Geology for Global Development

Some Comments on Recent Earthquakes in Iran

In this article, Joel Gill and Faith Taylor write about the importance of reducing individual and community vulnerability in Iran. This post is written in response to the recent earthquakes in April 2013, and an article posted in the Guardian in 2010. In addition to their GfGD responsibilities, Joel and Faith are undertaking PhD research at King’s College London – investigating specific aspects of natural hazards and their impacts on society, and leading a summer school on Natural Hazards and Society in July 2013.  

Topography of Iran (Source and Licensing: Wikipedia)

In the space of eight days, two lethal earthquakes have struck Iran. On the 9th April, a M6.4 earthquake struck 89 km south-east of Bandar Bushehr, with at least 37 fatalities and 850 casualties. Eight days later, on the 16th April, a M7.8 earthquake struck 83 km east of Khash (close to the border with Pakistan), with the number of fatalities and casualties in Iran currently unclear. The latter of these earthquakes was felt across the Middle East, and had a significant impact on neighbouring Pakistan, with at least 35 fatalities and 150 casualties.

These two earthquakes are a tragedy for all those living in the region, but they are not surprising. Iran is a seismically active area, with a long history of earthquakes across the country. Perhaps the most memorable of the 21st Century was the 26th December 2003 M6.6 earthquake in Bam. This devastating event, striking a densely populated area of poor construction at 5.30am local time, killed from 26000­ to 40000 people (Berberian, 2005). In 1990, a M7.3 earthquake killed at least 40000 people, in 1978 a M7.4 earthquake killed approximately 20000 people, and in 1962 a M7.0 earthquake killed more than 12000 (Berberian, 2005).

Disasters such as those outlined above are a result of the interaction between the dynamic nature of the Earth, and vulnerability of individuals, communities and society. Vulnerability has been defined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) as being “the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard”.  You may have heard the phrase before that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.’ Poorly constructed buildings clearly do kill people, inadequate materials and design, corruption, and poor town planning can have serious, often lethal, consequences. But there is more to individual and community vulnerability than just building quality. Vulnerability can be increased by many aspects often linked with severe poverty, including poor access to education and poor education itself, gender inequality, weak governance, or racial discrimination.

The recent earthquakes in Iran, and those over the past decades, are a result of this interaction between a dynamic Earth and the vulnerability of individuals and communities. They are categorically not a result of women ‘wearing revealing clothes or behaving promiscuously’ as suggested by a senior Iranian cleric in 2010. It was with great sadness and anger that we read this article in the Guardian recently (published 2010). It has been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and this is a tragic example of those with power and influence behaving not just in an irresponsible manner, but also a dangerous one. In the same Guardian article, an Iranian Government Minister was also reported to have said that ‘prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best formulae to repel earthquakes.

Such statements are deeply concerning. Understanding disasters as punishment from a higher being is a belief many have held throughout human time (and indeed, the term “act of God” is still commonly used by many people). What is of particular concern with the statements outlined above, however, is the suggestion that efforts to reduce disaster risk through good geoscience education, preparedness and fighting poverty and inequality are futile – as the destruction is society’s price to pay for behaving immorally. As already established, Iran is a seismically active area, with the potential for large earthquakes and destructive disasters (Jackson, 2006, notes the possibility of large earthquakes in Tehran for example). It is therefore essential that we do all we can to promote effective and sustainable efforts to reduce vulnerability.

It is worth noting that there are many organisations, driven by religious conviction, that have a hugely positive role in disaster risk reduction. GfGD have worked closely with, for example, the overseas development charity CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), to set up student placements that are open to people of all beliefs and none. Organisations, both with a religious ethos (CAFOD, Christian Aid, World Vision, Tearfund, Islamic Relief Agency) and without a religious ethos (Oxfam, Save the Children) all work together as part of the Disasters Emergency Committee in order to bring life-saving support after and during major disasters. This work has offered hope to individuals in the toughest of circumstances.

But these organisations (from our understanding) follow a philosophy, very different from that expressed by the cleric or Minister in Iran. It is a philosophy that is not unique to religions such as Christianity or Islam, but shared by many working in disaster risk reduction. This philosophy is that in the same way as vulnerability (a dynamic process) can be increased by factors such as corruption, inequality and poor education, vulnerability can also be reduced through tackling these injustices. For some people it is their moral responsibility, some people feel a professional responsibility and others a responsibility through a shared sense of humanity.

This example from Iran highlights our responsibility as privileged scientists from developed nations in a number of ways. Firstly, through promoting good science informing education and mitigation, through increased equality (including, but not limited to, gender, racial, age, disability) and improved access to basic services (clean water and good sanitation, education, health-care) vulnerability can be reduced, and the impact of hazardous processes such as earthquakes can be reduced. But secondly, we must look inwards to consider how our communication skills, knowledge of and sensitivity to “place” (being both a social and environmental construct) can help us to build trust and ensure wide uptake of good disaster risk reduction strategies.

This must be (and in many cases is) the response of those wishing to outwork their religious convictions in the context of disaster risk reduction. As a final thought, and challenge to us, we should also recognise that in many societies exposed to risk, citizens may place greater trust in religious leaders or other local social networks rather than somewhat distant scientists or (possibly corrupt) governments. This could be seen as being a great obstacle to those working on disaster risk reduction, but it could also be an opportunity. Through working with open-minded clerics, churches and other organisations that have community trust – we can together take forward genuine disaster risk reduction activities.

Joel Gill and Faith Taylor

Joel is the Founder/Director of Geology for Global Development (@Geo_Dev) an organisation working to support geologists to make a sustainable contribution to the fight against global poverty. He is an interdisciplinary researcher, with a PhD in geography (natural hazards), and research interests in multi-hazard frameworks, disaster risk reduction, rural water projects, and sustainable development. This work has taken him to Chile, China, Guatemala, India, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Joel is currently based at the British Geological Survey, and tweets at @JoelCGill.