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Defying comparison

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After the quake in Chile. Photo by Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters, courtesy of Alertnet.
After the quake in Chile. Photo by Victor Ruiz Caballero/Reuters, courtesy of Alertnet.

There’s a tendency to compare disasters, and I am sure many of us started to do that Saturday morning when we heard about the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile. Another earthquake! Is it like the one in Haiti?

The answer is of course no, Chile is a completely different place. Although the earthquake was a significantly stronger (something like 500 times stronger than the 12 January Haiti quake, if that is even possible), it hit a much less densely populated area with a government equipped with resources to respond.

I immediately remembered an article on the BBC web site I read two days after the now infamous Port-au-Prince quake last month. It attempted something incredibly difficult: comparing the relative size, death toll, economic impact, proximity to urban areas and the poverty and population density in affected areas of three earthquakes in China (2008), Italy (2009) and Haiti (2010).

A key point in this article, from our perspective here at Oxfam:

“In places such as Haiti, where 72.1% of the population live on less than $2 a day, and in cities like Port-au-Prince, where many are housed in poor and densely-packed shantytowns and badly-constructed buildings, the devastation is always expected to be greater.”

The Haiti quake is making a much more significant impact on the country than the others because so much of the population was living in or near Port-au-Prince and was so severely affected, and it will have a much larger effect on the country’s economy.

It’s hard to make valid comparisons between such tragedies. But earthquakes have killed more people than any other disaster over the last 10 years, according to the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Belgium, as explained in an article on the UN’s IRIN new service. And an increasing proportion of those affected by earthquakes are in developing countries. So if we can use the data and lessons learned from these comparisons to focus on poverty, and its propensity to increase vulnerability to disaster, it is worth looking. It is yet another fact we can use to mobilize people and resources to end poverty, because it will also save lives.

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