The Million-Death Earthquake: It Happened Already

Today is the anniversary of the Jiajing Great Earthquake in China which occurred in 1556 and killed an estimated 830,000 people due to collapse of dwelling caves carved-out horizontally from soft cliffs.  This quake was felt as far away as 500 miles, from the Shaanxi province in central China to the East China Sea.

traditional cave houses in China  credit: sookyee

traditional cave houses in China credit: sookyee

An earthquake this deadly could also occur today.  Research and publications by scientist Roger Bilham suggest the real possibility of a million fatalities if an earthquake affects the Ganges Plain in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Indeed, last year’s Magnitude 8 quake in Nepal bore out the theory that large earthquakes on the Himalayan front are only a matter of time.

A large death toll will occur only where there is both the potential for large earthquakes and the presence of vulnerable dwellings, like caves in cliffs, or heavy concrete-block apartment buildings whose ground stories have open storefronts instead of walls.

Unfortunately, these conditions exist in some of the most populous cities worldwide.  Jakarta, Manila, Istanbul, Caracas, and Tehran often top lists of cities with the greatest quake danger.  Lloyd’s City Risk Index, for example, finds that “Emerging economies have the most to lose: collectively, 71.47% of the Total [email protected],” and, “Earthquake risk alone represents more than 50% of the Total [email protected] in both Lima and Tehran.”

In the short-term, there are few practical solutions to reducing earthquake fatalities, since “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do,” and most buildings last a lifetime.  In the long-term, micro-level solutions such as local training of safer building techniques must go hand-in-hand with macro-level collaboration among science, finance, and policy toward sustainable economic development that leads to safer land use and construction practices.

Are you working to reduce earthquake fatalities?  Share your insight.