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earthquakes

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Barbara Minguez Garcia's picture
Ponto-cho Alley, Kyoto. (Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank, 2016)
Ponto-cho Alley, Kyoto. (Barbara Minguez Garcia / World Bank, 2016)
 

Ponto-cho mapIt is 7:45 p.m. in Ponto-cho, the historic narrow alley at the core of the Japanese city of Kyoto. Close to the Kaburenjo Theater – where still today Geikos and Maikos (Kyoto Geishas) practice their dances and performances – the traditional adjoining buildings with restaurants and shops are full of guests. Local people, tourists, students… On this Saturday in mid-April, the warm weather brings a lot of people to the streets nearby.

At 7:46 p.m., a M 5.1 earthquake strikes. Seven seconds of swaying. It doesn’t cause major damage, but it is enough to spread panic among a group of tourists. Screams, shoving, confusion… drinks spill, candles fall, people rush.

At 7:49 p.m., the fire starts spreading through the old wooden structures, also threatening the historic theater. Access is difficult due to the narrow streets and panicking crowd.

What happens next?

It could be a fire in the Ponto-cho traditional alley. It could be an earthquake shaking the historic center of Kathmandu (Nepal), the archaeological site of Bagan (Myanmar), or the historic town of Amatrice (Italy). It could be Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, blasting sites with rain, flooding, and gale-force winds.

Cultural heritage assets around the world are at risk. They are often vulnerable due to their age, as well as previous interventions and restorations made without disaster risk or overall site stability in mind. Heritage sites reflect legacies, traditions, and identities. With all this, they carry a large cultural and emotional value of what could be lost – certainly beyond the traditional calculus of economic losses.

In many cases, it is not possible or advisable to conduct reconstruction on cultural heritage sites post-disaster. Therefore, the essence and soul of a cultural heritage site is at risk of being lost forever, making preparedness and preservation even more critical.

How can we protect these special places and traditions from the threat of natural hazards?

Can the rubble of history help shape today’s resilient cities?

David Sislen's picture

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Ruins of the Church of Saint Paul, following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Ruins of the Church of Saint Paul, following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)



Did you know that, in 1755, Portugal suffered a catastrophic disaster so severe that it cast a long shadow over politics, religion, philosophy, and science?

During an All Saints’ Day mass in Lisbon in that fateful year, an 8.5-magnitude earthquake collapsed cathedrals, triggered a 20-foot tsunami, and sparked devastating fires that destroyed nearly 70% of the city’s 23,000 buildings.

The death toll was estimated between 10,000-50,000, leaving the center of a global empire in ruins, with losses equivalent to 32%-48% of Portugal's GDP at the time.

Never in the European history had a natural disaster received such international attention.

The “Great Lisbon Earthquake” had a resounding impact across Europe: Depictions of the earthquake in art and literature – the equivalent of today’s mass media – were reproduced for centuries and across several countries. Rousseau, influenced by the devastation, argued against large and dense cities in the wake of the disaster, while Immanuel Kant published three separate texts on the disaster, becoming one of the first thinkers to attempt to explain earthquakes by natural, rather than supernatural, causes.

In the years to follow, careful studies of the event would give rise to modern seismology.

From Istanbul to Manila—different fault lines, similar challenges

Elif Ayhan's picture
 “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” This was the response given by Sir Edmond Hillary when asked how he and his companion Tenzing Norgay became the first to summit Mt Everest, when so many before had failed. He believed we could all overcome our biggest challenge simply by deciding to act.

Is it possible for the same sentiment to be applied by government leaders – leaders who have the privilege and responsibility to preside over some of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities, especially those that share a common challenge in terms of seismic risk? Metro Manila, the megacity of the Philippines, the seat of government, and the engine of the national economy, has been destroyed numerous times over the last 500 hundred years by earthquakes, and currently sits upon a fault that is overdue to move. Istanbul, with world-class cultural heritage sites treasured by all, also sits near major fault lines expected to move any day. Tokyo and Wellington, the heart of government, culture, and history, also share exposed locations close to major fault lines.

In Wellington, decades of work – including the current Get Ready week! – have aimed to prepare the city for the next “big one”; but compared to the burgeoning megacities of Manila, Tokyo, or Istanbul, it is a small hill to conquer. How do you prepare these megacities with population of up to 15 million people? How do you climb the mountain of needs to build resilience? According to Sir Hillary, the answer is simple, you need to take the decision to accomplish something extraordinary.

In September 2017, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) through the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Management in Developing Countries supported a knowledge exchange between Turkey and the Philippines focused on the challenge of building seismic resilience in megacities with high urbanization. For the World Bank, it was clear from the start that seismic risk is a priority on the Urban Resilience Agenda, when Johannes Zutt was able to explain to the visiting delegation the technical details of how base isolation is used to protect critical hospitals in Istanbul. The delegation saw impressive progress made by Turkey and Istanbul, from revised institutional frameworks, strengthened preparedness and response capabilities, and retrofitted schools and hospitals to adapted municipal e-services that ensure that the construction of resilient new buildings are approved fast and with the right safety checks. While massive seismic risk still exists within Istanbul, visible and concrete actions are also underway to improve the safety of its citizens.
 
 

 

Disaster risk and school infrastructure: What we do and do not know

Sameh Wahba's picture
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Credit: Tracy Ben/ Shutterstock

“At 14:28:04 on May 12, 2008, an 8.0 earthquake struck suddenly, shaking the earth, with mountains and rivers shifted, devastated, and parted forever….” This was how China’s official report read, when describing the catastrophic consequences of the Sichuan earthquake, which left 5,335 students dead or missing.
 
Just two years ago, in Nepal, on April 25, 2015, due to a Mw 7.8 earthquake, 6,700 school buildings collapsed or were affected beyond repair. Fortunately, it occurred on Saturday—a holiday in Nepal—otherwise the human toll could have been as high as that of the Sichuan disaster, or even worse. Similarly, in other parts of the world—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Haiti, Ecuador, and most recently Mexico—schools suffered from the impact of natural hazards. 
 
Why have schools collapsed?