Geology for Global Development

Disaster Risk Reduction

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

Friday Photo (75): GfGD-CAFOD Placement

Sam Marshall (University of Southampton) and Dr Kate Crowley (Disaster Risk Reduction Adviser, CAFOD), at the CAFOD headquarters in central London. Sam has been undertaking a GfGD placement with CAFOD this week, learning more about how geoscience can be applied in the development sector.

(c) Geology for Global Development 2013

GfGD-CAFOD Placements – Successful Candidates

A while ago we advertised the opportunity to undertake a placement, organised by GfGD, with the international NGO CAFOD. These one week placements are designed to give geoscience students a preliminary, but important, insight into the development sector. They allow students to consider the role that geology already plays, and ways in which it could be further integrated to ensure effective and sustainable development.

After the highly successful placement undertaken by Ellie Murtagh in September 2012 (read more here), we had a huge increase in applications – 300% more than on previous occasions. I am delighted to annouce that Sam Marshall (University of Southampton) and Amy Wright (University of Durham) are the successful applicants, and will take up their placements soon after Easter and over the summer respectively.

On hearing of his successful application Sam said: “I’m looking forward immensely to carrying out this placement with CAFOD. I am keen to understand how the application of geology can play a role in aiding disaster risk reduction and response, and I believe this opportunity will provide incredible insight into how geology can aid development globally.”

During their time at CAFOD, Sam and Amy will be shadowing Dr Kate Crowley, a brilliant example of a geologist working within the development sector, and a great friend to GfGD.

Amy said: “I’m delighted to have been provided with the chance to undertake this placement considering the lack of opportunities for geoscience undergraduates to gain relevant work experience in the development sector. In addition, I am currently in the process of applying for master’s programmes in hazard and risk, with the view to gaining a job in hazard and risk management, and the ability to obtain an insight into this type of work is invaluable.”

Both Sam and Amy will be submitting a report about their placement once it has finished, describing what they did and learnt during this time. These, together with advertisements for any future placements, will be advertised on our website.

GfGDs National Director, Joel Gill, offered his congratulations to the students: “Congratulations to Sam and Amy for securing these valuable placements, with such tough competition from their peers. These opportunities really are rare, and I’m sure Sam and Amy will both learn a tremendous amount over the week. There is still an opportunity for other students to learn from these experiences by reading the reports that they produce, and any associated blogs.”

Women and Natural Hazards

“Women and children first” went the call from the deck of the titanic. And then of course Jack sacrificed his own life to save Rose, who was afloat on what admittedly looked like a raft with more than enough space for two. Chivalrous though this picture is, the reality is very different – in most disasters women seem to suffer a disproportionate number of injuries and deaths.

Most countries now have gender policy incorporated into health, education and employment. It is only recently however, that gender has been considered in disaster and risk reduction programmes. Researchers have started to record the gender of people who die or report injuries. The findings show large differences in the way the two genders are  affected by different disasters. This is hardly surprising – gender determines your economic role, level of education and lifestyle in most societies, particularly in developing countries.

A male dominated environment at the fish market in Tanzania. Gender determines where people are likely to be and what they will be doing in a disaster. Credit: Patrick Bradley

Girls are less likely to be taught to swim, so are more likely to die in floods (and on sinking ships), and are more likely to be illiterate,  so may be unable to read evacuation instructions and emergency advice. In the L’Aquila earthquake lots of women lost their lives in collapsed buildings as they were more inclined to behave ‘passively’ and return to their homes after the foreshock warning signs.

In some societies, men and boys are given priority for food when resources are scarce in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Groups tend to gather in large temporary shelters following a major disaster, and often women don’t feel safe, and indeed are not safe, in these places. Women in displaced people camps are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.

Returning to normality after a disaster is a slow process. In Haiti, women tend to do lower paid work such as domestic service, and are also responsible for all household tasks and caring roles within the family. Women are finding it harder than men to rebuild their businesses after the 2010 earthquake.  After the L’Aquila earthquake, Italy, women also suffered from higher levels of unemployment and post-traumatic stress in the years that followed. The coping mechanisms of men affected by the disaster led to an increase in substance abuse and domestic violence, problems that further affected women.

Data collected so far indicates that women and girls suffer disproportionately during, immediately after, and long-term from the effects of a disaster, but research into the gender bias in disaster response is currently very limited. Every disaster occurs in different circumstances, and these will change regularly. There will be some circumstances where men are disproportionately affected, for example in a tsunami men may be more likely to be working on fishing boats and in ports.

The real question is, why do we care about the gender of people who die in disasters? After all, if a man survives but loses his wife and children, there are no winners. It is important that we understand as much as possible about the circumstances that affect peoples vulnerability to a hazard. In most societies gender is an important factor in determining the circumstances somebody will be in when a hazard occurs. The more we know, the more we can do to reduce risk in future disasters across all genders and age groups. Research into this area must continue, and be communicated in a way that politicians can understand and incorporate into policy.

Recommended reading

One of the first academic papers to recognise the excessive mortality rates among girls and women in disasters: Rivers, 1982

Ellie Murtagh, GfGD secretary,  helped research a fantastic article about the role of women in disasters during her summer 2012 GfGD/CAFOD placement.

With thanks to the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, who held a panel discussion on gender in disasters on the 8th of March, where many of these issues were debated by a panel of experts.