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The Carnage Of Corruption

A Haitian boy receives treatment at an ad hoc medical clinic after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, January 12, 2010. Photo by Logan Abassi / The United NationsIn May 2008, we talked about the earthquake in Szechuan and the evidence that schools there collapsed because of poor construction made possible by bribes to crooked building inspectors.

It sounded like what we witnessed years earlier in Cairo, we said, when apartment buildings with illegal extra floors crumbled into marble-sized rubble during an earthquake.

Now, a study by professors Nicholas Ambraseys of the Imperial College of London and Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado at Boulder confirms that earthquakes in corrupt countries are far deadlier than the same events in other countries.

“Widespread anecdotal evidence points to the collapse of structures in devastating earthquakes as a result of corrupt building practices,” said Professor Bilham. “In this study we have attempted to quantify that perception.

They found that 83 percent of all deaths caused by collapsing buildings during earthquakes occurred in corrupt countries, as measured by Transparency International’s corurption perception index.

“It is in the countries that have abnormally high levels of corruption where we find most of the world’s deaths from earthquakes,” Colorado’s Bilham said.

For example, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in New Zealand in 2010 killed no one; the quake in Haiti last year was the same size but killed about two hundred thousand people.

“Earthquake-resistant construction,” the authors wrote, “depends on responsible governance, but its implementation can be undermined by corruption or by poverty, through the use of substandard materials and assembly methods, or through the inappropriate siting of buildings.”

Their study appears in Nature magazine (Nature requires a subscription; the University of Colorado has posted a nice summary).

Since 1980, they said, deaths due to an absence of effective earthquake engineering activity have averaged about 18,300 per year.

“The structural integrity of a building,” the authors wrote in Nature, “is no stronger than the social integrity of the builder, and each nation has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure adequate inspection. In particular, nations with a history of significant earthquakes and known corruption issues should stand reminded that an unregulated construction industry is a potential killer.”

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  1. The last days while viewing the Christchurch, New Zealand quake and the way buildings shattered and collapsed, reminds me of earlier earthquake devastation I have visited. In 1985 and the killer Mexico City quake, buildings vaporized. Corrupt building code inspectors looked the other way as contractors with lucrative winning bids purposely left steel out of vital building supports to save money for their own pockets. Virtually all "government" bid projects were damaged, and in one of the largest cities in the world, only one hospital remained standing; 160 beds for 25 million people, thousands injured or killed.

    This is the worst kind of corruption and brings new meaning to the words, "public trust." I wholeheartedly agree with Professors Ambraseys and Bilham's assessment of corrupt countries and high earthquake-related deaths. Had New Zealand fallen victim to the same corrupt practices, no telling what the death toll would be.

    Bobby Vassallo

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