Preparedness is high on the list of any earthquake hazard mitigation strategy.  But in areas of developing countries with little to no expertise or infrastructure to deal with the secondary hazards of earthquakes like landslides or the earthquakes themselves — how do you prepare?  In Haiti, researchers have been working with people to help improve their resilience to earthquakes, such as developing hazard maps to identify the movement of faults in order to make local buildings, for example, resilient to future impacts.  An article in Nature, quoting Eric Calais, a geophysicist at Purdue University, describes the need for tapping into ‘local talent’ in order to equip Haiti with the expertise it needs to understand seismic data:

Having local talent is important, says Calais, because any of the resources installed in Haiti won’t be sustainable without researchers in the area “keeping the network alive”. Local seismologists can also help to ensure that good building codes are created and maintained, and can campaign for earthquake awareness in government, he says. Calais is hoping to start a seismological research lab to make it worthwhile for Haitian students to return to the country, although for now there are no concrete plans.

“It’s going to be a long-term project: we’re talking at least 5 years of work before resilience has improved significantly,” he says.

‘Haiti to improve quake preparedness.’ Nature. doi:10.1038/news.2010.670

Training researchers in Haiti and other parts of the world extremely vulnerable to earthquakes is indeed of utmost importance.  But could equipment that is less expensive, but more accessible, be used to help local people understand and prepare for earthquakes within a time frame that could save lives?  The use of simple yet accurate devices for predicting landslides works well but needs to be more widespread (see ‘Predicting the Unpredictable’ in IHRR ezine).  In the case of earthquakes though it seems far more complex, but there will not always be scientists in developing countries waiting for an earthquake to happen.

So there needs to be a point when local and expert knowledge come together in order to create a strategy that utilises both the physical and social aspects of earthquake preparedness.  Technology for aiding earthquake prediction, although extremely difficult and many scientists would say ‘impossible,’ has surfaced recently in the form of radon detectors, that detect radon gas that is suspected to be ‘released from cavities and cracks in rocks into soil and groundwater before an earthquake strikes’ (read article from SciDev.Net here).  But what can be done for people living with these hazards now?

Interestingly, the Nature article reflects on the politics of earthquake risk:

The main difficulty in addressing earthquake risks lies in politics rather than science. “It’s not very difficult to convince people that earthquake hazard is important,” says Calais; rather, the problem is with orchestrating the actions and agendas of different groups working in the region. “That makes it difficult but also very interesting,” he says. Nature. doi:10.1038/news.2010.670

There is clearly a role here for social researchers and physical scientists to work together in developing strategies for resilience to earthquakes.  This in itself is no easy task, but politics and the social underpinnings of how people prepare for and react to earthquakes will never go away, in all likelihood, they will actually deepen.

References

‘Haiti to improve quake preparedness.’ Nature.

Mexican scientists to test radon earthquake predictors. SciDev.Net

Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A: Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated Equipment