earthquakes, it is the perpetuation of poverty that continues to hamper poor nations’ ability to progress and develop the sustainable practices that will save lives when disaster hits.

Watch this New York Times report on the pre-existing conditions of Haiti:

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